Hooked on Fast Fashion

Sustainability concerns have taken some of the luster from the fast fashion retail sector. The core business model, after all, is to encourage purchases of inexpensive clothes that are meant to be replaced quickly with trendy new pieces, creating an ongoing cycle of waste. Based on the number of deals being done with fast-fashion retailers, however, these environmental worries do not seem to be bothering licensors too much. They remain attracted by the global reach and especially the young, largely Gen Z customer base associated with this retail tier.

To illustrate, here is a non-comprehensive sampling of some of the licensed collaborations, across different geographic regions, involving the leading players in this competitive sector over the past year:

  • Uniqlo. Many of the retailer’s collaborations fall under the umbrella of its UT t-shirt range. As an extension of its long-time partnership with London’s Tate Modern museum, Uniqlo introduced a series of four Curated by Tate t-shirts, each featuring a different piece of art from the museum. The retailer’s Fighting Game Legends collection of t’s features video game properties, mostly from Uniqlo’s home country of Japan, including Tekken 8, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Metal Gear Solid. It has also paired with other Japanese IP including Hello Kitty, most recently for a 50th anniversary collection, and the characters of Studio Ghibli. Artist and designer Kaws has also recently been featured in a UT collection. Beyond UT, fashion labels and designers collaborating with Uniqlo for full collections, some for the first time and some for returning programs, include Clare Waight Keller, Anya Hindmarch, Marimekko, JW Anderson (including a collaboration with Roger Federer), and students from the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) in New York.
  • Shein. Recent initiatives for this primarily online retailer have included collections with reality star Teresa Giudice of Real Housewives of New York fame and her daughters; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Care Bears, both for kids’ products; Brazilian singer Anitta for the first collection under the chain’s new evoluSHEIN by Design brand; DJ Chantel Jeffries, under the Shein Icon brand; and Australian designer Alice McCall. Shein, headquartered in China, is also selling a co-branded collection with fellow fast-fashion chain Forever 21; Shein has an ownership stake in Forever 21 parent Sparc, and vice versa. Some of these partners, including McCall, Giudice, and Khloe Kardashian, who paired with the company in 2021, have received significant backlash for their collaborations with Shein. This is because, beyond sustainability concerns, the retailer has been accused of stealing ideas from independent designers and rival retailers, as well as exploitative labor practices. All countered that they did their due diligence and stood by their respective partnerships.
  • H&M. Licensors working with this Swedish-based chain of late have included several designer labels, such as Rabanne for womenswear, menswear, accessories, and home goods; Lanvin for a capsule of party clothes; Mugler for an edgy collection of womenswear rooted in self-expression; Danish label Rotate Birger Christiansen for another partywear collection; and Heron Preston for a multifaceted partnership, including apparel capsules, under the retailer’s H2 initiative. H&M has also launched children’s collections with editor/journalist, children’s book author, and “style icon” Eva Chen; early childhood development brand Sophie la Girafe; and collectible plush brand Squishmallows. And, for its H&M Move athleisure line, it has worked with singer Raye on a collaborative collection and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović for a curated range.
  • Primark. This British-headquartered chain introduced a 169-piece collection of apparel, accessories, and footwear with singer Rita Ora; several collections with the National Basketball Association, the most recent in collaboration with NBA presenter and H&M sportswear ambassador Josh Denzel; a Dr. Seuss Christmas array for the whole family; several collections with Netflix across its properties, including the period TV series Bridgerton; apparel, sleepwear, swimwear, and accessories for men and women inspired by Barbie: The Movie; three collabs to date with Spanish actor and influencer Paula Echevarria; and a capsule of apparel and accessories tied to the U.K. bakery chain Greggs, known for its sandwiches and pastries, including a sausage roll that appears as an icon in several of the pieces.
  • Zara. Some of the recent collaboration partners for this retailer, based in Spain, include Studio Nicholson for a second drop of minimalist, modular menswear, womenswear, and home goods; photographer Steven Meisel for a collection of pieces, mostly in black, for men and women; Harry Lambert, celebrity stylist to the likes of Harry Styles, for a vintage capsule called Cutie Chaos; Barbie: The Movie for an extensive collection considered one of the truest to the film’s on-screen looks; Chinese lifestyle label Xi Xing Le for a limited, dragon-themed Lunar New Year collection; hair stylist Guido Palau for the chain’s first hair products; and architect and interior designer Vincent Van Duysen for a home goods collection that takes its cues from Van Duysen’s archives.
  • Forever 21. In addition to its partnership with Shein, this U.S.-based chain has collaborated with Barneys New York for a limited collection of apparel ranging from suits and coats to hoodies; Sanrio for a variety of collections featuring Hello Kitty and other characters; Disney for a holiday collection; Netflix for the sci-fi fantasy series Rebel Moon; another Barbie: The Movie collaboration; rocker Frankie Clarke and her mother, Frankie B. designer Daniella Clarke, and Rolling Loud California, both for music festival collections; Reebok for a back-to-school fashion range; designer Henry R. Jones II for multiple drops, with the latest a Black History Month collection; Juicy Couture for retro capsules including one that also included influencer Alix Earle; and Looney Tunes for a kids’ assortment. Note that some of these collaborators (e.g., Reebok and Juicy Couture) are owned by Forever 21 parent Sparc or Authentic Brands Group, an investor in Sparc.

Most of these retailers have—to various degrees—taken steps to improve their track record on sustainability. Some of their moves have included using renewable or recycled materials, launching recycling initiatives to prevent some of the garments purchased at their stores from ending up in the trash, implementing improvements to reduce water use and make other operations less damaging to the environment, and forging collaborations with companies whose technologies make materials or manufacturing processes more eco-friendly. Some are also adding higher-margin brands to their assortments, which is meant to raise profitability but also leave more room to produce higher-quality, longer-lasting merchandise.

While the core business model remains problematic from a sustainability point of view, these are steps in the right direction. And both customers and potential partners are watching.

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