Aren’t you so over lockdown life? I am. After three months of “namastaying-inside” wearing my crop-top ensembles and glamming up on the weekends for Zoom drinks with my besties, I was more than ready to step outside last weekend. No, this isn’t something I made up: namastay-inside is a phrase recently coined by the fast fashion retailer Boohoo in order to sell more cheap garments to young women.
Boohoo, the online fast-fashion brand run by the billionaire Kamani family that also owns boohooMan, Pretty Little Thing and MissPap (among others) is so ubiquitous that it has become shorthand for a mythical person: the Boohoo babe who pouts down at us from billboards, promising that we too can look this good if we buy a £6 polyester bodycon dress made in a UK sweatshop where some workers can be paid as little as £3.50 an hour. The outfit of her mythical male counterpart mirrors hers in tightness: spray-on jeans and deep V-necked T-shirts that lovingly cradle his biceps and show off his waxed chest.
Legitimised by Kourtney Kardashian and anyone who has ever lasted more than a week in the Love Island villa, fast fashion has become an accessible and budget-friendly way for “normal” people to embody the aspirational lifestyles they see on their screens. With an average of 116 new garments uploaded to the Boohoo women’s site alone every day, this influencer-to-landfill pipeline is an affordable way for image-conscious young people to keep up with trends that move so fast they’re over before they even begin. The sell is working: Boohoo recently announced a £150m bonus payout for its executives.
Central to the fast-fashion epidemic is the promise of a more democratic world, one where we can all be a glossy-haired influencer if we buy cheap knockoffs of celebrity clothes immediately after their fit pics are uploaded to Instagram. You can almost guarantee that anything a member of the Kardashian clan wears, no matter how clearly hideous, will be copied and flipped by a fast-fashion retailer almost overnight and slapped with a promo code for free next-day delivery.
Faced with the prospect of people not shopping because they have nowhere to go, brands such as Boohoo pivoted to promoting a hyped-up version of self-care during lockdown. According to this logic, wearing a pair of jeans was basically a hate crime, but we should be dressing up in bodycon and heels twice a week for glitchy Zoom pub quizzes. Through powerful slogans such as “FYI: shopping is not cancelled!”, fast fashion retailers managed to reap returns during the lockdown, announcing “improved year-on-year growth of group sales during April”. As one Boohoo spokesperson told the BBC in late April: “People aren’t really buying going-out items, but they are buying homewear – hoodies, joggers, tracksuit bottoms. Sales of tops have gone up in particular, with everyone wanting to look smart on Zoom calls.”
But while fast fashion sales may have benefited from our isolation, the pandemic had the unintended consequence of exposing the fact that this industry can have a dark underside. To ensure that we all had access to cheap polyester tops and tie-dye tracksuits, staff at one factory that was reportedly making clothes destined for one of Boohoo’s brands kept working during the pandemic – even those who had tested positive for the virus. An investigation by the Sunday Times alleged that workers at a factory in Leicester making clothes for Boohoo’s Nasty Gal brand were still at work during the recent localised lockdown, with no additional hygiene or social distancing measures in place. In a recent statement, Boohoo said the factory in question was not one of its “declared suppliers and is also no longer trading as a garment manufacturer”. The retailer has said it is investigating the Leicester factory, and that it is “determined to drive up standards”.
Though exploitation is definitely not one of this season’s hot new looks, it may unfortunately be part of an industry that provided us with the £1 bikini. The upheavals of 2020 have contributed to an increased awareness of the inequalities at the heart of the systems that underpin our everyday lives, but without better regulation of the fast-fashion industry – such as the proposal for a fast-fashion tax that was rejected under Theresa May’s government – it seems doubtful that social awareness will translate into more ethical forms of consumption.
As the banner for Boohoo’s Pride 2020 collection reads: “Never have we been more united as a community, united by so much feeling … the feeling of love.” And what is love and community if not relying on some underpaid workers to work through a pandemic so that we can all own more disposable athleisure? The rights of some workers may be out, but puff-sleeved ruched bandeau dresses perfect for that socially distanced picnic date are most definitely in. Hope you had a great “Super Saturday”! Unless you happen to be working in a fast-fashion factory where life has continued as normal despite a global pandemic. In which case … here’s 25% off everything to make up for it.
• Niloufar Haidari is a freelance writer from London who has written for Vice, Vogue and Crack Magazine