Toby and I visited Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush recently, and as we were window shopping, we walked past River Island. In the window, there were some male mannequins wearing an array of t-shirts (presumably in early anticipation of the summer) covered in brown, navy and burnt orange stripes with white print accents. If I have made this sound palatable, then let me clarify – it wasn’t good. Toby agreed and made the observation that “perhaps I’m too old now for these shops”. I disagreed as I still find some nice things from time to time in River Island and H&M (where I picked up a simple light grey hoodie last week). But I see his point – youth-oriented high street clothing retailers sell abrasively trend-chasing clothes, whether that trend is good or bad.
In a way, I sympathise with the businesses. Their task is to take trends from the fashion magazines that young people read, absorb and aspire to emulate; make these trends interesting enough to stand out while palatable enough that the masses will buy them; create clothes abiding by these trends that are affordable to young people who have a small disposable income; and make enough money to keep their businesses prosperous, while creating clothes that are cheap enough that what doesn’t sell isn’t a huge loss, and can simply be disposed of in order to move onto the next season that is in keeping with previous trends and also incorporates the new season’s trends.
Except, by the time all of this has happened, focus-group testing has taken place, designs have been edited and re-edited, clothes have been made, budgets have been adjusted as necessary, clothes are sent to the shops and make it onto the shelves, the catwalk has meanwhile moved on 5 years. So what we see on the high-street is only dimly representative of current fashion. As one retailer finds a style or garment that is particularly successful or resonant with its target market, so the other retailers mimic this successful item and before you know it, everyone is stocking minor variations on the same thing, and there’s no room for variety – because why would you choose to stock an item that is less successful when you could mass-produce something that has already been proven to sell and doesn’t require a long creative process, but rather a small variation on an established design to make it “the brand’s own”?
Thus, we end up with identikit high-street clothing stores where the only thing that’s different is the name above the door. In “these times of recession”, I can’t blame the businesses. And you can hardly blame customers – they want to feel trendy and treat themselves to something new, but within a budget. Meanwhile, access to cutting-edge fashion that is closer to what we see on the catwalk and on luxury designers’ websites is completely out of reach to young people except for those who, frankly, were born rich and have money to spare. Particularly in the world of menswear, where shops are less daring and a far-too-large proportion of men feel that it demeans their masculinity to overtly care about the way that they look and thus look for something that strikes outside the box. For those of us who are young enough to want something a little bit different or edgy (where “edgy” is not defined by the high street), and yet old enough to have our own set of financial responsibilities (car, rent, food, utilities), we are caught within a catch-22 where we want what we can’t have, and what we can have, we don’t want.
What to do? Well, we can save our money and splash out on better-quality clothing less frequently (which is the approach I tend to adopt), or opt for classic pieces that have an interesting detail but still go with the majority of an already-established wardrobe. I find Zara in particular are a good high-street retailer for finding pieces that can be worn by a large age-range without either being too young or too aged; classic without being fusty. But because they rotate their stock so frequently, if you see something you like but you’re in two minds as to whether to purchase it then and there, you’re in a risky situation – leave it and come back when you have more money / a more decisive frame of mind, and the item might be gone; buy it then and there and then realise you shouldn’t have bought it a week later. You can’t rely on something you see in a shop one week being there the next – sure, it keeps things fresh, but it also makes one hesitant to consider a purchase fully. And again – who can blame the businesses? They want money now, not tomorrow!
Another option that is open to women and not to men (just as the selection in high street shops for women is much vaster – if not necessarily superior – to what men have to choose from) is a site such as Bag, Borrow or Steal. According to my Google research, a men’s version did once exist – but I’ll be damned if I locate it. I was first introduced to this concept through the Sex and the City movie. Classy, eh? But when Jennifer Hudson’s character talked about the site, my brain started ticking – what a good idea! Lo and behold, there are a couple of UK equivalents such as www.fashionhire.co.uk – but again, they only cater for women. I presume this is because the majority of men either do not care as much about fashion, or feel that they cannot look as if they care about fashion. Those of us that do want to be fashionable and have nice things either have to save up for a long time and then guard our coveted clothes and accessories so closely that they lose the fun they were supposed to make us feel in the first place, or pine after them in vain (unless you happen to be rich, in which case – lucky you!). In the meantime, we are caught in a catch-22 between the high street and the inaccessibility of the designer boutiques.