While cities such as Milan, Paris, New York and London have historically been seen as the global 'fashion hubs' - acting as meeting spots for high-end designers, fashion shows, luxury retail outlets and fashionistas - the rise of fast fashion has also made cutting-edge trends more accessible to the rest of the world.

The growing fast fashion industry has, in fact, prompted a certain "democratisation" of fashion - where companies are no longer "copying" catwalk styles, but are actually creating trends, themselves, according to Achim Berg, a consultant at McKinsey & Company in Germany.

Even in very high-fashion cities, he says - where sporting brand names has traditionally been commonplace - this democratisation of fashion means that shoppers are now displaying a more 'hybrid' fashion sense; buying at both the high and low ends of the market and combining these piece into single outfits.

Fast fashion is not just infiltrating historically fashionable markets, though. Spain-based Zara, for instance, has undergone huge international expansion since its inauguration in 1975, and has broken out from Western markets in recent years. In 2009, it moved into Syria; in 2010, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and India; and in 2011, Australia, Taiwan, Azerbaijan, South Africa and Peru.

In fact, fast fashion growth (in terms of expansion) is expected to continue largely into emerging markets, as the Western market has actually become quite stagnated in terms of growth of apparel sales, Berg says.

"People want to consume more - but don't want to spend more. Consumers want three colours of trousers instead of just one, [and] that's obviously easier to achieve if you shop [a lot]."

Sales growth
With this, fast fashion players have performed extraordinarily well in the context of the current economic environment.

Sales growth for 2007-2011 (percentage compound annual growth rate - CAGR), for example, shows Inditex having grown at 10% and Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) at 9%, while Gap Inc lost market share, down 2%, and United Colors of Benetton was also down at 1%.

Felipe Caro, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles - UCLA Anderson School of Management, says that overall, the success of fast fashion in any market can be accredited to a few particular factors.

"For fast fashion to thrive, you need people who are variety seekers, and are somewhat fashion forward...as well as people who can afford it." In Europe for example, fashion thrives because consumers have fairly high incomes, and tend to follow trends. But while income levels tend to be relatively similar in the US, the spending habits of American consumers are quite different from Europeans.

Fast fashion does thrive in bigger US cities which contain more "cosmopolitan" people, but stores like Zara have still taken their time in infiltrating the US market.

"Zara does not do much advertising - and Americans tend to buy in malls, for example," he explains. "So, if you don't do any advertising, how will people know the store exists?"

In that sense, H&M has had much faster penetration in the US market because it does advertise, and has more frequent sales.

Berg adds that fast fashion offerings from the same company can also be quite different between regions and countries. "When you look structurally at the business, the US is much stronger in terms of basics - polos, dress shirts, etc [than Europe]," he says.

Global perspective
Looking at fast fashion from a more global perspective - in South America or instance, where there is major European influence - Caro says that while people would like to buy from fast fashion retailers, financial constraints exist, as people have less disposable income.

"As soon as these countries start to develop, those are huge potential markets, however," he adds, noting that this growth is already starting to happen in Brazil and Chile.

Japan is also a significant growth market for fast fashion - with consumers more than willing to pay premiums, says Caro.

"If you go to a Zara store in Japan, they charge twice as much for the same products because [consumers] are willing to pay ridiculous amounts for anything a little bit trendier - they're crazy for fashion in Japan."

In fact, according to research by McKinsey, while department stores were the primary channel for apparel sales in Japan a few years ago, this is no longer the case. Between 2008 and 2009 alone, department store apparel sales slid by 11%, and according to a February 2010 Macromill survey, these customers are largely gravitating towards home-grown fast fashion retailer Uniqlo.

According to Caro, South Korea, Turkey and the BRIC countries are also following this trend, with some boasting their own fast fashion companies, such as Turkey's Koton, which offers trendy apparel with frequent turnover to women, men and teenagers.

While markets may be growing at different paces, however - and shopping habits may vary - Berg said that companies should not go out of their way to localise styles to specific regions (an example of so-called 'bad complexity') since consumer preferences are "basically the same".

Fashion trends are generally created uniformly, he said, with only a very small share of specific styles contrived for specific regions.