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Fast fashion is only one market within a massive apparel industry. While it’s undeniably a commercial powerhouse, its cultural influence is negligible. Its business model is based on seeking out — not defining — cultural trends and then producing and delivering them months or sometimes days before peer and upmarket competitors. In this way, fast fashion markets play an important, if under-recognized, role in sustaining the larger apparel industry. Mass-market versions of luxury designs compel elite consumers and brands to search for new trends in order to distinguish themselves from the mass market. Despite their crucial role, however, fast-fashion designs generally don’t capture headlines or public attention unless: (1) they’re accused of copying a luxury brand; (2) a luxury brand is caught replicating a fast fashion garment (as with Saint Laurent’s recent knockoff of a Forever 21 dress); or (3) they’re the subject of an anti–fast fashion news story. The central myth of anti–fast fashion discourse is that low prices signify low standards of production (and a lower-quality product), while high prices indicate high standards of production (and a high-quality product). This is what economists call “the Veblen effect,” named for Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 theorized that expensive goods appealed to elites as status symbols. Today, more expensive fashions are still associated with higher-status consumers whose tastes are not just “better” but also morally superior, ethically discriminating, and knowledgeable about the “high costs of cheap fashion.” Anti-fast fashion campaigns urge consumers to avoid budget retailers to show that they stand against the exploitation of fashion workers and intellectual property theft. Those who don’t heed their call and switch to buying more expensive goods are complicit in the horrors of fast fashion. Yet it isn’t just fast fashion brands that copy other designers or use sweatshop labor.
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