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Fashion Industry: A Resource Guide

General Resources

The fashion industry encompass many different smaller and more niche industries. Often people think of it as just retail/online stores, design houses and brands, and fashion magazines. However, there are other craftspeople and industries in the manufacturing of clothes. Most obviously, there are those that make and sell fabric and notions, but there are also flower makers, embroiders, seamstresses/tailors, and many others. When it comes to fashion shows and fashion marketing there are models, stylists, hair stylists, make-up artists, model agents, photographers, and a host of other non-fashion business that all make up a larger fashion eco-system.

Like a lot of industries particularly those that are consumer focused, change happens fast and constantly and increasingly, the change is happening faster. The industry and the consumer is constantly evolving. Fashion retailing is no longer just large fashion houses, fashion magazines, and retail stores/catalogs but evolved first with TV channels that sold many goods including fashion, and then with the Internet and online retailing. The industry is also impacted by large economic trends like inflation, economic slowdowns, and hiring issues.

It is also helpful to research the companies themselves. Some brands stand alone while others are part of larger brand conglomerates like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (most often seen as LVMH) which owns Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Loewe, Loro Piana, Kenzo, Celine, Sephora, etc., and Kering which owns brands like Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, etc.

The rise of the internet has impacted all parts of the fashion industry, not just the selling end of the industry. It has a role in supply chains, advertising, communications, brand awareness, blurred the line between business and consumer, etc. Social media channels have not just become important to the selling of fashion but also as part of forecasting and determining trends. Social media sites like Instagram and TikTok are playing an increasing role in fashion particularly when it comes to identifying and spreading trends and hot items of the moment. Social media also speeds up the hot / not cycle and gave life to the microtrend. Bloggers and other influencers may help sell products, but can also be used by "Fashion Forecasters" looking for what's next by looking at Instagram, other social media channels, and street-style blogs. Social media companies like Pinterest through their Pinterest Predicts report, are also using their internal access to understand the trends as they are manifesting within the platform.

Below are just a few of the discussions to be aware of. Searching for articles in full-text databases and on the Internet for reports as well as articles is a good way to understanding the new trends in the industry.

These are just a few of the more obvious concepts to consider when looking at the industry. That have been included because they illustrate the idea that there are parts of the fashion industry that need to be researched in small pieces as part of a bigger picture. However, there are other trends to research and some long running trends can morph.

Retail

Carol L. Highsmith, photographer. Clothing store Huntington Beach, California. 2012. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Traditionally clothes were sold in retail bricks-and-mortar boutiques and large department stores. This evolved into catalogs, television/cable stations, and now online though websites. Some brands are even selling directly from social media sites like Instagram using them as both advertisement and storefront.

The late 20th century saw the rise of the internet as a major player in the selling of fashion. Many stores created websites to sell items online while large fashion houses created websites as a way to show consumers their product and as a way to sell directly to consumers. Newer, smaller brands have used websites to raise their profile and as a way to sell to consumers or boutiques. There is also an increasing number of web only brands, External and highly specialized and niche sites like those selling only shoes, resale web sites, etc. Brands can sell directly to consumers and it means smaller brands can better compete. Also, there is an increasing rise in single product category sources. 

There are also benefits for consumers buying online. One advantages are the increased options because they are seeing new brands but they also will often see expanded size option availability that may not be available in physical stores. Consumers are also able to personalize, customize, and see an increased range of items beyond just the narrow range sold in stores with limited space.

COVID-19 changed the entire shopping experience for the short-term to make things safer and easier as well as make customers comfortable with shopping. Retailers had to rework how merchandise was displayed, how it is folded, how many people are allowed in the store, how dressing rooms and check-works, etc. After pandemic specific considerations were no longer necessary, the industry came back, but retail and online shopping had changed.

After COVID-19 and a less stable post-pandemic economy, people became more cautious with their money and shifted what clothing was in demand. The longer term trend of moving away from more formal office attire to business casual has already begun and the pandemic brought more work from home. This resulted in lower sales for traditional office wear which seriously affected some brands with a concurrent rise in athleisure, casual, and more all purpose clothing.

Fast / Ultra-Fast Fashion

While the concept of fast fashion has developed over decades particularly with the advances brought on by the Industrial Revolution, today "Fast Fashion" is a term used to describe those retailers that quickly move what they see on the catwalk to the point of sale in order to capture current fashion trends, as opposed to waiting for it to filter down via the traditional fashion cycle. This model covers the entire lifecycle from design to creation, and marketing of fashion. Some brands in this market like H&M and Zara have a strong bricks-and-mortar presence while others like Shein, Asos, Boohoo, Fashion Nova are mostly online only. Online only brands benefit by shipping directly to consumers and for international companies like Shein, they can bypass import duties that are levied on retailers shipping in bulk to businesses.

But the industry life-cycle has sped up even faster and there are now ultra-fast fashion featuring brands like Shein have begun to dominate the fashion ecosystem. They are able to capitalize on trends that are changing faster and faster as well as viral sensations, but whose business practices bring concerns about sustainability and ethical practices. The speed of the fashion cycle sped up so much that for a time see now, buy now was being discussed. This was the idea that what comes down the runway will be in the store counted as days not months. Talk of that seems to have died down. Additionally, some retailers like Zara have discarded the season cycle of introducing new merchandise, introducing new items more frequently throughout the year.

This sector of fashion has risen to become a large part of overall fashion retailing, and so can be researched as an independent topic within the larger fashion industry. To really look at this sector, you will also want to research the individual companies that make and sell, to get a fuller picture.

