When Kim Kardashian stepped out last February in a vintage Thierry Mugler gown – a barely-there black number with fetish overtones – the Internet lit up as Kardashian wannabes clamoured to find out where they could get their hands on the dress.
Given that Mugler’s ready-to-wear label closed in 2003, purchasing the piece should have been a difficult task. But in less than 24 hours, Los Angeles-based Fashion Nova, a digital retail brand known for bodycon dresses and high-waisted jeans, had a replica of it up on their site.
Digital-native companies such as Fashion Nova, known for producing cheap, trendy clothing at breakneck speed, have turned the traditional retail sector on its ear. By teaming up with influencers and digitally savvy celebrities, they’ve tapped into a young generation of shoppers who scour Instagram for the latest styles, and once they see something they like, expect to be wearing it within a week.
“Fashion Nova is fast fashion meets the Kardashians,” says Doug Stephens, a Toronto retail analyst. “They tapped into a global audience that wants everything yesterday. They also recognized early on that the internet is a powerful tool to reach a consumer base who believe their social currency is based on how they are perceived online.”
Of the legion of fast-fashion e-tailers in the marketplace – including Missguided, Boohoo.com and PrettyLittleThing from Britain, Revolve and Area from the United States and AliExpress and Alibaba from China – Fashion Nova is one of the most high-profile. According to Google, it was the fourth most-searched fashion brand after Gucci, Supreme and Louis Vuitton in 2018.
“We live in a world where barriers to entry are virtually non-existent,” says Stephens, describing how social media has democratized who can launch a fashion brand and how soon it can succeed. “You used to know who your competitors are. Now a brand can emerge overnight and amass hundreds of millions in sales in a couple of years."
Fashion Nova’s edge was to identify a generation of women aged 16 to 35 of diverse body types and ethnicities who felt overlooked by traditional retail stores that offer limited sizes. “They tapped into the millennial generation’s need to be seen, heard and validated,” Stephens says. “They recognized this group goes out a lot, and they take photos of absolutely everything they do. They can’t be seen on Instagram wearing the same thing two nights in a row.”
Tailor-made for Instagram, digital fast-fashion brands often have affiliations with an army of influencers. Fashion Nova, for instance, has teamed up with celeb-muses (which it calls #NovaBabes) such as rapper Cardi B, model Blac Chyna and actor Amber Rose. It has more than 15.6 million Instagram followers, significantly more than Manchester, England-based Missguided (4.3 million) or L.A.'s Revolve (three million). But all have the same digital business strategy – use influencer marketing to attract customers who want fashionable, affordable clothes at their fingertips.
Fashion Nova founder Richard Saghian is notoriously media-shy, but recently told Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) that when he started his low-cost clubwear brand in 2006, he envisioned opening up 100 stores across the U.S. within a couple of years. Those plans, however, did not pan out. By 2013, he’d recognized Instagram paired with influencers meant sales success. The company does not release sales figures, but industry estimates for annual revenue are in the hundreds of millions.
“The effort of launching a store is far harder than it is to increase revenue online,” he told WWD. “Why open more stores when I can open in more countries?”
In the world of fast fashion, Zara and H&M are recognized as pioneers. They were the first to turn around runway trends and get them into their stores in as little as five weeks. Now digital brands such as Fashion Nova, which works with more than 1,000 manufacturers in California and overseas, can put up 600 to 1,000 new styles on its site each week.
It’s a distribution system that thrills many customers, but infuriates environmentalists, who say the waste generated by these companies takes the recklessness of the fast-fashion system to obscene heights.
“There are cracks in fast fashion’s veneer,” Stephens says. “The non-sustainability of fast fashion is under the microscope … but while the rest of the fashion industry seems to be developing a greater conscience around waste and human-rights issues, fast fashion seems oblivious and stands out like a sore thumb.”
Despite growing criticism, the system shows no sign of slowing down. In May, Amazon, the biggest seller of apparel in the United States, announced The Drop – on-demand designs that will be available for only 30 hours on the Amazon App or mobile browser. It’s a move designed to, presumably, make fast fashion even quicker.