The Ins And Outs Of Fast Fashion’s Love Of Black Culture

It’s no secret that Black culture dictates what’s poppin’. While ideas are not always attributed to the creators who bore them, archivists and supporters across media and entertainment have made sure to cite Black influence and provide proper credit to the community. Black public figures have displayed their dominance across fields, particularly when it comes to style, and Black culture’s alignment with fashion brands adds a new mark to their innovation checklist.

To keep up with the mainstream, luxury fashion brands have worked with Black artists in order to appeal to consumer enthusiasm, tapping big names to bring in big bucks across several decades. In 2020, fast fashion brands — affordable apparel based on trends bought in stores and online — have not only utilized the same business model as major brands, but shifted the fashion industry’s power dynamics in the process. Influence no longer lies solely with lavish fashion houses, placing control in the hands of consumers more than ever before. However, fast fashion’s dominance comes with both positive and negative characteristics, especially when it comes to its relationship with Black community.

While fast fashion’s high-speed origins kicked off in the 1960s, the ’90s and early 2000s gave way to the takeover of retailers like Zara and H&M, providing consumers with near-replicas of high-end looks at a reasonable cost. In the internet age, social media makes it easier for fashion to be duplicated and sold in the blink of an eye, with online boutiques like Fashion Nova, PrettyLittleThing, and Boohoo providing affordable, trendy, and quickly-processed styles for men, women, and plus-sized consumers. Their prominence only seems to grow with time — currently, Zara has 41 million Instagram followers, H&M has 36 million, and Fashion Nova has more than 19 million.

How do fast fashion brands determine which public figures to work with? Especially in the social media era, online impact often translates to IRL-influence, and popularity is a quick and easy way to reach more consumers. In this day and age, that means garnering promotion by way of musicians, models, and influencers, and scavenging for intel into what is trending by way of social apps like Instagram and Twitter. Fast fashion brands tap in with Black superstars with universal appeal to cater to all potential buyers, but especially to pull in Black dollars. Per the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Black buying power could result in bringing in an estimated $1.46 trillion by 2021, and may see an increase of 5.4 percent by 2022.

H&M worked with Beyoncé for a beachwear collaboration in 2013, while online boutique Asos is one of the homes for her latest Adidas line, Ivy Park. R&B/hip-hop performer Teyana Taylor teamed up with PrettyLittleThing for brand campaigns and ambassador gigs in 2018 and 2019, while rapper Saweetie worked with the brand for two clothing collections. Cardi B famously released two Fashion Nova clothing collections in 2018 and 2019 — both of which sold out in minutes — and Megan Thee Stallion is reportedly working with the clothing company on a collection of jeans catered to tall women. These artists’ followings, personas, and style have contributed to their rises outside of their work, making them obvious collaborators.

“When something is hot and makes money, people want to… figure out how to do business and get down with it,” designer and stylist Misa Hylton told XXL in 2019. Her influential “hip hop glamorous” style was made famous during her time working with Lil Kim and Mary J. Blige in the 1990s, and the aesthetic appears to have made a comeback in the late 2010s.

Not only are fast fashion collections typically budget-friendly, but many of these stores also take all size ranges into consideration, something that luxury brands don’t always do. For instance, Forever 21, PrettyLittleThing, and Shein often have online sales ranging anywhere between 10 to 90 percent off for their products. Additionally, F21 and PLT carry styles for sizes up to 3X, while Shein accommodates 5XL individuals. Given these credentials, these companies are, far and by, more relatable to the average consumer.

This factor is certainly ironic considering hip-hop in particular runs on braggadocio, often featuring lyrics doting on the fabulous accoutrements of a wealthy lifestyle. From a music standpoint, that respect is shifting as well.

Per Genius, Fashion Nova has been shouted out on songs from spokesperson Cardi B, as well as Meek Mill, French Montana, and Young M.A., while Zara has been mentioned by 21 Savage, Roddy Ricch, and Lil Durk. However, many of the references to fast fashion brands in songs are tongue-in-cheek, often punctuated by bars about the clothing being more cost-efficient than designer duds like Gucci and Chanel, thus making it low class (and even embarrassing) to wear by rapper standards. (“This that Hermes money, this ain’t no Fashion Nova,” Meek raps in “Dangerous” from 2018.)

Cost-effective clothing certainly gives way to cheaper material. Even if rappers believe that fast-fashion is a low-status symbol, it also serves an environmental disservice. Per a 2019 report from the House of Common Environmental Audit Committee, a goal of fast fashion brands is to lower production costs by any means necessary. Although popular, fast fashion’s trendy styles are frequently produced quickly without taking sustainability into consideration.

Per Good On You, which provides expert insight on fashion brands’ sustainability rating, Fashion Nova, Boohoo, and Forever 21 have received “very poor” ratings when it comes to their environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare. However, the site notes that some fast fashion companies are working to become more environmentally conscious; H&M in particular is praised for their clothing recycling program, which allows customers to return clothing in-store in order to reduce the amount of textiles in landfills. However, the brand is chastised by Good On You for adhering to the unsustainable fast fashion business production model, which results in thousands of pieces of fabric being discarded.

On a deeper level, fast fashion brands have come under fire for utilizing and profiting off of aspects of Black culture, but not showing up to support causes important to the Black community.

Collin Karter, known as a stylist to Cardi B, spoke out on his client’s collaborator Fashion Nova for their radio silence regarding the heightened Black Lives Matter movement and calls for change after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in spring 2020.

“For you to be in my email begging for placements but have nothing to say when it comes to this matter is disgusting,” he wrote on Instagram. “You take from the culture and us brown men and [women] for your traffic and profit.” Similarly, beauty YouTuber Jackie Aina called out Fashion Nova and Revolve with her concerns, urging them to “do more” for the amplification of Black issues, especially with the amount of influence fast fashion brands have with consumers and the culture.

With this glaring discrepancy in mind, some brands have attempted to right their wrongs with the community that they owe a great chunk of their popularity and overall aesthetic to. Profits from Saweetie’s 2020 collaboration with PrettyLittleThing went directly to Black Lives Matter. H&M pledged to donate an allotment of $500,000 towards the NAACP, ACLU, and Color of Change. Nevertheless, their allyship can be seen as performative. Despite their vows to support Black and brown bodies, brands continue to be criticized for less-than-savory working conditions and business practices.

While it appears that fast fashion brands are doling out one-sided support of Black lives, there are a few solutions to make fast fashion more acceptable from a moral standpoint. This means pushing for more authentic representation on their websites. A gripe with fast fashion websites that many people carry is that the models appear to be racially-ambiguous or ethnically “exotic,” and that their features, deemed as desirable on light and fair-skinned women, are seen as “ugly” on women of color.

Morally-sound fast fashion business practices should also entail hiring more people of color behind-the-scenes, in order to facilitate stronger and more well-informed design, marketing, and labor decisions. These decisions would not only create sustainable change when it comes to how these companies are perceived socially, but environmentally and ethically. (Offshore manufacturing often relies on female workers in foreign countries, who are forced to accept terrible wages and labor laws in order to survive and provide for their families.)

While it’s easy to disavow luxury brands for tone-deaf fashion mistakes, let’s face it: some people just want to look cute for “the ‘gram,” and fast fashion provides quick and easy opportunities to do just that. However, It’s important for both consumers and artists — regardless of their race — to think about their priorities when buying from and working with not only fast fashion brands, but any business. It’s up to them to weigh all the negatives and positives, and decide whether they are compromising their principals with what they wear and support.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.