Sustainability

Related to fast fashion as well as the desire for more ethical business practices generally is the trend towards ethical fashion and sustainable shopping. This has led to the rise of environmentally concerned initiatives like the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Fashion Pact External debuted by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2019, Fibershed (in California), the New Standard Institute, the NRDC's Clean by Design, and others.

There are two rising topics in the sustainability discussion within the fashion industry. The first is the rise of organic brands. The second is sustainable consumption and low waste with the related interest in second hand fashion -- thrift stores, clothes consignment websites and stores, and re-purposing. One emerging problem related to sustainability and ethics is the practice of greenwashing which is conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound.

Niche Markets & Underserved Consumers

The industry is increasingly interested in data. internet retailers are using the data they have collected to better understand customers - who they are, what they are buying, emerging trends, etc. That data is also essential for the customization and personalization that consumers want. The data gathering has also been a boon for the types of customers that traditionally may have been ignored or customers interested in niche products.

For example, those who need plus size fashions and other nontraditional sizes have traditionally had limited options in the retail environment when what was sold was controlled by those who had specific ideas of who their consumer was and were limited by the size of the stores themselves. Internet sites like ModCloth, StichFix, Gwynnie Bee, Avenue, and others have been able to expand their selections beyond just the traditional sizes. The popularity of some niche websites has meant that a few have even decided to move from being an exclusively online to opening physical retail stores.

Another area that is growing but is still niche are Unisex Brands that are gender neutral. This would appeal to those customers that are non- binary or even those that just prefer clothing that is not target to a particular gender. Information is a bit harder to find, so this is a topic where articles in trade literature and other news sources, combined with other sources is going to be necessary.

Luxury

Another growing area is luxury fashion. While there have always been department stores with luxury brands, individual luxury brand stores, and consignment stores that were focused on luxury brands, the internet has changed and broadened the market. While the luxury market was slower to move online with many consumers preferring the in-store experience people are increasingly purchasing luxury fashion items over the internet because of its convenience and accessibility. Sites like Net-a-Porter and Luisaviaroma, have grown their sales, but there are also avenues to sell and even rent, expensive fashions for less through a robust resale market with sites like Poshmark, theRealReal, and Rent the Runway.

Consumers are also demanding more than just the ability to buy products; they want an experience and the attention they feel premium brands should deliver. The brands find that their relationship with customers is changing, Millennial consumers were just the beginning The rise of Gen Z and then Gen Alpha consumers who are comfortable online and who spend a lot of their time and attention interacting online on social media apps like TikTox means a change in traditional patterns.

Evolution of the Bricks & Mortar Shopping Environment

With the growth of online retailing, developers of bricks and mortar shopping environments have increasingly used Entertainment-Based Retailing as a means to attract shoppers and offer an experience not available for online shoppers. There are elements of both traditional malls (and power centers) along with “lifestyle” centers that have both dominant/large anchor tenants side by side with smaller specialty retailers and other entertainment and dining options in a more town like setting that can be referred to as power towns.

Traditionally, fashion brands produce multiple collections in a year. For a long time it was just spring, fall, and couture, but some designers can create resort and even pre collections - all of them have many individual pieces. Because of the fast turnaround in seasonal collections and the sheer number of items that need to be moved, when brands bring their items to retail, it can be the case that items do not spend much time on the sales floor before being discounted. Consumers know products are discounted and often wait to purchase what they want. In the end, many items never sell at full price.

There are a few other notable retail trends of note. One is the concepts store that sells a carefully curated selection of products connected to a theme. These brands are interested in connecting with people though the discovery and experience and has been particularly associated with brands that have strong identities including several in the luxury market. Another trend is the showroom. This is where retail stores act more as a showroom for their products and less as a way to sell items in the store. This concept can also be modified like in the case of the Amazon physical stores, which acts as both store and showroom, but also works in concert with their online store.

Technology

Technology impacts the industry from the fabrics that are developed, to the way fashion is sold. The industry explored virtual fashion but with the advent of the Metaverse, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and AI, fashion brands are experimenting. Luxury brands have tried virtual fashion shows like the Metaverse Fashion Week and the AI Fashion Week, offer customers the opportunity to virtually "try on" the clothes, and some technologies are being utilized to enhance in-store experiences. AI in particular has pushed boundaries and given rise to AI models and agencies devoted to AI models.

Getting the word out is a long way saying marketing, and marketing has been an integral part of the fashion industry since the beginning though it may not always be as obvious as it is for other products.

New York City book campaign. 1919. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Traditionally, fashion magazines like Vogue, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan where the way women saw what was going down the runways and what would be considered fashionable. With the rise of TV and tabloid magazines, people also looked at what celebrities wore to big TV award shows and what they were wearing in pictures featured in gossip magazines. Eventually, fashion houses and celebrities worked even more closely together either by just being invited sit at fashion shows, given clothes to wear to the shows and other big events, and featured in advertisements, but also signing deals and even designing the clothes themselves.  Fashion magazines also embraced celebrities, by featuring them on the covers and in advertisements. 

While the partnership of fashion houses, celebrities, and fashion magazines is still alive and well, the 21st century and in particular the internet, has also changed how clothes and brands are marketed. Fashion houses and clothing retailers now:

  • "Sell" their brand directly to consumer via their web pages and social media channels.
  • Runways are used as more than an insider event but as more as a public media channel.
  • Fashion houses, brands, and manufacturers connect to fashion bloggers and other social media influencers and build them right into their marketing strategy because of their thousands of subscribers to their social media channels. Many are paid to feature items in photos and videos and even the "haul" videos that are watched by thousands. Additionally, many users of sites like TikTok on their own promote items and brands through hauls and other types of "reviews" which is free advertising for the brand. These individual users and influencers are now part of the marketing plans and are playing the roll once dominated by the fashion magazines.