Qualifying aesthetic values in the experience economy: the role of independent fashion boutiques in curating slow fashion
Introduction Recent years have witnessed the growth of ‘slow fashion’. This movement has emerged as a challenge to ‘fast fashion’, a model of clothing production which is premised on bringing the latest styles to the consumer as quickly as possible and at low cost (Reinach 2005; Tokatli 2008). In order to reduce the price of clothes, production is typically located overseas in low wage countries. Recent media attention has highlighted the extreme costs of this model. In 2013, for example, 1,129 workers died and numerous others were injured with the collapse of a building that housed multiple garment manufacturers in Bangladesh (Liljas 2013; Wong 2013). The company was making clothes for a number of retailers, including the Canadian fast fashion label Joe Fresh. Despite campaigns and protests, Joe Fresh and many other international fashion retailers continue to manufacture fast fashion clothing. However, as the controversy surrounding fast fashion continues to grow, many designers, retailers and consumers are advocating an alternative model of ‘slow fashion’ (Clark 2008; Holt 2009; Wood 2008; Leslie et al. 2014). The slow fashion movement is observed in cities around the world, and is characterized by the growth of small independent boutiques. These boutiques differentiate themselves from mainstream fashion retailers by offering customers an alternative retail experience. Independent retailers are focused on the qualification and curation of fashion apparel and lifestyle amenities through the provision of customized service, deep supplier, labour and client relationships and an emphasis on locally produced, environmentally sustainable and ethically sourced goods. In this paper we contribute to the literature on the geography of the experience economy by exploring the role of small independent retail boutiques in qualifying slow fashion goods, and in carving out alternative relationships, experiences and spaces. We highlight a growing role for new actors in aesthetic economies and examine how independent fashion boutiques develop closer relationships with consumers (through education, special events and online activities). We argue that in fashion aesthetic value is especially important and that these values constantly are being contested by actors in a range of spaces (Hauge
and Power 2012). Space is both a site for staging experiences, but also a site of networking and negotiation in the assessment of quality. We examine the movement towards slow fashion in Toronto, Canada, focusing on the role of small independent retailers in curating slow fashion products. The fashion industry in Canada continues to grow and has adjusted to global shifts in fashion production. In Toronto, there are more than 25,645 designers, marking the city as having the third largest design workforce in North America (Design Industry Advisory Committee, n.d.). The city is also home to the second largest fashion week in North America (Key industry sectors, n.d.). The location quotient for the fashion industry in the city is 1.96, indicating a high degree of specialization in the sector (Labour force survey data, n.d.). Within the sector, there is a growing subset of independent designers and retailers. These actors have not received as much attention in the literature compared to their mainstream counterparts. However, independent retailers constitute an extremely dynamic and innovative sector of the fashion industry in Toronto. Our research draws on 69 interviews with independent retail owners, salespeople, fashion designers and government representatives. In this paper, we draw mainly on the interviews with fashion retailers located in a number of downtown neighbourhoods known for specialized style curation, personalized attention and creative retailing formats (such as Queen West and Dundas West). Interviews were conducted between 2007 and 2013.1 Interviews were one to two hours in length and were digitally recorded, transcribed and coded according to theme. In these interviews, we examine how customer focused experiences are integrated into retail strategies – from innovation and processes that aim to attract consumers, to the creation of place-based strategies that promote interaction amongst retailers, customers and neighbourhoods. We seek to understand the role of stores in qualifying aesthetic values (Entwistle 2009; Callon et al. 2002), and in presenting a mix of alternative retail experiences for consumers who are interested in local, ethical and community-based consumption experiences. Organized into two main sections, we first begin by examining the emergence of the experience economy, paying particular attention to the manner in which slow fashion continues to evolve into a cultural industry guided by aesthetics, symbolic meaning and complex global and local interactions. In the second section, we present our empirical case study. In particular, we explore the role that small independent fashion boutiques play in curating slow fashion products. We examine the close relationships they establish with customers, educating them about the benefits of slow fashion. This education takes place across a range of spaces, including the store and online spaces. With the rise of slow fashion, we see a growing role for a new generation of cultural mediators, such as small independent boutiques.