What is fast fashion and is it really any different to supply chain management or quick response? This article is an edited version of an interview given by retail consultant Malcolm Newbery to Dr Liz Barnes, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, which attempts to answer these questions and look at the impact of fast fashion on the supply chain.

Fast fashion and the consumer

We are looking at fast fashion and the theory of supply chain management, and whether fast fashion is any different to quick response
Quick response was really a term invented by my then company (Kurt Salmon Associates), as part of an attempt to protect manufacturing in the USA. It wasn't the same thing, in my view, as fast fashion, because it was driven by a supply side argument. Fast fashion should be about response to consumer demand.

So what do you think fast fashion is?
Fast fashion is a complete move away from the two seasons a year method. It accepts that if we're going to keep consumers interested and coming into our retail stores once a month, we've got to have a steady flow of new stuff for them to see.

So in that case, have consumers changed?
Absolutely. In1980 we were still supply driven, consumers got what suppliers gave them. By the time we got into the 1990s it was pretty much the other way around. We were demanding consumer choice and interest, and retailers like Zara, H&M and New Look have delivered it. They're saying: "Girl, 18, doesn't want to pay a lot, she's not going to wear it for long because she'll move on to the next thing in two months' time."

What is it that's making consumers so demanding of fast fashion?
Well if my partner is anything to go by, it's the ability to be able to search for things on the net and to buy little and often. This morning she was looking at cheap terracotta pots. The ones she found were being made in Vietnam and were being sold for £3.99. The consumer is now in control.

Is it a case of the consumers being a bit more savvy?
Yes. We're no longer just grateful to Marks and Spencer for giving us something. We're actually saying no it's not exactly what I want. Going hand in glove with that is the move offshore to low cost countries, which has left the only defendable position in a high cost country being to supply this demanding consumer with merchandise fast and in small quantities.

Yet one of the criticisms of fast fashion is that there is a feeling of 'sameness' across the high street.
I accept that consumers don't have to follow trends but a lot of people still do. The boho gypsy skirt is a typical example. It followed a trend but will be ditched very fast and that's the point.

Fast fashion, youth and low prices

If we use the example you mentioned earlier of the typical fast fashion customer, young girl, not going to wear it for long, do you think fast fashion is just catering for that group?
Two things. I think you've got to be a very wealthy person, male or female, to dive in and out of fashion, particularly if you're going to spend hundreds of pounds and only wear the item two or three times. But it's not just the young. We fifty-somethings are refusing to grow old gracefully, are wearing T-shirts and jeans, and changing our T-shirts, regularly!

Do you think that shopping habits have changed and do you think that might be a driver of fast fashion? For example, people shop socially with their friends or because they want the latest celebrity look, they can go any day of the week because shopping centres are open until 10pm
Yes, retail has definitely become a national pursuit. It's something that's done for fun, it's certainly not done from need. Most of us have got quite enough clothes, we don't need anymore. I have been talking about this to the boss of a company called ASOS, a growing business entirely driven by this TV celebrity culture - 'I want to be like her.'

Fast fashion and retail buying

To what extent do you think fast fashion has affected the buying process?
Retail buyers, apart from a few examples which we've already talked about like Zara, H&M etc, have been appallingly slow to ditch the traditional seasonal patterns and to recognise that what they should be doing is delivering product to people on a regular basis. There are some wonderfully good examples. The Dutch company Mexx has been terrific for years. They had ten delivery windows in the 1980s, whereas Marks and Spencer was still working on twice a year contracts for huge quantities, with lead times of 26 weeks only three years ago. So, I think the retail industry has got an awful lot to answer for. It has not provided the consumer with interest. The systems exist to do it. The supply chain is in place to deliver small capsules on a regular basis.

So why aren't they using it?
Pure laziness and tradition, I think.

What do you think the buyers should be doing?
I think the buying directors, should be completely ditching the open to buy system. Instead they should give buyers four or six pots of money a year, and accept that if you use a pot of money and it doesn't sell very well, then just say "tough, that should be marked down and got rid of," and you move onto the next pot. There's no point in it hanging around - it only ends up in the warehouse.

Do you think there are higher costs or lower margins associated with adopting a fast fashion model?
If you'd have asked me five years ago I would have said definitely, you have to trade off price with speed. Today, I believe that as a result of technology, you can have the speed without it incurring much cost premium at all.

So why is it that they can achieve speed and low cost?
Let's start at the front end. It used to take chain store retailers six months to go through the product development cycle. With computer technology, CAD, spec sheets being bounced across the world by computer, you can do this if you want to in two weeks, and people are doing it in two weeks. So the front-end has been compressed enormously. Manufacturing has also been compressed because we have moved away from old-fashioned progressive bundles that used to take three weeks to go through the factory. Today small work groups manufacture batches in half a day. The only thing you can't change unless you pay the premium is the logistics and time of getting it from the other side of the world to the UK or the US. Now some people have decided that they are willing to pay the logistics premium and they do everything by air. The big long chain has been squashed.

