Fast Fashion, Rapid Romance
Fast fashion brands are experiencing a Monster-energy drink and hormone fuelled growth spurt. In fact, it’s almost unsettling how quickly they have grown. But if “cheap chic” was about making professional but trend-led workwear more accessible to all social groups, then “fast fashion” is about offering everyone the opportunity to be anyone they want for next-to-nothing. Shein, a Chinese mega-brand infamous for its direct catwalk-copies, reportedly adds 2000 new styles to its website every day. For perspective, it takes Zara (a European competitor) a full month to get through a similar amount of designs.
In the world of fast fashion, we are faced with infinite choices, all served up to us on-screen. Algorithms often dictate what is advertised to us, as well as what order products are displayed (and what sort of discounts are sent directly to our inboxes). It is on-demand, it is instant and, as a result, we expect these offerings to match our exact preferences. Dedicated effort is no longer required – we simply pull up what we want on the screen and are immediately rewarded with options.
Lucrative brand tie-ins between fast fashion companies like PrettyLittleThing or MissGuided, and reality TV shows like Love Island, got me to thinking about the parallels between screen-first romance and contemporary dressing. Has throwaway fashion met its perfect match in disposable dating? It’s worth noting that the technology that enables both of these phenomena, share features and functions that incentivise certain behaviours.
Firstly, they gamify the act of shopping for people and products. These gamification tactics exploit physiological triggers that release pleasurable (and slightly addictive) dopamine rushes. In fast fashion, techniques like sweepstakes and mega-discounting allow us to purchase lots of products for a small cost. Negative feelings and insecurities can be relieved, at least temporarily, by finding biological relief in the excitement of shopping.
‘Swipe Surges’ on Tinder function as ‘Flash Sales’. They promise a greater return on investment with the algorithm aligning you with people who are the most popular and appealing. Products in flash sales are showcased to optimise conversion rates: they match customer profiles and behaviour patterns with the stock they are most likely to buy to achieve maximum sell-through. In the same vein, the first image of an e-commerce product listing is A/B tested meaning that multiple thumbnails are trailed as cover images, and the most ‘successful’ one is established in order to maximize conversion. The same applies to dating profiles that will use analytics to determine what first photo results in the greatest number of affirmative swipes. The ultimate billboard for the self-brand.
Dating applications like Tinder and Bumble use mutual matching technology to spare users the humiliation of non-reciprocal admiration, and will only show you other profiles that profess to ‘like you back.’ This is arguably its best feature, but also one divorced from a reality in which romantic rejection is an inevitable and normal part of the dating game.
And, of course, both worlds are creating a false reality for those of us who browse them. The dating apps offer us a parade of profiles that suggest immediate accessibility, FaceTuned perfection, and a highlight reel of our wittiest biographical one-liners and most Instagrammable holidays. Echoing this, fast fashion brands reassure us that we can have a new wardrobe every quarter and that these outfits will transform us into the reality TV stars of our own lives with no downside. (The maimed garment workers? The toxic waterways? Well, as long as we don’t have to see them...)
The stakes feel low because they are. Lower product costs and free returns mean we can send back items we don’t want to keep for a rapid refund. In fact, consumer irresponsibility is built into the pricing model, so we never have to feel accountable for our actions. Similarly, the capacity to digitally vanish post-date makes us feel as though we don’t owe anyone anything, not even an explanation, never mind the kindness of courtesy. Fast fashion and online dating appeal to the same impulse: you buy into something whether it be clothing or human connection because it is there rather than because it is something meaningful.
The paradox of choice dictates that the more options we have, the more likely we are to experience decision paralysis. Sustained over longer periods, this lack of fulfilment develops into a feeling of disillusionment or even nihilism. Opting out doesn’t feel like an option anymore. This partially explains the cognitive dissonance of consumers buying from brands that are known to use slavery in the supply chain – even those who say they would like to consume more responsibly.
And, in the world of dating, this broad dissatisfaction contributes to a reality in which we are all that bit more disposable. Genuine connection feels unattainable, so why would we continue to believe in its possibility? Not having to commit to something makes us less able to commit to anything. Given the well-documented crisis of loneliness and social alienation, we are suffering the consequences of both business models’ built-in expendability. The inevitable fallout is that we treat our romantic relationships like £6.99 polyester crop tops instead of designer denim. Rather than altering them, or spending time to repair them, our first instinct is to throw them away. They become disposable and are discarded at the first sign of wear.
Finding a skilled seamstress is harder than ever and learning those skills ourselves feels too much like hard work. Technology has been cultivated to do it for us, but a lot more is at stake than we care to acknowledge. Perhaps it’s time we rolled up our sleeves and decided to try and do better – for the planet and for other people.