Oscar Wilde famously once said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” We explore what happens to garments when the interest dies.
In the fashion world, there’s a very fine line between capitalizing on nostalgia and realizing that as a shop owner, brand consigliere or consumer that a trend isn’t gaining a sartorial patina, but rather is D.O.W. (dead on wearer). Fads are a mile marker of sorts – realized in old pictures and unearthed from dusty trunks that invokes thoughts like “how could I wear that?!” With each passing season it becomes clearer and clearer that we look to the past for inspiration, but we don’t necessarily want to bring everything along for the ride. Fashion is a moving target – both from the perspective of those delivering it and those who consume it – with those behind the curtain constantly aware that they’re charged with delivering needle-prick bullseyes, and customers gleefully conscious to avoid acting as if lambs to the slaughter. For every Ralph Lauren (which was founded in 1967), there’s a defunct brand that captured the spotlight for a fleeting moment before disappearing – yet was a large enough movement that it still registered on a cultural level. Just like a one-hit wonder in music, fashion has its rhinestone equivalent. But what exactly happens to the clothing from a brand when it is deemed “unsellable?”
Major retailers have several options when it comes to ridding themselves of clothes that have missed the mark. Steve Sais, who has over 20 years of experience as a sales manager explains, “The first two weeks of receiving merchandise are key to retailers as usually they will know what SKUs (stock keeping units) are selling. By the third week if something is not selling it’s a good indication that it won’t. Depending how fast the other SKUs of the same brand are selling they may hold that slow seller for about 30 to 40 days before they put in on sale.” He continues, “After 30 days it will go on sale 25% off. The next week it will go to 50% off then down from that until it gets to $1.” Sais makes it clear that under no circumstance are clothes “given away.” “The only hope the underprivileged have is the kindness of certain humanitarians, whomever they maybe.” Unfortunately, there is a dark side when it comes to unwanted items.
In speaking about major alternatives to drastically cut-down prices, Daily Finance assets, “They can either destroy them in industrial-sized shredders and/or dump them in a landfill.” Luis Jimenez, the executive director of the New York Clothing Bank, says of the choice, “Much to the dismay of environmentalists and charities, letting unsold clothes end up in a landfill is the method of choice. By doing so, retailers and fashion designers believe they will keep unwanted merchandise from flooding the market and protect their brand by preventing their clothes from ending up on, say, a homeless person.” By some estimates, only about 15 percent of discarded clothing is recycled or reused, whether by individual or industry.
Barmak Badaei, an apparel brand architect, expands on the notion further. “Most big chain retailers that are very vertical (like Gap, J. Crew, etc.), with capable planning, are able to move most of their inventory through their stores. Yes, from time to time, retailers get stuck with dead stock and will have to find a way to liquidate. Most that need to do so, try to hide it by closing out to foreign countries. Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe, etc.” Tanzanians and Kenyans call used clothing mitumba, which means “bales,” as it comes off the cargo ships in the shrink-wrapped cubes. According to Slate, by some estimates “used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume.”
India is an exception. They have in fact banned the import of used clothing unless it has “mutilated” – as they see a value in the raw material and the ability to use it as a means to give their own residents jobs as artisans rather than merely sorters.
While retailers seem to be at ease operating at a loss in certain instances, those that see one man’s trash as their own personal treasure are making a fortune. Simply put, they’re neither laughing at defunct brand nor laughing with them – they’re simply laughing all the way to the bank. Daily Finance continues, “Trans-Americas, a for-profit textile recycling business, receives damaged clothes from charitable organizations like the Salvation Army and Goodwill and sells them to developing countries or turns them into rags. Businesses like this process 2.5 billion pounds of clothes a year.” At around 25-50 cents a pound, there’s literally tons of profit to be made. Without textile recyclers, charities simply wouldn’t be able to handle the inordinate amount of garments that people have deemed to be unwearable. The UN estimates that the global used clothing trade generates about $1 billion annually.
While foreign countries are a viable option, that isn’t the only play. “You would be surprised that it is very easy to close out inventory right here in the U.S. without anyone noticing,” says Badaei. “If you really think what and who greater America consist off, you realize that in our own country, we have mini-foreign countries – states and cities that most people don’t know a thing about.” It’s easy to assume a trend has passed when one’s only point of reference comes from big, urban centers. According to Slate, “Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes.” Thus, we must look to smaller markets to understand where products like Ed Hardy, Affliction and True Religion end up. “There will always be a huge market for ugly clothes that fit bad,” says Badaei.
The rise of unsellable items can be directly attributed to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion” – where as upscale catwalk trends are quickly and cheaply mimicked to allow the mainstream consumer a chance at bespoke stylings at a much lower price. In turn, more and more pieces are being produced that don’t necessarily have timeless qualities. Even though charities have insisted that they would be willing to cut off tags and remove emblems as to appease brands with upscale appeal, news regarding the death of products rather than their salvation continue to be of topical importance. When Vancouver-based brand Lululemon realized they had made a manufacturing error with their ever-popular yoga pants, they’re faced a 17 million dollar conundrum. What would they do with a pair of pants that was essentially see-through? At the time, CEO Christine Day said Lululemon was keeping all of the affected apparel to see if it could be salvaged. “There actually might be some treatment solutions that we are investigating that could actually solve some of the problems.” But if one were to read between the lines, it was wildly assumed that “salvaged” merely meant “discarded.” In what can only be described as a sartorial twist of fate, the very same pants made it back to stores in November with an extra layer of fabric sewn onto the back and added strips of see-through mesh along the legs. Dubbed “second chance pants,” they were sold slightly marked down from $98 USD to $92 USD. It seems in the world of fashion, products that are deemed “terminal” can make a comeback.