Zara is virtually vertically integrated with its supply chain

Zara is 'virtually vertically integrated' with its supply chain

The fast fashion model, in all its guises, is ensuring some retailers thrive in spite of challenging market conditions. Here, Bob McKee, industry strategy director, Infor Fashion, takes a closer look at some of the secrets of its success.

Against all the odds, since the economic downturn of 2008, those organisations implementing a fast fashion model have outperformed their competition on nearly every level. In fact, fast fashion retailers have not only achieved pleasingly positive results since the start of the global financial crisis, but have actually seemed to thrive, in spite of these adverse economic conditions.

In a nutshell, fast fashion is really about trying to optimise the cycles of supply and demand in a climate that's often clouded by consumer vagary, not to mention driven by unpredictable trends. In many ways, the fast fashion model favours the overall control that a vertically integrated company has.

It is, however, possible to be 'virtually' vertically integrated, without having to have total vertical ownership. While the fast fashion model typically includes control of the majority of stages in a retail production lifecycle, having a shared mission of successful consumer fulfilment does seem to be a key requirement to ensure process success. Zara, for example, can own every part of the production process while obtaining certain materials from an outside vendor and still be 'virtually vertically integrated'.

What fast fashion definitely isn't, however, is a case of one-size-fits-all, with the very concept of fast fashion manifesting itself via numerous deployment models. Consumers may regard these fast fashion companies as one and the same, but what makes one successful is not necessarily what works for the other. 

Many fast fashion retailers test-market their products, as well as relying on quick replenishment or replacement of items as soon as demand changes. Some retailers are very dictatorial, sometimes resulting in key decisions being made at the last possible minute (or, worse case scenario, even later). Orders are changed and cancelled without any prior knowledge or warning, and price and delivery requirements can seem to be stuck in a cycle of constant flux.

On the other hands, some fast fashion retailers are only interested in 'cheap and deep', buying tonnes of a single product line with what it can seem to be scant interest in either quality or sustainability. What this highlights is that while there are without a doubt numerous fast fashion success stories out there, the retailers all operate very differently.

In terms of what kinds of fashion retailers could benefit most from adopting the fast fashion model, there really is no stereotypical fast fashion business. Looking at the huge successes experienced by so many fast fashion adoptees, it would seem that every organisation involved in fashion retail could benefit by both studying and deploying certain elements of the fast fashion concept, even if they don't embrace it in its entirety.

Of course there are those who regard fast fashion as nothing more than a passing trend, and they're potentially right in that assumption when you consider that some parts of fast fashion will likely live forever while some elements will ebb and flow in line with consumer choice and preferences. What is undeniable is how the business model has proven itself in terms of the potential results that can be achieved, the impact of which on the fashion retail industry cannot be underestimated.

Yes, the concept of fast fashion may be replaced by another revolutionary retail model a few years down the line, but the lasting impact of fast fashion will be the change in processes surrounding the flow of inventory.

Retailers will continue to test and replenish, and of course, cost is important for maintaining and improving margins, but, to put it simply, you can't sell what you don't have, and you can't sell what they don't want. And, whether you jump on board the fast fashion express or not, matching consumer demand to both available and planned supply is very much the name of the game.