AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. At the recent fashion week in Paris alongside Valentino, Chloe and Chanel came a surprise - a runway show from the low price retailer H&M. The company is a purveyor of what's known as fast fashion. You may not know what that means but it almost certainly affects the way you shop and the clothes you buy. This week, we'll be exploring changes taking place in the fashion industry. And NPR's Jim Zarroli gets us started with fast fashion and how it has transformed the retail business.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When she got out of college and moved to New York, Elizabeth Cline liked to buy clothing at thrift stores. She loved finding a great old sweater at a cheap price. Then, she discovered chains like Forever 21 and it redefined her notion of bargain shopping.

ELIZABETH CLINE: You know, it's not something that anyone plans. It's just very easy. The products are very, very cheap, the design is pretty attractive. And if you walk into the store, I think for a lot of consumers, it's virtually impossible to walk out empty-handed.

ZARROLI: Before she knew it, Cline was shopping at places like Forever 21 and H&M all the time.

CLINE: I got to a place where just by shopping sort of casually and continually I had - you know, I counted it all. I suddenly had 354 items of clothing.

ZARROLI: Cline never even wore all of the clothes she bought but she says if you buy a $10 sweater, it may not even be worth the trouble of returning it. And Cline, author of "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," says that's part of the secret of fast fashion success. At H&M's store in Soho in New York City, another big shipment of clothes has arrived and employees are racing to get it on the shelves. H&M changes its merchandise all the time and the turnover keeps customers coming in.

Margareta van den Bosch is the chain's design director.

MARGARETA VAN DEN BOSCH: We want to surprise the customers. We want to have something exciting. And if all the time it's hanging the same things there, it is not so exciting, I think.

ZARROLI: The clothes that H&M sells are amazingly inexpensive, like a leopard skin print top for $10. But Elizabeth Cline says, they sell a lot of them.

CLINE: A store like H&M produces hundreds of millions of garments per year. They put a small markup on the clothes and earn their profit off selling an ocean of clothing.

ZARROLI: And the profits are staggering. The founder of H&M is now the world's 17th wealthiest man. The founder of another fast fashion chain, Zara, is number three. The success of these chains has upended the retail world.

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NARRATOR: Here the latest look from Paris, filmed in Paris, flattering new creations by (unintelligible) and other top Parisian (unintelligible).

ZARROLI: In the 1960s the fashion industry operated under a series of fixed relationships. People shopped at department stores, which bought their clothes from manufacturers. But Frank Bober, CEO of Stylesight, says by the 1980s, retailers learned they could manufacture their own clothes. Bober says Les Wexner, founder of The Limited, was one of the pioneers of this trend.

FRANK BOBER: He was the guy that recognized that, hey, I can do this myself. I can understand what my clients want, my customer wants, and then I can go make that for them. I don't need to go to a bunch of manufacturers to do that. I can do that. It was a paradigm shift, an earthquake.

ZARROLI: By cutting out the middleman retailers could control the manufacturing and distribution themselves. And with computer technology they were able to bring clothes to market much faster. Today, throughout the industry there is a relentless focus on speed. Chains like Zara are so fast, they can design and manufacture clothing and get it on store shelves in a month. Ed Filipowski runs a public relations company that represents fashion firms. He says, even high-end designers are feeling pressured to work a bit faster.

ED FILIPOWSKI: What that has done is made the industry move faster and work faster and have to produce more product. It's created a sort of year-round calendar for fashion, as opposed to a biannual calendar for fashion. It's made our job a lot harder. And it's made creativity a constant challenge.

ZARROLI: Meanwhile, customers are conditioned to expect a constant stream of new fashions. But to keep them buying, fast fashion has to be affordable. That means manufacturing in low-wage countries like China. But it also means using cheap synthetic materials. Simon Collins, who heads the Parsons School of Design at The New School, says, fast fashion has brought style to the masses but much of it is poorly made.

SIMON COLLINS: You see some products and it's just garbage. You sort of fold it up and you think, yeah, you're going to wear it Saturday night to your party and then it's literally going to fall apart.

ZARROLI: As a result, the term fast fashion has become something of a pejorative. And companies like H&M now reject the label altogether. H&M has also introduced a green clothing line. Author Elizabeth Cline says there's a growing public consensus that all of this clothing manufacturing is a huge waste of resources.

CLINE: Producing a single T-shirt requires 700 gallons of water. So, just from a resources perspective, the fashion industry can't continue to operate the way that it currently is.

ZARROLI: The fast fashion model may be cracking in other ways, too. Factory workers in China are demanding higher wages, forcing production into even lower-wage countries. But as the recent factory fires in Bangladesh so tragically showed, those countries often lack the infrastructure to become major manufacturing centers. Fashion companies will no doubt find a way to adapt but the days when clothing becomes ever cheaper are probably at an end. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

CORNISH: And tomorrow, more fast fashion. We'll hear about the reclusive billionaire behind Zara, Spain's fast fashion empire.

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