Is the Tide Finally Turning Against Fast Fashion?

Recent years have seen the rise of fast-fashion behemoths like Forever 21, H&M, Zara—the list goes on. Even stores without their reputation for lickety-split knockoffs seem to be pushing towards tighter production cycles and cheaper offerings. But are customers ready to embrace buying fewer items that cost more money?

The Wall Street Journal kicks off Fashion Week with a piece suggesting that's the case — or at least, that retailers are hoping it is. The Journal spotlights several companies in particular, including Zady and Everlane, that are "encouraging shoppers to build simpler, smaller and longer-lasting wardrobes." Many emphasize provenance, so you can buy with the confidence you aren't supporting a supply-chain that involves sweatshops.

But they're all relatively new companies, and it's too soon to tell whether they can go the distance. Even if they do manage to thrive, that doesn't mean fast fashion is vanquished, either. Their marketing strategy is counter-programming, pointing to the Forever 21s of the world as something undesirable, even déclassé. But that's more likely to appeal to higher-end customers, who probably aren't the ones keeping H&M in synthetic leather trimmings. Hell, their pitch works better if the vast majority of Americans are buying lots of cheap crap.

And the kinds of companies showing at New York Fashion Week have a vested interest in this narrative, as well. They might not have a spiel about a rural craftswoman hand-sewing upscale denim, but they certainly like the idea of the "investment piece" offering more cache than the fast-fashion copy.

All that said, there is some evidence Americans are shifting their habits. "People are not buying just to buy anymore," said the American Apparel & Footwear Association's Nate Herman. His stats say we're spending more money, but the actual number of items purchased peaked in 2005. But a Wells Fargo analyst counters that, "There is still an appetite for bargains out there."

I suspect what'll tell the tale is what happens as customers age out of the biggest fast-fashion chains. Yes, dressing your age is dead, but a middle-aged career woman simply cannot stock her closet from H&M alone. She needs things they're just not set up to provide. The question is, does she shop the same way at different stores, or change her habits? According to the cofounders of online retailer Of a Kind:

"A lot of our customers are graduating from fast fashion and trying to wrap their heads around how to spend $200 on a dress," says Ms. Mazur. Ms. Cerulo says part of the website's marketing job is to ease shoppers into new spending categories. "We have an audience who is growing with us," she says.

Can't wear sequins forever, ladies (unless somebody revives the stylistic paradigm of Dynasty, which I would be all for).

Photos via AP Images.