The end of a season is always a slightly odd time. A season in terms of the annual fashion cycle, that is. Spring might seem an awfully long way off for us at the moment, but the fashion world did Spring 2020 long ago. It’s a distant memory. Right now, the Autumn/Winter 2020 fashion weeks are well underway and we’ve already had a glimpse into the looks which will be unavoidable in nine months’ time. Yet at the same time retailers are desperately trying to flog the last of their stock from this season past, which we in turn first saw over a year ago. The seasonal collection system can risk making clothes feel remarkably old absurdly quickly, but then that’s also a marker of its success, at least from a commercial point of view.
So how, then, do the Net-a-Porter’s and Liberty’s of the world go about getting rid of these clothes that everyone already decided they didn’t want over a year ago? With SALES of course! Ever since Boxing Day we’ve been in the throes of the gradually escalating biannual sale frenzy, and it’s only just reaching its climax now. Things start off moderately: a 25% off here, a third off there. Not enough to convince someone who wasn’t already interested in an item, though. The beginnings of the sale period are for those who’ve been lusting after items that they can’t quite justify to themselves, but which were never truly out of the question. There’s no harm in that. To pay for 75% of the retail price of a garment is to recognise and appreciate its full value but to be unable to actually stump up the funds for it. And indeed, in many cases that retail price will have been so ludicrously expensive as to alienate all but a very select few buyers. For the majority of those who follow fashion, buying at any time other than in the sales is simply out of the question.
But it’s at this point in the season, when the winter coats on sale will probably see no more than a month’s wear (if we’re being optimistic about the weather) before being stowed away until October, that the discounts can get a bit silly. Lots of high-end retailers now have sales reaching up to 80% off. Eighty percent! Reductions like that can’t help but alter the attitude of the consumer. To pay for 20% of what a garment is supposedly worth is to view it in an entirely different light to the person who pays full price, or even 75%. No one who has spotted a piece they really desire will sit in wait for it to drop in price by that much before buying; if they would, then they were probably never interested in actually acquiring it in the first place.
Sure, luck might have it that an item you liked the look of but could never even consider buying might happen to be reduced by so much that it then became a feasible purchase, but that would be a chance event, a fluke resulting from your liking an item few others did. The overwhelming majority of people who buy something at 20% or 25% of its original price did not originally intend to buy it.
Enormous discounts risk devaluing a garment. They obscure the hours of work and preparation that went into it and the originality of its design, reducing the decision to purchase it to one based on momentary impulse. Of course, some clothes are simply not worth what they are retailed for, and their price does not accurately reflect the process of their manufacturing. These will inevitably go on sale, and in such cases the changes in the market will reflect their real value. But for many of the clothes sitting at 75% off the reason for that will be that not enough people liked them in the first place. The people who are tempted to buy by the magnitude of a discount do so more often than not because they view it as ‘taking a punt’. Huge reductions encourage the consumer to think ‘why not?’, to buy because they might as well or because they feel like they’re getting a good deal rather than because they really value whatever it is that they’re buying. Buying something you didn’t intend to because it’s on sale is not you getting a good deal, it’s you spending money on something you’re not actually sure you want.
It’s a damaging mindset: for the consumers themselves, who end up paying for things they might not actually want; for the designers and manufacturers, whose creations are devalued and whose efforts and artistry are cheapened along with the price; and for the planet, which suffers from every step of the process that goes into the making and the transportation of clothes which people don’t particularly want and certainly don’t need.
Of course, it’s impossible for designers and professional buyers to predict exactly which pieces will sell and which won’t. There will always be a surplus of items which can’t be shifted at full price or even with moderate discounts. In fact, a total aversion to allowing things to go on sale can be just as problematic an attitude; it’s just that outlook which meant that Burberry preferred to burn £28.6m worth of unsold clothes in 2017 rather than to allow them to sit on the rack for a reduced price and damage their brand image in doing so.
High-end sales are a good thing in that they make luxury fashion more accessible and more democratic. A preoccupation with exclusivity and with maintaining resource scarcity only alienates people. But this accessibility should manifest itself in people getting the chance to have things they really value but couldn’t otherwise afford, not in their buying on a whim, which does nothing but reinforce our already prevalent perception of clothes as largely disposable and of retail consumption as frivolous. Sales are and always will be an essential part of retail, but discount purchases are only justifiable if they’re for the right reasons. They should be an opportunity to buy things you already wanted but couldn’t before, yet they are all too often the playground of impulse.
This is why sales at the lower end of the fashion spectrum are the most troublesome of all. The fact is that almost any full-price item in a high-street shop or online fast fashion retailer is affordable, if not immediately then after a small period of saving. And anyway, we should have to save for our clothes or at least think hard before buying them if we are to truly value them in any sense. Paying £5 for a shirt that has a retail value of £20 is most likely not a result of its suddenly having become a feasible purchase, but of it having gone from a price you’d have to think twice about to one that can be viewed as risk-free. It’s wanton consumerism, and in the fast fashion model the collections are weekly, not biannual. The sales are constant, not something to look forward to. The clothes are disposable, not treasured. They’re so cheap that you’re tricked into feeling like you’d be losing money not buying them. The seasons might move fast in the world of runway fashion, but at least there are seasons.