Need for Speed

Glamorizing cheap fashion costs more than you think

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John Stillwell / Getty Images

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge walk hand in hand from Buckingham Palace the day after their wedding to a waiting helicopter as they leave for a secret honeymoon location, on April 30, 2011 in London, England.

Fashion can do a lot for the public personas of politicians’ wives. Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hats, boxy crew cardigans and bouffant hairstyle inspired women around the world to imitate her glamorous look. Today’s political spouses still sport Jackie O.–level bling; take, say, the $2,000 Sophie Theallet sundress Michelle Obama wore on her Hawaiian vacation or Ann Romney’s $990 Reed Krakoff bird-print blouse worn in a recent television interview. But in the wake of the Great Recession, style hawkers have been quick to point out the more affordable items those women are donning too.

Thriftier threads can make high-rolling politicos and their wives seem more relatable. Kate Middleton’s first postnuptial outing with Prince William, in a $90 cornflower blue shift from Spanish retailer Zara, endeared her to Middle England. In the U.S., Michelle Obama’s Today show appearance in an H&M polka-dot ditty had a similar effect.

But the rise of bercheap apparel chains like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo, which are popularly called fast-fashion retailers for their ability to churn out modish styles at record speed, also carries big costs for U.S. apparel makers and the environment. In recent years, cut-rate European and Japanese clothiers have raked in more customers and bigger profits than traditional U.S. apparel companies like Gap and American Eagle Outfitters by mass-producing lower-quality digs that keep pace with runway styles. That’s led more shoppers to cast aside hefty chunks of their wardrobes as fresh looks come up, which leads to more waste.

The fashion frenzy has picked up speed since the financial crisis, as traditional U.S. clothiers try to win back trend seekers on a budget from more-agile competitors. Slow goers like Gap and Macy’s are swapping out big orders of staples like T-shirts for smaller, more frequent batches of hot knickknacks like handbags and hair bobbles. But with wages rising in China, the fast-fashion model–which relies on higher sales volumes and slimmer profit margins–could hurt American clothing companies and jobs, since they rely more on Chinese manufacturers. Unlike with European brands that can source quickly from nearby locations like Turkey and Romania, suppliers closer to U.S. apparel makers tend to be more expensive. There’s a trend in fashion that could clash with a First Lady’s persona.