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Lithium How TikTok makes fast fashion faster

Jan. 12, 2022
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Early this spring, fueled by the riches of a recent paycheck and the exhilaration (fear) of finals week, I purchased the dress. No, I’m not talking about that dress, although I have strong feelings about the fact that it was white and gold. I’m talking about a different viral garment, one nearly synonymous with the modern Pinterest girl and resplendent in green swirls. I’m talking about the House of Sunny Hockney dress

You might think I’m being a bit dramatic, but there was a time when you couldn’t open any social media platform without being bombarded with photos of the Hockney dress—in exotic locales, paired with a shoulder bag on the streets of New York, even on Kendall Jenner with an impractically large straw hat. Vogue likened owning the dress to being part of a cult. Unfortunately, that period of trendiness had passed by the time I actually received the dress; TikTok, Pinterest, and even the millennial-infested waters of Instagram had moved on to the next viral item. And, as if I needed another reminder of my emergent cheuginess, the dress didn’t even fit. 

Although House of Sunny isn’t technically a fast fashion brand, the meteoric rise and fall of The Dress exemplifies a “microtrend,” just one symptom of the rapidly accelerating trend cycle. Mandy Lee, the articulate and stylish mastermind behind the TikTok account @oldloserinbrooklyn—she wore vintage Pucci to our Zoom interview—popularized the use of “microtrend” on the platform. In her videos, she uses the term to describe singular items of clothing that go in and out of style quickly without affecting the baseline of what’s considered fashionable. Other examples include the hibiscus-printed O’Mighty dress that arguably launched the coconut girl aesthetic into existence and another House of Sunny item, the Day Tripper cardigan, which features waves of color reminiscent of a surrealist landscape painting. 

Again, although these House of Sunny items were constructed per the brand’s sustainability standards, their status as viral microtrends made them a target of imitation by fast fashion companies. Vendors on Etsy, AliExpress, and Amazon, as well as countless drop-shipping “boutiques,” now sell stolen designs such as the Hockney dress under names like “Sexy Halter Neck Bodycon Dress for Women Y2K Knitted Midi Dress,” without the promise or price tag of sustainability. As these items disappear from the outfit posts of influencers, so does the widespread desire to wear them or their dupes; this process can begin even before dupes are being produced. Not only do fast fashion copycats disrespect the artistic property of other designers, they saturate a market that is already drooping with cheaply made reproductions, ultimately contributing to the growing pile of clothing headed toward the landfill. 

The reason that microtrends are so short-lived is due to the acceleration of something called the trend cycle. Lee, who works as a forecast analyst, says that the typical trend cycle consists of five stages: introduction, rise, acceptance, decline, and obsolescence. According to conventional fashion industry knowledge, this cycle used to last twenty years; however, with the rise of social media, its algorithmic segmentation of taste, and its uncanny ability to saturate every nook of your internet niche with the newest essential item, the duration of the trend cycle has drastically diminished. Even microtrends used to last up to three to five years, but now enjoy mere months or even weeks of must-have status. “It’s the same cycle,” says Lee. “It's the same bell curve, but it’s squished.”

Social media platforms, especially TikTok, are the perfect vehicle for trend cycle acceleration because the short-form nature of the content allows for rapid and indiscriminate consumption. Lee also points to influencer marketing as an accelerating force. She explains how brands have had to pivot their marketing strategies away from in-person tactics during the pandemic: “They send out a piece that they want to promote, and in exchange for gifting, or sometimes for paid promos, the person on the receiving end will have a very short window of time to post... It’s sometimes hard to track the return on investment, but you can definitely notice it on your Explore page: where is this yellow leather fur-trimmed set coming from that’s here for a week and then never seen again?” Essentially, brands use the trend-setting status of influencers to their advantage. And, because brands send out PR packages in one big push, the items often become microtrends, appearing everywhere all at once and then disappearing once content creators have a few solid pics. 

Specific genres of TikTok videos also contribute to unsustainable practices. Many TikTok For You pages are saturated with hauls featuring several hundred dollars worth of clothing from fast fashion giants such as Shein, Zara, Princess Polly, and Amazon. The popularity of these videos is indicative of a larger problem of normalized overconsumption. Even in the past year and a half of lockdown, with nobody to see my outfits in person, online shopping addiction has wreaked havoc on my closet, and I know I’m not the only one who has a New Yorker tote bag of un-returned mistakes under my bed. “I just boil them down to [the fact that] they’re glamorizing overconsumption,” says Lee. “It's not normal to spend $900 on Shein clothes. You don't need a hundred pieces of clothing at one time. I could say the same thing for giant thrift hauls, too. I would way rather see people buy from the thrift and save articles of clothing from going to the landfill, but it's overconsumption that is the real concern here.” The problem is not where people shop from, but the intentionality and lasting power of their purchases. Her advice for combating these trends? Ignore them. Watching or commenting, even negatively, on mega-haul content rewards its creators with engagement. 

Despite its many pitfalls, Lee believes that vilifying fast fashion is unproductive. For one, it would be classist to assume that everybody can afford to give up the accessibility, size inclusivity, and low prices that fast fashion brands offer. She also makes an effort to talk about trends in a positive, uplifting way, pointing toward burgeoning popularity of judgmental “Trends I Hate” videos as another accelerating factor. These videos influence consumption habits in the same way that microtrends do, creating a very narrow scope of what is cool or trendy and what is “over.” Most of these TikToks don’t offer alternatives for items they deem uncool, driving consumers back to influencers for guidance. Lee insists that there is a way to both participate in trends and mediate your personal consumption. She notes, “It's totally okay to want to buy into trends, but you can do it in a way that will serve you more longevity. Buying an entire wardrobe of crochet dresses probably isn't the way to do that, but maybe buying one crocheted coverup that you can layer for multiple seasons is. Thinking about versatility and longevity will go so far when people are shopping trends.”

If the Hockney dress and Lee have taught me anything, it’s that the ebb and flow of social media trends have real consequences. It’s not “just TikTok.” It’s a capitalist powerhouse with the capacity to decide what will sell, from music to home decor to clothing to apple juice bottles to flower-shaped soap dispensers. As Lee says in one of her viral videos, “It’s important that we as consumers understand that increased trend turnover is fast fashion and capitalism’s dream state. More consumption equals more cash in their pockets and more power over consumers.” If we want to emerge from this pandemic as conscious, empowered consumers, we need to invest in developing personal styles that do not rely on TikTok’s approval, in inspiration over imitation. Hot Girl Summer is waiting, and she is already sick of the color green.