Save Local Retail
Martin B. Yambao (The Philippine Star) - October 24, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine retail landscape is growing at an unprecedented pace — owing much of 2014’s uptick to the unceasing surge of international High Street brands. A week ago today, hotly anticipated Swedish apparel giant H&M opened its flagship store to the Filipino public. Spanish brand Pull & Bear and London-born contemporary label Joseph are also slated to unveil their Manila stores in the coming weeks, joining the ranks of Uniqlo, Forever 21, and a myriad of existing High Street labels. With every new buzz-y market entry of fast and affordable fashion, Filipinos don’t double-take at opening day stakeouts and long queues. At drop-dead prices, the need for the fashion fix is real — and did I, or did I not, see you in line last Friday?

In analog to this High Street influx, with the establishment of Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and rumors of Zara Home, can we hazard to expect Ikea coming to our shores next? COS? Or (gasp) Target? Feats unimaginable in previous years, but in a shrinking world such as ours, not so much impossible today.

As market diversity grows and the target demographic widens, it’s only natural that consumers become more discerning with their purchases. In the face of international branding, cutting-edge design, and highly competitive pricing, why should I invest in homegrown if the “better” alternative is right across the galleria? Coupled with the focus of Filipino retail corporations shifting towards an international High Street slant, do we fully expect local retailers to stay afloat when they suffer a global disadvantage?

Filipino design is world class, don’t get it twisted. But with the current state of material innovation and product integrity offered by the big, bad global chain, the discrepancy between “us versus them” is glaring. More likely than not, sales can’t be looking good.

If the sign of a healthy market is the concentration of competition that promotes survival of the fittest, is the inability of local brands to compete a sign of the complete opposite? Is the market structure rigged or are our local counterparts flawed? Is the death of homegrown labels inevitable? Who’s to blame and to whom do we turn? Ready your pitchforks as Ystyle investigates.

Fashion for all, they said. But at what cost?

Honesty Hour

In which I ask myself: why do I hate local retail? The fact is, I really don’t — quite the opposite, I find myself trying to champion them. I enjoy their marketing campaigns, applaud their international endorsers, go to their events, and follow them on social media. The ultimate compliment, which is giving them space on my highly curated feed; likes for likes, duh. But do I ever really shop at these brands? Hardly.

Again you may ask, why do I hate local retail? It’s a mixed bag of reasons. Sit down because this might sting a little.

The product mix at your average down-market local chain retailer is largely unconvincing. And when I say down-market, I mean brands that are at par with H&M and Forever 21 in terms of both pricing and accessibility. In some cases, I wouldn’t deign to call it “throwaway” fashion. Things you wouldn’t even wear to see if they would go through the wringer. Some of the designs are either badly conceptualized, poorly fabricated, or simply put — they look like knock-offs of knock-offs; much like what you would find at most High Street brands. If you look hard enough, the pieces begin to tell a story: “cut corners, select from the factory’s existing catalogue, use bad fabrics, keep production costs low, make profits high.” There is simply the lack of any aspirational quality to the clothes; run-of-the-mill detritus.

Are celebrity campaigns enough to compensate for subpar product development? Should I settle for Made-in-China when I can go for Made-in-Turkey? As an arguably discerning consumer, should I take time to invest in either?

High-Street High Jinks

I would think twice, for now at least.

The facts seem simple: High Street retailers offer more affordable fashion. Full stop. The trickle down from the runways is faster, product lines are more developed, seasonal trends become more accessible, and basically, you’re buying into a globally recognized brand with a distinct point of view. Filipinos tend to love that, and who could blame them? Peso for peso, the product weighs heavier.

The maxim rings true; fashion for all. But at what cost? Even though fast fashion may seem like the end all and be all of ready-to-wear, it isn’t the sustainable option in a lot of avenues. The product cycle for most High Street labels is relentlessly fast. The cost in terms of human labor, natural resources, and product wastage is unsustainable. The exploitation of low-cost labor and taxation of the environment makes for both an economical and an ethical issue. How do you think companies arrive at P499 jeans? Definitely not at a safe labor and fair wage-supported factory.   

Global hegemony is not without a hidden price. And if we’re not careful, our market structure might succumb to its pitfalls — and who ends up biting the bullet first? Take a guess.   

Slow Fashion

The most obvious folly in our eyes, is this; local Filipino retailers, the bigger ones at least — be it Bench, Penshoppe, Folded & Hung, and what have you — seemingly try to espouse the fast fashion business model, as popularized by High Street pioneers such as Zara and Topshop.  The model relies on globalized, mass production based on off-shore, low-labor cost locations; from the design stages to the retail floor in only a few weeks. We shouldn’t choose to compete with nor copy these unsustainable business practices. When we do, our products lose integrity and we lose our edge to compete on the global scale.

In order to save local retail, the consumers, producers, and shareholders alike, should take a step back and really understand the big picture. Our priority is the product. Innovation without sacrificing the environment nor cutting costs and stunting the welfare of laborers in the supply chain. In a nutshell, we should keep production close to home.

Taking notes from the slow food movement, the industry should decelerate and work to capitalize on the resources of the Filipino people; which is creative tenacity and unrelenting ingenuity. From the sidelines, we’ve seen this manifest to great success in the past. Be it Mich Dulce’s millinery or Rajo Laurel’s designer denim for Bench, Rhett Eala for Plains and Prints, Martin Bautista for Cinderella, Robin Tomas for Penshoppe, Vania Romoff for Mosaic, Xernan Orticio for Ensembles, and the list goes on. During these collaborations, the focus shifts away from profit and sheer affordability, and redirects into design integrity and craftsmanship. The products are born of a specific point of view — something that is sorely lacking in our current retail landscape.

In order to survive the globalized crunch, the Filipino fashion industry should look inward and repurpose the cycle of production to sustain itself. As consumers, it’s our civic duty to support our local brands. As producers, we need to respect our discerning consumer with fully-realized product lines.

The deluge of High Street retailers is inevitable, and it rests on our captains of industry to navigate. It is not our goal to flounder nor is it to sink their ships, but to achieve a sustainable and peaceful economic co-existence that can create world-class products that achieve parity with the global arena.

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