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2016 Was the Year of ‘Fast Contemporary’ Fashion

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More and more fashion brands are borrowing Zara’s business model.

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The Laughlin dress by Reformation. Photo: Reformation

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What do shoppers love most about fast fashion? Is it the low prices? The fact that companies like Zara and H&M are often able to interpret and churn out trends faster than many luxury labels? Or is it the constant sense of newness that each visit to a Topshop or Forever 21 brings?

All three of these are valid answers, but 2016 was indisputably the year that higher-end brands began taking cues from fast fashion companies’ production schedules, delivering small batches of new merchandise on a weekly or biweekly basis. It’s the same strategy that’s made Inditex (Zara’s parent company) the biggest clothing retailer in the world, and left competitors that still adhere to traditional seasonal deliveries in the dust. It’s also nearly identical to the approach streetwear brands like Supreme have utilized for years.

You can’t discuss the “fast contemporary” phenomenon without mentioning Reformation. Founded in 2009 by designer Yael Aflalo, the brand was one of the first labels to offer limited-edition collections at a slightly higher (though still accessible) price point on an every-few-weeks basis. Before long, its printed sundresses, jumpsuits, and matching sets were selling out almost instantly — but rather than simply produce more to meet demand, Reformation smartly crafted a reputation as the ultimate blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion retailer. As the company grew, securing additional funding and growing its staff, it began releasing new styles every week — but still, crucially, in those same limited runs.

Of course, it wasn’t long before more retailers adopted this approach. Lara Pia Arrobio, a former Reformation designer (coincidence?), launched her own label LPA this past August. The brand, whose aesthetic Arrobio describes as “Dolce & Gabbana meets Supreme,” ships new merchandise every month. Footwear brand M.Gemi, which launched in March 2015 and swiftly raised $18 million in funding by the end of the year, releases new styles every single week — and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

There are multiple benefits to this small-batch business model. First, it creates an air of exclusivity; you’re not nearly as likely to spot someone wearing your new dress or pumps at a party. It sets the stage for customer loyalty, too; since inventory turns over quickly, shoppers keep coming back to discover what’s new. There’s less of a need for regular markdowns, simply because there’s little to no overstock. And it allows design teams to react quickly to changing trends, customer behavior, and even weather fluctuations.

To be sure, it’s far easier for direct-to-consumer brands to adopt this strategy. But there are exceptions; LPA’s Arrobio, for example, stocks her collection online at Revolve and Forward by Elyse Walker in addition to her own e-commerce site. The key to producing collections in limited runs, it seems, is wholesaling to a very limited number of retailers (if any).

Ultimately, the success of “fast contemporary” fashion serves as further proof that the fashion calendar as we know it has become obsolete. Forget about spring/summer and fall/winter collections; now, even brands offering resort and pre-fall ranges feel woefully behind the times. Modern shoppers crave constant newness, which means that if it takes longer than a month for a retailer’s designs to go from sketch to store, they feel old by the time they hit the racks.

It’s telling that Thakoon, a designer who has adhered to the traditional fashion production schedule since his label launched more than a decade ago, decided to switch to a “limited release, limited time” model this year. Now, Thakoon delivers a handful of looks every few weeks, which remain shoppable for two months at most. Prices are lower from the get-go, with no markdowns over time. We wouldn’t be surprised if many more designers follow his lead in 2017.