‘Fast fashion’ brands from Zara to H&M appear to have had a good year in Asia, with their rise up the Top 1000 Brands chart indicating growing positive consumer sentiment.
Zara has now reached 52nd place in the Top 1000 and H&M has climbed to 65th, both significant rises on their positions in 2017.
Uniqlo was another brand leaping up the charts, landing in 38th position. The Japanese brand, which has made Asia a focus point for growth, will open its 15th global flagship store in Manila in the Philippines this autumn, set to be the largest in Southeast Asia. Another store pending for Delhi in autumn next year will be Uniqlo’s first shop in India.
Levi’s, too, made gains, ending up this year in 45th place. The denim giant has recently consolidated its operations in Southeast Asia with those in the Middle East and North Africa and Levi’s overall revenue in 2017 increased by eight percent over the year before.
“What these brands have managed to do — and they could have been doing it a lot better — is make themselves iconic,” comments Jerry Clode, head of digital and social insight at Resonance China. Clode says he has seen each of these four fashion houses start to leverage their iconic brand assets in their communications in order to boost their style credentials, meaning consumers — particularly millennials and generation Z — are embracing their clothes as standout ‘pieces’ in the same way they might do the same with a luxury item.
Another factor playing into the rise of fast fashion brands is the fragmentation of accessible prestige clothing in Asia, continues Clode, and the rise of the ‘athleisure’ movement. “People have overall started to dress down in China, so in terms of this idea of prestige conveyed by luxury, that has weakened substantially.” It is now common, he says, to attend business meetings in China in which young men will wear North Face jackets as a style statement, whereas five years ago they would have been more likely to ‘badge up’ their outfits with a more established premium brand.
New, ‘street luxury’ labels like Off White, an Italian label founded in 2012, are also soaring in popularity, points out Elisa Harca, co-founder and regional director, Asia, at Red Ant. “[Generation Z consumers] are definitely seeking out the new. They really like the new, they always want to know what is the new thing, the cool thing, the different thing. They are living in the moment and looking for things that resonate with them.”
Off-White's 'En plein air' pre-collection for SS19
This desire indicates a growing style confidence among young people in Asia, which is leading to a greater propensity to ‘mix and match’ premium and non-premium brands, Harca continues. In her experience generation Z audiences, particularly in China, tend to want to spend their disposable income on products that come from both ends of the pricing and quality spectrum.
“They still do have aspirations to buy products that are maybe higher quality and a higher price point but mixed with those other pieces,” Harca says. “In China there used to be the bottom end, the really crappy cheap stuff, and then the top end, but now we're seeing what we call the hourglass effect. The brands that are going for the affordable but quality side of things are paving the way. So the Mango, Zara level, these are seen as being good quality but an affordable price.”
Brands like Zara and H&M have always been good at keeping things relevant, she says. Zara recently gave hints at its future strategic direction with the opening of a new store in London that dedicates an entire section to ‘online’. Here customers can collect online purchases, pay for items using automated checkouts and use interactive mirrors to virtually ‘try on’ outfits.
H&M, meanwhile, has had success with brand collaborations, says Harca: “When they launched their Tmall [in March] earlier this year, they launched with a really big bang, a huge 360 degree campaign working with celebrities and traditional KOL influencers.”
“H&M are very conscious of how to build out the iconic nature of their brand rather than being what's known as transactional fast fashion,” agrees Clode. “People are noticing that.”
If the more traditional luxury brands such as Chanel and Calvin Klein appear to have slipped down the Top 1000 brands list this year (albeit only slightly), this certainly isn’t a sign that their place is being taken by the savvy fast fashion players, agree both Clode and Harca.
Gucci, in particular, is a luxury brand that’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity among teenagers following a major aesthetic shift led by creative director Alessandro Michele, who joined the company in 2015, replacing Frida Giannini.
Michele’s style revamp includes incorporating digital culture into clothing. In the brand’s #TFWGucci (standing for That Feeling When Gucci) campaign that launched a new watch collection, for example, Gucci had international artists create images that they delivered to famous internet content creators to turn into memes. Parent group Kering has reported sales growth of 37% in the first quarter of 2018, exceeding expectations by 14%.
“What I hear in the industry... is that their new rebellion strategy has really shaken things up, made it much more relevant to the younger generation and that it has had a really positive impact on sales,” says Harca. “Everyone talks about it as Gucci's marketing and creative revolution.”
Despite the fast fashion brands’ apparent success, both Clode and Harca foresee challenges on the horizon. For Clode, staying relevant will be key to beating their online-only competitors. “These platforms will actually create a kind of shift in that whole category dynamic so brands like Zara and Levi’s are going to have to create partnerships and be able to position themselves as co-brands, or think about premium luxury platforms as a kind of co-branded space,” he says.
For Harca, the fast fashion brands are more likely to run into difficulties around consumer sustainability concerns. “Increasingly, the pressure around the sustainable message is hitting all fast fashion. I think that's where the luxury brands have a bit of an advantage because they take longer to produce collections and there are fewer pieces, so there’s an assumption that there's less waste. It's not always the case... but within the fast fashion realm it’s almost like the issue with Mcdonald’s - we automatically assume its bad for us because it is fast food. Similarly with fast fashion we automatically assume it's the biggest polluter because of all the bad reputation that it gets but there are a lot of brands out there who have already put in sustainability policies and are looking at how they reduce waste, which is encouraging.”