One of the biggest retail success stories of the past decade has been the phenomenal rise of fast fashion, a shopping trend spurred by rapidly changing styles and the ready availability of cheap brands. In a session entitled 'Is fast fashion killing fashion?' at last week's IAF World Apparel Convention in Hong Kong, delegates were in left in no doubt the concept has forced the industry to change.

The undoubted pioneer of the fast fashion concept is Spanish clothing retailer Zara, with its 4,780 stores in 77 countries and a formula for success that relies on the regular creation and rapid replenishment of small batches of new goods.

With new lines being dropped into shops every 4-8 weeks (or twice a week in the case of Zara), it's a recipe that ensures customers can always find new products every time they visit the store, as well as encouraging more visits and more frequent purchases because items are in limited supply.

And it's a blueprint that has been emulated by numerous other retailers including Mango, H&M, Topshop, Primark and Uniqlo, who have wasted no time in tapping into younger consumers' ever- shorter attention spans, and lifestyle changes like mobile communications, the internet, and social networks.

The growth of fast retailing "seems to be phenomenal," Arvind Singhal, CEO of Indian consultancy Technopak told delegates at last week's IAF World Apparel Convention in Hong Kong. Even during the recession Zara owner Fast Retailing booked revenues up 29% from 2008-09, followed by Primark (up 24%) and H&M (up 19%) - figures that would be "spectacular, even at the best of times."

In contrast, traditional brand names like Liz Claiborne are struggling, while upmarket retailers like Nordstrom and Saks have been lowering their price points in order to compete.

It also seems unlikely there will be any let-up in fast fashion's advance across the globe. "Initial reports suggest it will have even more impact in new markets like China and India than could ever have been imagined," Singhal says.

As evidenced by the fact Zara has opened 44 stores in China since 2006. And in India, where it made its first foray earlier this year, the retailer achieved a turnover of $2.7m in its first two days of opening.

Obstacles to fast fashion
Against such stellar growth it might seem strange to question whether a concept that's so obviously popular and makes fashion accessible to a large number of people could also be killing the industry.

But Robin Anson, managing director of Textiles Intelligence, believes there are quite a few things getting in the way of fast fashion.

"Everything's getting faster, including fashion," he says. "But fast fashion can't happen without facilitators. While low prices might encourage more purchases, to get low prices you need low labour costs, low raw material costs, and high productivity - but the quality must still be good."

Other facilitators are logistics (but the conundrum here is getting from a low-cost source to the consumer quickly); nearby manufacturing (for in-season replenishment); technology tools (to allow the supply chain to communicate, speed sample making etc); and online retailing, which enables consumers to buy online or pre-select so they can make purchases quickly in-store.

"If cheap fashion is finished, then fast fashion is too," Anson adds. "One thing that everybody's buying is cotton. The cotton price has doubled this year from $0.50 to $1.0 per pound, and while we don't see any further massive increase in prices, we don't seem them coming down either.

"So for the foreseeable future, high cotton prices are here to stay. And as labour costs get lower and supply chains get more efficient, raw material aspect assumes a higher proportion of the final price.

"But raw materials are just one component. Other threats to export prices include rising labour costs - not just in China, but also in countries like Bangladesh, and the appreciation of the renminbi."

He also suggests climate change could impact on fast fashion, since rising sea levels in cotton and garment producing countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh will affect prices and capacity.

And what about a consumer backlash against a throwaway society? "There's pressure to reduce food miles and the same could be said about clothes miles. This could favour nearby sourcing."

Market demand
However, for Dr Marc Schumacher, director of retail, franchise and international marketing for German casual wear company Tom Tailor, "fast fashion is not to do with cheap products but with market demand."

He told International Apparel Federation (IAF) delegates: "I believe the core competence of a company is marketing, and fast fashion is a demand from the market. Fast fashion means taking a decision later and responding more quickly.

Tom Tailor makes casual wear for men, women and children, which it sells in its own 87 stores, as well as various franchise stores and shop-in-shops. The company has 12 collections a year, and by blocking fabric in Asia can get its lead times down to just five weeks, Schumacher said.  

"The rate of technology advancement means ideas can be exchanged even faster," he added. "Take this to the next level, and as technology gets cheaper and faster then fashion will get faster too."

Threat to quality and creativity
Shorter lead times and more deliveries "are doing a lot of damage to the design profession," believes Michael Tien, chairman of workwear retailer G2000. "Designers don't have the time any more to be really creative. Fast fashion needs them to be very quick at 'adapt, copy and paste,' not design as an art form. So it's not good for originality."

He fears quality is also under threat since "no-one cares about the quality of disposable clothes, and this is not good for the clothing industry as a whole."

That said, "making trendy stuff more affordable" does enable consumers to buy more units - and it lets them be more creative in the way they put outfits together. "In Hong Kong, selling more units creates more jobs. Units translate to jobs and employment opportunities in places like China," says Tien.

He also agrees that fast fashion is forcing the whole industry to change the way it operates, and that even luxury brands have been forced to follow suit with new ideas and more deliveries.

But at the end of the day, Tien contends "different customers have different needs" and not all will be lured by the likes of Zara. In China, for example, there is huge demand for more quality-conscious upmarket brands. "If you can identify these specific needs then you can compete."