What do Gwyneth Paltrow, the Olsen twins and Succession’s Shiv Roy have in common? Well, aside from being insanely wealthy and privileged, they all swear by the same straightforward, understated style codes. They’re purveyors of the quiet luxury aesthetic, eschewing clout-chasing trends, logos and loud colours for simple, timeless, well-made garments. Sound familiar? That’s probably because these adjectives also often come up when talking about sustainable fashion. Eat the rich, obviously, but – and bear with us – is there a chance that we could learn something from their approach to fashion?
This year, the conversation around quiet luxury has grown from a hushed whisper to a deafening shout. The theory is that the ultra-rich dress almost exclusively in timeless basics. Think: tailored blazers, fitted shirts and cashmere knits. This style of uniform dressing is, of course, nothing new. Brands like Jil Sander, The Row and Phoebe Philo’s Céline have been championing the minimalist millionaire aesthetic for years. But where once quiet luxury was the domain of Land Rover-driving mums and high-flying corporate lawyers (because, well, looking rich is expensive), its current spotlight appears to be luring in a different type of consumer – the type who might have once made weekly Boohoo orders.
“I’m going through the process of refining my wardrobe and shopping more sustainably with the goal of creating a more timeless and high value wardrobe,” says Taylor, 27, who’s been trying to shop more sustainably on and off since 2017. For her, the appeal of a classic, well-made wardrobe is twofold: wearing high quality clothes boosts her mood and self-confidence, while also curbing her spending on fast fashion items that fall apart after a few wears. “The drive for me [to cut back on fast fashion] was my frustration that the pieces I purchase don’t last.”
It’s not like fast fashion brands haven’t hopped on minimalist trends in the past. But as awareness of the industry’s damaging environmental and ethical consequences increases, the timing of quiet luxury’s moment in the spotlight might have the potential to help shoppers kick their fast fashion habit. Young people are increasingly critical of fast fashion, after all, even when they’re not willing to give it up altogether. A 2022 survey conducted by Sheffield Hallam University found that the majority of Gen Z want to cut down on fast fashion but continue to buy it anyway. As Taylor puts it, “the average consumer is becoming more aware of fast fashion, recognising that it’s not sustainable for their wallet or the planet.” If brands respond to this shift, she suggests that “the availability of affordable, high quality clothing could help democratise the quiet luxury trend.”
Emily, 26, started to feel “resentful towards fast fashion and guilty for buying stuff” after learning about the clothes mountain in Chile’s Atacama Desert. “Before then, I’d never given any thought to where thrown away clothes end up,” she admits. While her mum and grandmother had always tried to instil the importance of buying quality pieces that are made to last, she only recently started taking their advice. “I’m really fussy now about the quality of the stuff I buy,” she says. “Especially with the cost of living crisis, it’s important to buy as good quality as you can afford so there’s less chance of having to buy it again.”
Emily and Taylor’s shift in spending habits appears to be reflected within the wider industry, too. Last year, the share price of both Asos and Boohoo, which owns Nasty Gal and Pretty Little Thing, fell by over 70 per cent, while Shein’s value had reportedly fallen 30 per cent from its $100 billion peak. Quiet luxury can’t necessarily take the credit, though. Amidst a cost of living crisis, these figures are more likely a reflection of the fact everyone’s skint.
Elizabeth L. Cline, author of The Conscious Closet, is sceptical about quiet luxury’s ability to make any lasting difference to the fast fashion industry. “There are many people who already participate in slow fashion and have for years, but this doesn’t add up to a wholesale shift in how most people shop,” she says. “The way that fashion functions is that once trends become mainstream and a look becomes saturated, the aesthetic has to shift for companies to make money and for those who set trends to remain the arbiters of taste.”
In her mind, the quiet luxury trend is less about mindful spending and more of a reaction against the hardcore glamour of recent trends. “The post-pandemic aesthetic was very maximalist and really focused on very loud colours and prints. It all reached a peak and quiet luxury is an aesthetic correction, a palate cleanser, if you will.” The opposite of quiet luxury isn’t fast fashion, but loud luxury – ludicrously capacious bags, monograms, viral cartoonish boots, that kind of thing.
But even if quiet luxury did represent a shift away from fast fashion, the trend itself still reveals a troubling idolisation of the ultra-rich, whose wealth often comes from industries responsible for poisoning the planet and creating social inequality. “The corporate luxury industry profits off encouraging people to indulge in competitive consumption,” says Cline. “Good quality clothing can still be manufactured in highly polluting and exploitative ways.”
Quiet luxury, then, is simply another form of conspicuous consumption, rooted in the idea that owning the right pieces and looking a certain way will improve your status in the world. It’s exactly the same mindset that fuels fast fashion and microtrends.
Besides, wealthy people are not a monolith. Some still shop fast fashion even when they can afford not to. Influencers such as Molly-Mae Hague have been flogging their own bargain version of quiet luxury in versatile beige and grey basics for years. A quick glance at her Instagram will render a mass of affordable blazers, tailored coats and shirts in soft, neutral tones.
Sure, Hague flashes her collection of Chanel handbags and Louis Vuitton luggage, but the Love Island star is inextricably tied to fast fashion as the creative director of Pretty Little Thing. Scrolling through the brand’s website, you’ll find quiet luxury-esque business attire, long trench coats and turtlenecks, often modelled by Hague herself. At its core, quiet luxury is another aesthetic to be consumed – at any price tag. If you’re only after the look, fast fashion can provide it.
Now, we’re not suggesting you go around checking the tags on people’s clothes to see where they got them from. Quiet luxury can easily veer into snobbery, while criticisms of fast fashion are in danger of perpetuating classism. But poorer consumers are not the ones fuelling the Shein haul industrial complex. Building a versatile capsule wardrobe, even if it comes from a fast fashion brand, is still better than buying a trendy new outfit every weekend.
There’s too much onus on the average consumer to solve the issues surrounding fast fashion, when we should be looking to wealthy owners of corporations who have the power and resources to make the change. For the most part, the ultra-rich themselves don’t wear quiet luxury because they care about sustainability. They can simply afford to wear absurdly expensive clothes because they are absurdly wealthy.
Ultimately, the demise of fast fashion will require a mindset shift rather than another new trend or aesthetic. “Social movements can absolutely start with people on social media who love fashion, elevating the principles of slow fashion through quiet luxury or other minimalist looks,” Cline says. “But in terms of what it will take to dismantle fast fashion, that would require a lot of changes, including environmental regulations that correctly price natural resources and pollution, mandates for fair wages and human rights, along with supply chain and social movements where citizens refuse to participate in buying clothing from companies that pay poverty wages and destroy our environment just to make more money.”
Education and policy change might not make for digestible TikTok hashtags, but they’re both necessary to truly disrupt the fast fashion industry. While quiet luxury prides itself on hushed tones, raising awareness about fast fashion should be shouted louder than Logan Roy’s withering takedowns. So, wear your soft knits, iron your blazers, invest in a good coat. When the revolution comes, we won’t be wearing Pretty Little Thing. But we won’t be wearing £1,220 turtlenecks à la Paltrow either.