In terms of traditional design and creativity, do you feel that fast fashion has had an impact on the high street designer? What's their role now? Are they still creative designers or are they slaves to copying trends?
I think they are much more slaves to copying trends. Product seems to be out in the marketplace before the top end designers' product has even arrived! I think there's a genuine danger that in the mad rush to be there very fast, we will just copy and rip off and there won't be very much space for serious innovation. It's quite interesting to look back at furniture and see the fantastically original furniture in the 1930s by Corbusier and Eileen Gray and this was not a rush to copy what had just been selling well, it was genuinely innovative.

Fast fashion and sourcing

Thinking about regions and countries, are there any that do particularly well at fast fashion?
 Well everyone is going to start by saying Spain because of Zara and Mango. Eastern Europe is trying to balance cost and speed. Actually I was with a client on Friday who said: "I'm using Poland more than ever but I'm still struggling with the fact that fabric etc going out takes five days and product coming back takes five days."

Do you think that China is able to deliver on fast fashion?

For what reason?
They are setting their stall out to be mass producers at very low cost. I don't think they want the quantities that go with fast fashion.

Thinking about the whole supply chain, what sort of affect do you think fast fashion has had on the apparel supply chain?
It has shaken it up in a huge way and its shaken it up so that it will never return to the traditional two seasons a year. Even if you go and talk to independent boutiques who buy twice a year, they are buying in capsules of phased deliveries They may be forced, because they are small and the brand is big, to place the order for the first capsule, second capsule, third capsule, at the same time, but they can usually argue a bit - "if the first capsule doesn't do so well, can I put a bit more into the second capsule," and it's changing that very traditional approach.

Presumably that's the end of the market that is going to be the last to change, those small independents, particularly those that are doing branded product?
Yes, those that are doing branded product and department stores will be the slowest.

Do you think there have to be any trade-offs, for example in terms of quality, have they got the time to do product checks? 
You don't need to sacrifice quality. The amount of time that the product is worked on during the production cycle is still less than 25%. The rest of the time it sits in 'work in progress'. There is still time to perform the quality checks

Do you think that the need for speed has reduced the need for strategic alliances?
On the contrary, if you need speed then you've got to have a very strong bond of trust with your supplier; and if you've got that, you don't ditch them just because the next supplier is a tiny bit cheaper. I think fast fashion has made the strategic alliance argument stronger not weaker.

Do you think that there are any real barriers to being able to implement the fast fashion model, either from a manufacturer's or retailer's point of view?
Fabric is the main manufacturer problem. Otherwise I don't think there are any real barriers. 15 years ago I would have said systems support to manage this continuous flow of new products, but the quality of retail IT systems is now frighteningly good. Zara for example is in control of the whole process in real time.

But for a company like Arcadia, for example, the technology must be there for them to be able to link up with all their suppliers and anyone else involved in the supply chain to share information on sales and where stock is
Yes the technology is all there. Start by getting product development right on the computer. Then get supplier order processing and supplier order tracking absolutely right. Tracking systems are so infinitely better than they were 10 years ago. Thirdly, when merchandise hits the warehouse, I can now have the fastest, cleverest allocation system to push it into store really quickly. Fourthly, almost all retailers have the easy bit, point-of-sale systems that tell me exactly how well it is selling and tell me exactly what I ought to do in terms of transfer between stores.

Fast fashion and replenishment

You mentioned allocation and transfers. What is the role of replenishment in fast fashion?
Not much. We've very rarely got the chance to order more in fast fashion because the selling time is so short. You make your forecast, and you go with it. If it's selling really well you can't get any more anyway. If it is not, you mark down and move on.

Is there no role for flexible ordering and adjusting two products in different stages of the product life cycle?
Occasionally. Here is an example. I have two boho gypsy skirts, one is long and one is short, and I don't know which one is going to sell better, and the initial order is 50 of each. One of them turns out to be vastly better than the other. If I have used common fabrics, then I can switch. If I'm using different fabrics then I've probably got no chance, because I can't get anything from the fabric mills in time. I worked for a wonderful lady in the 1980s doing evening cocktail dresses and she insisted that the same fabric went into at least three different dresses because she could always switch the fabric between the three dresses.

So if that was happening all those years ago, being strategic about the way you design or choose your fabric or develop your product, is that strategic management of product development happening more now?
Yes I think it definitely is and that is part of managing fast fashion.