Ultra-fast Fashion Is Eating the World
The Atlantic|March 2021
Even a pandemic can't stop people from buying clothes they don't need.
By Rachel Monroe. Ilustrations by Barbara Rego

Last February, on a sunny afternoon in West Hollywood, two girls with precise eye makeup paused on Melrose Avenue and peered in the windows of a building whose interior was painted a bright, happy pink. Two pink, winged unicorns flanked racks of clothes: ribbed crop tops, snakeskin- print pants, white sleeveless bodysuits.

One of the girls tugged on the door, then frowned. It was locked, which was weird. She tugged again. Inside, a broad-chested security guard regarded them impassively from behind a pink security desk. Erin Cullison, the U.S. public-relations rep for Pretty LittleThing, a fast-fashion brand founded in 2012, watched the girls give up and walk away. She sighed. Although the West Hollywood showroom closely resembles a store, it is not, in fact, a store. It is not open to the public; the clothes on the racks don’t have price tags. “People try to give us cash, but we’re not even set up to take money,” Cullison told me. Instead, the clientele is made up of the brand’s influencer partners— thousands of them—who can make an appointment to visit the showroom every couple of weeks and “get gifted.” They try on the latest styles and take advantage of various “photo moments”: lounging on the plush pink couch, posing on the pink staircase, peeking out of the London phone booth repainted—yes—pink. They can snack on a pink-frosted cupcake, and (provided they’re 21 or older) drink a glass of rosé at the store’s pink bar, before heading home with several items of free clothing.

PrettyLittleThing is part of the Boohoo Group, a company that has become a dominant force in retail fashion over the past decade; along with several other aggressive and like-minded companies, it is quickly reshaping the industry. Boohoo stock is now publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange (LSE: BOO), but it started as a family business. As the legend goes, the family patriarch, Abdullah Kamani, immigrated to the U.K. from Kenya in the 1960s and began selling handbags from a street stand. Eventually, he opened a textile factory that supplied the retailers that, starting in the 1990s, shook the fashion world with their cheap clothes and high merchandise turnover: H&M, Topshop, and the Irish fast-fashion juggernaut Primark.

Abdullah’s business was successful enough that he bought himself a Rolls- Royce; his son Mahmud saw the potential for even greater profits. In 2006, Mahmud and his business partner, Carol Kane, began selling cheap clothes directly to consumers through Boohoo.com. Without the burden of retail stores, the company’s costs were relatively low, except when it came to marketing. Young girls who went on YouTube (and, later, Instagram) were inundated with microtargeted ads for Boohoo bodysuits and minidresses. Boohoo’s founders understood that social media could be leveraged to make new brands quickly seem ubiquitous to their target audience. “If you have that imagery out there you are perceived as a much larger business than you actually are,” Kane told the trade publication Drapers.

Social media wasn’t just a convenient place to advertise—it was also changing how we think about our clothes. Fashion brands have always played on our aspirations and insecurities, and on the seemingly innate desire to express ourselves through our clothing. Now those companies had access to their target shoppers not just when they stood below a billboard in SoHo or saw an ad on prime-time TV, but in more intimate spaces and at all hours of the day. Brands flooded our feeds with their wares, whether through their own channels or, more surreptitiously, by enlisting influencers to make an item seem irresistible, or at least unavoidable.

The more we began documenting our own lives for public consumption, meanwhile, the more we became aware of ourselves (and our clothing) being seen. Young people, and young women in particular, came to feel an unspoken obligation not to repeat an #outfitoftheday; according to a 2017 poll, 41 percent of women ages 18 to 25 felt pressure to wear a different outfit every time they went out.

Boohoo’s founders understood that the company had to hustle to keep customers’ attention—to “be fresh all the time,” as Kane has put it. “A traditional retailer might buy three or four styles, but we’ll buy 25,” Kane told The Guardian in 2014. Not having to keep hundreds of stores stocked meant Boohoo could be flexible about inventory management. In 2018, H&M was sitting on $4.3 billion worth of unsold items. Boohoo, by contrast, could order as few as 300 or 500 units of a given style— just enough to see whether it would catch on. Only about a quarter of the initial styles were reordered, according to Kane.

