Last year, discount meccas like Dollar General and Dollar Tree scrambled to expand into hundreds of new stores stuffed with standard recessionary fare: cheap made-in-China toys, synthetic tee-shirts, and flimsy housewares. Fast fashion retailers like H&M, Uniqlo, and Zara, which churn out the latest styles at record speed, also fared well. But there are signs that some consumers are growing weary of rickety furniture and clothing that falls out of fashion — or falls apart — after a single season.
In recent months, clothiers like the Gap and H&M have started rolling out pricier collections that boast higher quality. Gap’s latest lines play up the touch and feel of its fabrics and simple cuts. Last spring, H&M launched an eco-wear line dubbed the “conscious collection,” and its new COS stores feature apparel with “timeless design that lives beyond the season.” Meanwhile, Japan’s minimalist retailer Muji, whose corporate motto is “this will suffice,” is expanding its New York empire to the West Coast.
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Then there are the hardcore challengers to big-box fast-fashion retail: the small e-commerce sites with a do-gooder ethos that have quietly cultivated online fan bases from the ground up. The latest of these is Everlane, the San Fransisco-based e-retailer that just raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter to expand from the U.S. into Canada. In November, the company protested mass consumption by blacking out its site on Black Friday.
Everlane’s mantra—“buy less, buy better”— echos other popular e-retail newcomers like eyeglass maker Warby Parker and men’s apparel maker Bonobos. Everlane offers higher quality goods at lower prices than traditional luxury retailers by sourcing straight from the manufacturer and avoiding the overhead costs that come with brick-and-mortar stores. The company, started by a motley crew of business and fashion industry veterans, created online buzz with a viral infographic that lays bare the chain of markups that make fashion so expensive.
But beyond the catchy marketing, the “buy less, buy better” strategy sometimes seems more like capitalist fluff than Marxian utopia. Young startups like Everlane, which is backed by heavyweight venture capitalists like Lerer Ventures and Betaworks, need to grow fast to prove their salt to investors. To do so, the company has already succumbed to the marketing ploys of fast fashion chains and discount retailers. By launching as an invite-only site (a tactic Everlane recently abandoned to attract more customers) and selling its wares in limited runs, Everlane has boosted profit margins and sales by encouraging the addictive impulse buying encouraged by sites like Gilt Groupe and Ruelala, which use limited-time-only sales to charge a premium for liquidated luxury overstock.
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Michael Preysman, the company’s CEO, insists Everlane’s pared-down designs and limited selection teach customers “to behave differently.” But there’s a big difference between buying for minimalist design and high quality and actually buying less stuff.