Page last updated at 09:33 GMT, Wednesday, 9 June 2004 10:33 UK

Store Wars: Fast Fashion

In the second of a three-part special on Britain's shopping wars, The Money Programme looks at the battle being waged between clothing retailers as they rush to copy the latest celebrity fashions and get them to the High Street within days.

There's a fashion revolution underway on the High Street. From Kate Moss to Kylie, Britain's shoppers want to wear what the stars wear and retailers are rushing to provide it. Shops like Top Shop, Zara and H&M are battling it out at the heart of a 27bn clothing market.

Their targets are consumers like Louise Hitch. Louise works in one of Leeds' premier restaurants and claims that for her, image is everything. "It's really important to me to get the right look for each season, you have to look right for your customer and give them the right first impression," she says.

Louise shops every day, looking for styles and outfits like those her favourite fashion icons wear.

Julian Linley, deputy editor of Heat Magazine, is not surprised by Louise's shopping habits: "We've become more obsessed with the way that celebrities dress because it's just become so much more accessible. Stores are much better at cottoning onto the things that celebrities wear and reproducing them very quickly."

From catwalk to shop floor

Retailers are locked in a battle to try to get key catwalk trends from the drawing board to the shelves as quickly as possible.

Shoppers have become much more savvy, claims Top Shop brand director Jane Shepherdson: "They want to be able to buy the things celebrities are wearing or they want to be able to buy into the trends that they've seen from the catwalk as quickly as possible."

Top Shop's move towards fast fashion increased sales by 20% last year. The chain is part of the retail empire owned by billionaire Philip Green, which also includes BHS, Burton, Wallis, Evans, Dorothy Perkins and Mark One.

But Top Shop wasn't always so successful - or so quick off the mark. In the days of separate winter and summer collections, high-street retailers often had lead times of up to 18 months on their designs.

Swedish revolution

It was Swedish firm H&M which changed all that. It appointed young designers to make high fashion clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible. According to fashion journalist Hilary Alexander, H&M launched 'disposable fashion'.

"I'm not entirely convinced that that is such a good thing because some of the things in H&M are so cheap that literally you'd be lucky to get two or three wears out of it and then you'd chuck it away," Alexander says.

Spotting the threat to its business, Top Shop fought back and started to produce clothes much more quickly. Its masterstroke was to hire young and trendy designers like Hussein Chalayan to design clothes for the store.

But there was a second threat. A former dressing gown manufacturer, Amancio Ortega, was to transform the High Street with his formula for fast fashion and his chain, Zara.

Spanish nights

"We certainly knew about Zara and were extremely impressed by them. They're very quick to get designer-influenced products into their stores, so when we heard they were coming to the UK we knew it would be a big challenge for us," says Top Shop's Shepherdson.

The key to the Spanish company's success was a state-of-the-art headquarters with designers, factories and distribution centres all on site. While other retailers had moved production to the Far East to save money, Zara knew that it could make best selling clothes faster in Spain.

Changing stock frequently means customers come back to check what's new and that means added sales. The Zara shopper drops in 17 times a year, the High Street average is just four.

Zara's fast fashion model had so revolutionised the industry that Harvard Business School wrote a report on it. Struggling British retailers like Marks & Spencer and BHS studied the store's success and based their own recovery plans on Zara's model.

"I think Zara is a very, very sharp looking business," says Philip Green. "Everybody is trying to move more quickly I think they've actually got their own model, they've got their own production, they've got their own factories and if you develop that over 25 years as they've done, you're [going to be] brilliantly good at it."

Spinning around

With retailers copying the latest designer styles and celebrities like Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham and Liz Hurley popping into Zara and Top Shop to pick up a bargain, the fast fashion wheel has come full circle

"It's just got faster and faster, spinning not entirely out of control but certainly spinning at a rate that can make you dizzy," says Hilary Alexander. "If you want to be in fashion, you've got to stay in the race."

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 19 February 2003.


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