Korean efficiency behind fast fashion

Fast fashion has shrunk the fashion production cycle from three months to an unbelievable two weeks. New ideas are snapped up from the catwalk, interpreted and made into trendy clothes with a low price-tag, available in shops and online. Economists attribute the success of fast fashion to innovative large companies, but anthropologist Christina Moon maintains that the background to the phenomenon is cultural. Korean family businesses based in Los Angeles are now taking over the fashion world.

Christina Moon

Christina Moon.

Christina Moon is the director of the Master’s degree programme in Fashion Studies at the famous Parsons New School for Design in New York – which has fostered fashion designers such as Donna Karan and Tom Ford. She recently visited Lund to speak at Focus Asia’s symposium in April, where the theme for this year was Shopping Asia (see separate article).

Many students of art and design in the US are of Korean origin, which goes some way to explaining the fast fashion phenomenon, according to Christina Moon.

“They don’t apply for jobs with the major fashion houses in Paris, London or New York; they prefer to return to Los Angeles where their parents are part of a large colony of Korean immigrants who have been working in the garment industry for decades”.

Christina Moon has a Korean background herself. Together with photographer Lauren Lancaster, she has investigated fast fashion in a large neighbourhood in Los Angeles known as Jobber Market. Hundreds of Korean immigrants work here in small garment enterprises.

“For several decades, these companies produced basic garments. But during the 2000s, the fashion world changed. With the internet, television programmes such as Project Runway, etc., knowledge of fashion increased along with the desire for the latest thing”.

Jobber Market has been transformed into a central hub for fast fashion in both North and South America, where there is a large Korean diaspora. The range in this Los Angeles neighbourhood is enormous. Over 6000 immigrant-owned clothing brands display their trend pieces, shipped in from manufacturers in Asia. Major fast fashion chains and ordinary fashion retailers are daily clients.

“The global fashion industry is often described as a pyramid with innovation trickling down from the top. You hear about the flow, about ‘high tech’ and ‘high speed’. But technology is not the only thing to generate global connections”, said Christina Moon.

In fact fast fashion is about Korean immigrants with designer offspring who have come of age. The parents know the trade and have contacts with garment manufacturers in China and Vietnam. And their design graduate sons and daughters have an eye for trends, colours and cut as well as knowledge of western markets.

“Fast fashion garments are constructed in Los Angeles, sewn up in Asia, photographed on a white model and the images published online in a never-ending stream. The garments are not simple, soulless copies but often quite advanced pieces with elaborate detailing”, continued Christina Moon. That they can be produced so quickly and cheaply is due to the relatively closed Korean community, in her view. These close immigrant environments harbour not only the technical and creative skills but also the trust which enables the extreme efficiency required for fast fashion. The culture functions as oil in the machinery of contacts with manufacturers in Asia as well, she believes.

Fast fashion is criticised, both from a sustainability perspective and by designers who feel that they are being copied, although the fast fashion producers call it interpretation. Christina Moon does not take sides; her aim is to reveal the background, i.e. the role of the immigrants. She maintains the same position with regard to New York’s emergence as the fashion capital of the world. According to Moon, immigrants have had an enormous influence on New York’s creative and cultural development, rather than merely contributing as a labour force.

“Fast fashion is flourishing. Korean immigrant families in Jobber Market feel that they are living the American dream. But fast fashion did not come about without effort and it has taken a long time to prepare its path”, summarised Christina Moon.

Britta Collberg

The Shopping Asia Symposium, with the sub-heading The World Consumes Asia, Asia Consumes the World, was organised by ACE, the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University.

The symposium director was Solee Shin, a post doc researcher at ACE. She is a sociologist and studies consumption in Asia, in particular what is known as the retail revolution, i.e. the major department store chains and shopping centres emerging all over Asia.

“There has not been much research on this development; meanwhile, a lot of new technology helps department stores to keep track of demand and place their orders with manufacturers accordingly. The power of commerce has increased and we see a stronger link between commerce and producers, which affects how production is organised”, she said.

The conference was attended by researchers from Europe, the US and Asia, including Tsai-man Ho, one of few people who have studied the leading Asian production companies such as Li and Fung and Pao Chen, which produce garments for hundreds of western clothing brands.

Read also: A constant search for the latest thing