Over time, Boohoo accumulated rich data about online consumer behavior, and further tailored the shopping experience to its shoppers’ tastes. “They know that first-time customers like to see this product category, or customers from this geographic area like this color palette,” Matt Katz, a managing partner at the consulting firm SSA & Company, told me.

In normal times, Boohoo’s agility and ingenuity offered crucial advantages over the competition. When the pandemic hit, those advantages became decisive.

In 2015, when Tricia Panlaqui was 12, she pretended she was 13 so she could start an Instagram account, where she posted videos of herself doing the kinds of things that 12-year-olds do: cartwheeling, blowing kisses at the camera, putting on makeup. By her 15th birthday, she had moved on to what she felt was a more grown-up medium—YouTube—and focused her content on fashion. When she posted haul videos, a YouTube genre that’s a combination of an unboxing and a bedroom fashion show, her viewership skyrocketed. Brands began reaching out, offering her sponsorship deals.

In Tricia’s earliest videos, her outfits had mostly come from familiar mall stores: a white sweater from Express, distressed denim cutoffs from American Eagle. But once she hit 10,000 followers, her channel began to feature clothes from a different set of brands, ones that were typically online-only and based in China. There was Shein, which sells $10 bathing suits, and Zaful, where the prices were even lower. These companies had cropped up alongside lesser-known brands whose names tend to be two words awkwardly jammed together: DressLily, NastyDress, TwinkleDeals, TrendsGal, FairySeason. You wouldn’t find their goods at the mall or see them advertised on TV, but if you were a young woman between the ages of 12 and 22 on social media, their targeted ads were inescapable.

When Tricia agreed to make a video featuring a company’s products, she would typically receive a few hundred dollars’ worth of free merchandise. The product quality could be iffy, but the clothes were cheap and abundant—which meant she could make more haul videos.

There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Tricia’s fashion sense, or her online persona. She liked iced vanilla lattes from Starbucks and leggings from Lululemon. But she had warm, wide eyes, and she spoke to the camera in a friendly, direct way. The more content she made about shopping, the more views—and ad revenue— she earned. The year Tricia turned 16, she made nearly $40,000 from ad revenue, sponsorships, and commissions; to celebrate her birthday, she showed off her purchases from a shopping spree that had cost her $3,000—all money she had made through her YouTube channel. Once Tricia surpassed 100,000 followers— a key metric for YouTube influencers—she began getting offers from better-known fast-fashion brands, including Boohoo, as well as other companies that were following its digital-first model, such as Princess Polly and Fashion Nova.

To Tricia, sometimes these companies all seemed to be copying one another. Someone would send her a loose tie-front tank top, and then a few days later four other brands would deliver their versions of the same style. She soon had more clothes than she knew what to do with. She gave them to friends and charities and thrift stores; she sold them on the social-shopping app Depop and ran giveaways for her followers. Her closet still overflowed with outfits, so she stuffed the excess into suitcases.

Working with these brands gave her some pause. Cheap clothes come with severe environmental consequences, and this troubled Tricia. (Her sponsors were self-conscious about this too—she says they asked her to hide the plastic packaging their clothes came in so it wouldn’t be visible in the videos.) The industry’s labor practices are also suspect, and commenters chided her for working with companies that had terrible track records. She temporarily cut ties with Shein after it was accused of using child labor in its factories. “But as sad as it is, every brand is doing some type of thing,” she told me. “You’d have to cancel every single brand.”

When the coronavirus arrived, Tricia was worried—with the world falling apart, would anyone care about shopping? Clothing retailers were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. In April, U.S. clothing sales plummeted by 79 percent from March; McKinsey predicted that global fashion-industry revenues would contract by 30 percent in 2020. Brands like Primark were saddled with what one industry observer called an “inventory crisis”— billions of dollars of merchandise intended for now-closed shops.

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