Working in fast fashion broke my heart - and convinced me that we never need to make anything new again

As Topshop’s former head of buying, Jenny Garcia witnessed the glory days of fast fashion

The height of high street: Anna Wintour, Sir Phillip Green and Kate Moss
The height of high street: Anna Wintour, Sir Phillip Green and Kate Moss Credit: Karwai Tang/WireImage

My first ever solo shopping trip involved a sleepover with my best friend. We were 11, it was 1986 and we were obsessed with Madonna. We stayed up until midnight planning the outfit, referencing my 400-plus posters for inspiration and settled on a bralet, white shirt, wide black sash belt, Lycra skirt, fingerless lace gloves… you get the picture. We only planned to hit one shop, Tammy Girl.

I was reminiscing about this recently and it got me thinking how different my children’s shopping experiences will be, and how my own experiences have changed over the years.

When I started my career over 20 years ago, the term Fast Fashion barely existed. I worked for Topshop, the leading fashion brand on the high street. We designed, bought, produced and sold the most wanted pieces, at accessible but sensible prices.

Cara Delevingne walking at the TopShop Unique show in 2014 Credit: Getty Images

Negotiations with suppliers felt fair, it was give and take. Margins were achievable, we made a profit and so did they. We were proud of the garments we produced, and the factories they were produced in. We travelled the globe seeking inspiration from remote flea markets, secret vintage dens, private collectors and cool kids on the streets. We sourced premium wools in Italy, exclusive hand-drawn prints in Paris, garments were made from wool, cotton, silk and leather. We were innovative, exciting, the number one go-to for a fashion-loving 16-year-old through to a 40-plus fashion editor. Topshop was the coolest brand in the world. Our flagship in the heart of London’s retail hub in Oxford Circus was the first port of call for any fashionista worth her Guccis; with over 200 new styles arriving every week, a daily visit was essential, or risk missing out on the latest must-have pieces at a fraction of what it would cost you on neighbouring Bond Street.

Every year we smashed our sales plans, the press loved us, our brand loyalty was at an all time high, as was our integrity. We worked crazy hours, every day was different, it was tough and extremely demanding but it was all doable. The parties were insane. Kate Moss worked for us, Jourdan and Cara walked for us. The buzz was incredible and we loved it.

Over time, more and more competition entered the high street and existing players upped their game – Primark became Primarni. Everyone looked to us for their inspiration so we had a maximum of six weeks’ exclusivity before our designs were on the shop floors of all our budget competitors, and so the spiral of speed began. Then of course Zara arrived determined to own a slice of the UK’s Fast Fashion pie. That changed everything. Owning their own factories and a vast global portfolio meant that their buying power was as huge as their pockets were deep. Fiercely competitive on price with lightning speed to market, they threatened everyone.

The whole high street slowly but surely started to unravel like a piece of cheap acrylic knitwear. It wasn’t just increased competition, footfall was dropping as the recession took hold, yet retailers felt they were somehow invincible, expanding too quickly and widely. Many British brands failed overseas, resulting in huge losses, wiping out UK profits.

Customers demanded quicker, faster, cheaper, and we gave it to them. The pressure was overwhelming, it was no longer a fun environment to work in, gone were the sourcing trips to Italy and the premium fabrics, polyester was now a go-to, wool coats were now made from the sweepings off the mill floor, it broke my heart every day.

When the Rana Plaza disaster happened in 2013 it was a huge wake-up call for the whole industry, and me personally. The demise of the product was heartbreaking, but this was people’s lives. Fashion was meant to be fun and frivolous not life and death. The stress levels, the unrealistic sales forecasts, lack of strategy and loss of brand identity started to form a grip so tight you could physically feel it. The fear was palpable. Sustainability targets seemed like a joke, what was remotely sustainable about any of this?

Jourdan Dunn walking at the TopShop Unique show in 2017 Credit: Getty Images

I was beyond uncomfortable by this point but Topshop was like a family, it was my second home, the girls I’d coached from entry level admin assistants were now senior buyers, women with children, my colleagues and friends.

I feared leaving them, but ultimately I knew it was wrong, the system was broken and there was no change on the horizon. So in 2018 I made the decision to leave, refuel and find a new way to enjoy fashion, one that would benefit my children’s future rather than damage it.

Now when I am sourcing preloved clothes for my own business, The Curatory, I am frequently amazed by the vast volume of unwanted clothes that already exist and wonder if, as a member of Extinction Rebellion said to me last year during a conversation on sustainability and the future of fashion, we really don’t ever need to produce another stitch of clothing.

However, during that same conversation I also learnt about a leather that is being grown using cellular agriculture. I feel positive that the advances in technology will enable us to continue to enjoy fashion. I feel positive that change is coming – after all who’d have thought two years ago that the second-hand clothing market is set to be worth $400  billion globally by 2022?

Shopping for vintage and second hand is nothing new, but it’s been rebranded and repackaged as preloved. It’s cool and aspirational. There’s no shortage of innovations when it comes to fashion and how we’ll shop in the future; made-to-order, pre-order, clothes swaps, rental, make your own and make do and mend.

I’m excited about it, I love the British high street and don’t want to see it wither away. Inside I am still that 11-year-old girl who is excited by fashion, the way it makes me feel, the patterns, the prints, the fabrics and silhouettes. The opportunity fashion gives me to reinvent myself on a daily basis, to find comfort, power and confidence in what I choose to wear. So as Dame Vivienne Westwood says, we need to “shop less and choose well”.

Find Jenny’s second-hand edit on Instagram @the.curatory

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