The Scent of Glorious Reward
Rosie Findlay

The fashion industry today is a complex, governed by the laws of vulgarity, futility, waste and acceleration typical of fast fashion: this is how Rosie Findlay, professor at the University of Kent and author of research works in this area, describes the effects of an industry that commands: ‘Don't think, buy’.

Contemporary fashion is vulgar in the strictest sense: common, it is everywhere and for everyone. Fashion tangles in bins at Aldi, stocked between value packs of cat litter and off-brand cologne. It is available for next-day delivery on Amazon, where you can choose between an imitation of Patagonia’s deep-pile fleece jacket or several gym tops, each listed with their version of the world’s dullest prose poem to be more searchable: moisture wicking knock-out tank essential seamless yoga. Fashion looks at you from your phone as you scroll the feed and its purveyors silently collect your data, using it to assess what you will want to wear next before designing it for you.

A recent peruse on Amazon Fashion revealed the ‘Customers’ Most Loved’ edit, featuring ‘4+ star favourites with 500+ reviews’. The most bought items in the women’s category included black leggings, an hourglass bodysuit, a hoodie that is also a blanket, and two colours of Crocs. In the men’s category, the hot items were Calvin Klein briefs (black), also Crocs, several versions of slippers that look like Crocs if Crocs were soft and didn’t have holes, and lots of black t-shirts. Scrolling, I asked, like the lost hatchling in ‘Are You My Mother?’, is this fashion?

Over on Shein, the fast fashion company with the fastest-growing market share in the world, I found something in every possible style: a tiny puffer jacket with teddies on it, modelled by a smiling child; putty-coloured knit dresses priced from £1, high waisted leather trousers made of polyurethane, a tote bag sporting a cartoon love heart distinct enough from Comme des Garçons’ Play logo to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to connote the label’s impish cool.

"If fashion is an aesthetic response to a moment in time, then it is fast fashion companies that most clearly reveal our era’s acquisitive ethos."

albert oehlen

Albert Oehlen, Schuhe, 2008 © Photo: Jörg von Bruchhausen


Historically, Shein have been notoriously private about their business, but journalists have estimated that they add between 2000-6000 new products to their offering each day, joining the other 600,000 items for sale with an Extra 20% off, Buy 2 of them Get 1 of them 15% off. Shop Now! In 2021, a Canadian investigation into 38 samples from Shein’s childrenswear, maternity, and adult’s lines found that one in five items contained a higher level of chemicals than Canada deems safe for human contact. The company responded by removing the affected items from sale and stating their commitment to cease contracting certain suppliers until they had resolved the issue. Thirteen months later, Greenpeace Germany found hazardous chemicals that breached Europe’s regulations in 15% of the Shein clothes sampled. We find ourselves asking the same question as Elizabethan courtiers: how much lead is the correct amount for fashion?

For many, the suggestion that the clothes sold on Amazon or Shein might be categorised as fashion will be distasteful. That’s just stuff, the argument might go, destined for landfill after its short, plastic life. Mass produced, not made with artistry or care (for workers or garments), and certainly not belonging to the same ecosystem as gifted designers whose work offers commentary on what clothes can be and how they place us in conversation with culture. Yet if fashion is an aesthetic response to a moment in time, producing change for change’s sake, then it is fast fashion companies that most clearly reveal our era’s acquisitive ethos. Fashion draws desire, with pleasure in one hand and novelty in the other, over ordinary things. This process is enacted throughout its system, all the way to the most resourced luxury houses, who promise that a perfume holds the very essence of its long-deceased founder’s creative vitality. But it is plainest in fast fashion: the waste and the futility, the emphasis on now over later. The pleasure we derive from clothing is made to reside in the purchasing moment, not in the relationship that develops with a garment over years of living in it.

In a cultural field like fashion, different players compete for dominance, vying for common goals as guided by their specific commercial and artistic concerns. Whether a brand is in pursuit of cultural influence by appointing a creative director to reinvigorate the house codes (translating into profit and recognition) or the greatest market capture by selling the most units (which also translates into profit and a different kind of recognition), the bottom line remains the bottom line. Consider the unsold inventory of European luxury brands, destined for the incinerator rather than suffer the indignity of a markdown. Or the enormous sneakers sold by many of the major fashion houses over the past few years, swelling in new directions each season, all the better to be noticed on Instagram. Ours is an era in which clothes are frequently designed for the screen, the back often left plain because it is not intended to be visible in either the selling or the photographed wearing. These are clothes not for living in, but to be briefly worn before being discarded, either because they no longer feel trendy or because they have rapidly deteriorated beyond use. Fashion has sped up to such a degree that it seems to have lost coherence, like broken film zipping through a projector, images violently flashing and seizing before disappearing.

"Ours is an era in which clothes are frequently designed for the screen, the back often left plain because it is not intended to be visible in either the selling or the photographed wearing."

The tastelessness of the global fashion industry complex resides not in the trends it espouses but the ethos that organises it: maximum profit over any other concern. The opacity of global supply chains separate fashion brands and retailers from the extractive and exploitative practices of sweated garment production; the glamorous image of working in the fashion industry glosses over the precarity, low (or no) pay, and exploitation found in studios the world over. In a system where making sales is the dominant concern, we find clothes designed to withstand only a handful of washes before they’re unwearable but whose base materials take up to 200 years to decompose. We find mass produced, poorly made handbags sold for a small fortune because of the name on the label stitched inside. And we are inundated with an overwhelming, ceaseless flow of product, all alleged instant classics or must-haves, produced according to artificially distinct seasons that bear little correspondence to the rhythms of our lives. The message of contemporary fashion is, ‘don’t think – buy!’ We mustn’t, or can’t, afford the luxury of thought, or else we might never buy a piece of clothing again.