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Fashion Industry: A Resource Guide

Resources for those studying the business aspects of the fashion and apparel industry.


Burdine's Department Store, Miami Beach, 1953. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This guide represents a selection of the many resources in the Library of Congress that may be useful for the study of the business aspects of fashion. It includes all aspects of fashion - clothes, shoes, bags, accessories. It also includes suggested subject headings which interested researchers may select to link directly to our online catalog in order to search for additional materials on this topic.

Also, since keeping up with the fast pace of change is an ongoing process in the "here today, gone tomorrow" fashion industry, we have have included a number of related external resources. Using traditional trade literature and web portals, as well as reports from research groups is essential as a way to find the more general articles and reports but it may be even more important to find reports and articles that look at a particular segment, niche market, situation, or trend so we have included a few links to various web sites that may also be of interest.

A Few Things to Consider

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 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, etc. and blurred the line between business and consumer. Social media channels have not just become important to the selling of fashion but also as part of forecasting and determining future 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 v 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 discussion 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.


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. There were also catalogs and later television/cable stations.

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..

One of the advantages for consumers for buying on the internet is seeing new brands, but there is also the ability to personalize, customize, and see an increased range of items beyond just the narrow range sold in stores with limited space. It also allows brands to sell directly to consumers and for smaller brands to compete. Fashion sold over the internet has even begun to evolve into digital fashion sold in digital fashion stores. These sites sell "garments" that only exist on the internet and where one item can be sold innumerable times. These sites can be a way for people to purchase fantasy outfits for their social media sites and avatars.

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.

Lastly, while social media may have once been a way for companies to market brands and products, it has also increasingly become a way for those social media accounts to also act as a storefront.

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 by retailers for designs that move quickly from the catwalk to the store in order to capture current fashion trends as opposed to waiting for it to filter down via the traditional fashion cycle. Sometimes it is referred to as "cheap and trendy" and 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 (and Romwe) are online only.

But the industry life-cycle has sped up even faster. Now ultra-fast fashion featuring brands like Asos, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, and Shein (and it sister company Romwe) have begun to dominate the fashion ecosystem. They are able to capitalize on faster changing trends and viral sensations but bring concerns about sustainability and ethical practices.

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.


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 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. It provides a way to sell luxury directly from the brand or through sites like Net-a-Porter and Luisaviaroma, but 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.

Also, there is an increasing rise in single product category sources. While there have always been stores that sold only one type of apparel - think shoes and undergarments - the internet has been a boon for those wanting to focus on a single-product category.

Unisex Brands

This is an emerging trend so the available information is much more limited, but there has been a rise in those brands that are unisex, gender neutral, or non- binary. This is a topic where articles in trade literature and other news sources, combined with other sources is going to be necessary.

See Now, Buy Now

The internet has sped up the time from runway to retail but has also increased the desire by consumers, for that time frame to speed up even more. Consumers see what comes down the runway and they want what they see sooner rather than waiting for months. See now, buy now is the idea that what comes down the runway will be in the store counted as days not months. Some retailers have tried with varying degrees of success. But this is likely something the industry will continue to discuss.

Additionally, some retailers like Zara have discarded the season cycle of introducing new merchandise, introducing new items more frequently throughout the year. Other retails have copied this which has sped up the life-cycle and hooked consumers on a continually changing and sped up shopping environment. Some brands like Shein can even benefit by shipping directly to consumers by bypassing import duties that are levied on retailers shipping in bulk to businesses.

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. The impact of the internet and COVID may alter this cycle.

In the COVID-19 world, the entire shopping experience may end up being overhauled for the short-term to make things safer and easier as well as make customers comfortable with shopping. It has also meant that people are more cautious with their money an looking for more value and basic clothing pieces.

While some retail stores had instituted interactive displays, sample stations, and other in-store experiences to give in-store shoppers things they can’t get online, COVID-19 will shift retailers again as some of these new efforts, and even many traditional ones, will be impractical or even unsafe. Retailers will need think and rework how merchandise is displayed, how it is folded, how many people are allowed in the store, how dressing rooms and check-works, etc. A Washington Post story from May 22, 2020, looking specifically at American Eagle, mentions an new employee handbook that included details big and small all with the goal of making the shopping experience safe and fast, but which has also remind shoppers and employees that COVID-19 has brought a new environment for everyone.

What people for shopping for is also changing and that in turn impacts what is being sold. There has been a longer term trend moving away from more formal office attire to business casual and working at home has resulted in lower sales for dress shoes and even some higher heels. COVID-19 has sped that trend up as people look for clothing that is more casual and more all-purpose.

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.

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