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Throwaway lines

New fashions have become so affordable, they're disposable

The turnover rate in Joanna Aven's wardrobe is so high that she constantly has a bag of clothing ready to cart off to a friend's house or to the Salvation Army.

Aven, 24, of Brookline, is a devotee of cheap-but-trendy stores like H&M and Forever 21. She said she must frequently clean out her closets to accommodate her ever-changing wardrobe.

''I'm always trying new styles, but I hate to spend excessive amounts of money on items I know I will only wear once or twice," she said. But if she's buying a $10 shirt at Forever 21, Aven said, she can afford to be impulsive and trendy as often as she wants -- and in two different colors.

Call it cheap chic or disposable clothing. Either way, it is changing the way people view their wardrobes. In a world increasingly cultured via the Internet and 24-hour cable, anyone can view the latest styles and trends from Fashion Week -- sometimes on the very same days as the buyers and fashion writers. Also, discount retailers such as Target, Old Navy, and H&M mass-produce fashion, often offering same-season knockoffs before the high-end merchandise even reaches the stores. The latest styles coupled with minimal investment have created a toss-and-replenish culture in which shoppers can load up on trendy pieces whenever the spirit moves them. But once the trend is spent, their bank accounts are not.

Cheap chic is not a new concept, but it's now more foolproof than ever, according to Aaron Keller, cofounder of Capsule, a brand development firm in Minneapolis. ''Low-cost retailers are no longer a season behind," he said. ''They're side by side with the designers."

Keller credits a combination of technology, overseas manufacturing, and the fierce competition that exists among discount retailers for faster production cycles and lower prices. ''For instance, China is getting smarter about quality and product. A lot of retailers have been tapping into these and other countries where labor is cheaper," he said.

As a result, innovative design isn't the competitive advantage it once was. Also, since low-cost retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart, H&M, and Old Navy have such a large presence, they have the financial capital to negotiate for increasingly better quality, he said.

In other words, knockoffs don't look like knockoffs anymore.

Today, a shopper can buy a Marc Jacobs velvet beaded shrug for $440 at Saks or go to Old Navy and pick up a similar version for $26.50. ''It may not be the most premium quality, but if it's a trendy piece that will be out of rotation in a few weeks, even the most moneyed shopper is going to choose the less expensive option," Keller said.

According to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor newsletter, 58 percent of women surveyed said they're more likely to shop the apparel department at Target today than they were two years ago, citing better styles and low prices.

''Target has really done a great job of bringing fashion to the masses and educating consumers about style and design," said Sean Brennan, a consumer behavior analyst with Design Continuum in West Newton.

Target was the first store to make high-end designers such as Isaac Mizrahi and Missoni more accessible by selling their specially designed ''for Target" clothing lines in stores nationwide. Since then, Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney have designed lines for H&M, and Nicole Miller for JCPenney. Wal-Mart, aiming for a trendier look, rolled out its Metro7 line in October that is geared toward 25- to 45-year-old women.

Brennan said that though the trend toward disposable fashion is influenced by more informed consumers and faster production cycles, it is also driven, to some degree, by celebrity culture.

''If Lindsay Lohan wears the same dress twice, she appears in Us Weekly under a headline 'Caught,' as if she were busted doing something illegal," he said.

Abigale Greenberg Levinson, a senior fashion market editor for Elle magazine, said that while red carpet obsession certainly plays a role, cheap chic is also about savvier shopping.

''Purchasing a disposable top frees people up to invest in pricier items like jeans, shoes, and handbags," Levinson said.

Lauren Perchard, 34, of South Boston said she buys more expensive staple pieces like jeans and shoes every season but purchases trendier items such as shirts and accessories at a whim at Target, H&M, Forever 21, and other low-cost stores.

''I tend to buy a new shirt for almost any event, and there is zero guilt involved because it's so inexpensive," she said. ''I get bored with things too quickly and am constantly dashing into a store for an impulse purchase before getting on the bus to go home and change for a night out," she said.

When you're spending $7.50 for a shirt, it often costs more to have it cleaned than it would to just buy another shirt, Perchard said.

And there is always another shirt.

Many of these retailers restock their shelves as frequently as supermarkets do, introducing new designs and styles daily as opposed to seasonally.

At H&M's Manhattan locations, the stores are replenished two, sometimes three times a day, said Lisa Sandberg, a spokesperson for the company. Their other stores have merchandise arriving daily or several days a week, depending on demand.

Sandberg said H&M's global infrastructure and in-house designers enable the company to react quickly to trends. At any given time, the company has about 600 million pieces of apparel in production.

''We need to really keep the choices fresh for our consumers. And that's really what our company is about: fast fashion," she said.

Gretchen Monahan, owner of high-fashion boutique Gretta Luxe, said the genius of H&M is that it actually designs clothes to be disposable. ''Their intention is that the clothing won't last for years and years, but they are the first retailer to offer clothing that is cut in a couture way and offer it for a great price," she said.

Monahan said ''disposable clothing is not meant to be a work of art like a vintage Chanel or Hermes piece," but it does offer a taste of high fashion.

''If you can buy a dress that is inspired by an original Valentino, that's really cool. It may lose its shape after a few wears, but it's still very cool," she said.

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