If Paris is a moveable feast, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, the image that has been sticking in my mind after a recent trip to the City of Light is of the long line of people I noticed practically salivating while waiting to get inside the Uniqlo outlet in the Marais district. In one of the world's most beautiful and fashionable neighbourhoods, the main attraction now seems to be a Japanese fast-fashion retailer whose clothes are becoming as ubiquitous on the streets of Paris as on those of Tokyo.
The Marais, as with all the other retail destinations in the French capital, has been invaded by the same global chains that have made the shopping streets of the world's great cities all start to look the same. In the main shopping districts of Paris, Madrid, London or Toronto, it seems you are never out of eyeshot of a Zara or H&M, if not several of them at once. While it's just getting started in Canada, Uniqlo has hung out its shingle in Europe for a while now. Next month, it will even open its first store in Spain – a market dominated by Zara's homegrown parent, Inditex – on Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia. It sits kitty corner to, you guessed it, a giant Zara and H&M.
The cheap-chic revolution has brought affordable fashion to the masses and, thanks to better monitoring of offshore factories, provided millions of decent jobs in developing countries. It also has its downsides. Massive amounts of "disposable" clothing end up in landfills each year. When clothes are this cheap, we don't think twice about chucking what we bought last month for something even trendier. Instead of four fashion seasons, we now have at least 12.
Worst of all, the fast-fashion industry has come to resemble the fast-food industry. A few big global chains have now squeezed out most local purveyors of French fries and fashion alike. It's bad enough that the Golden Arches of McDonald's, followed by the KFC and Starbucks logos, have overwhelmed the streetscapes of cities we once considered quaint or exotic. A handful of retail chains led by Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and Primark are now taking over every major shopping artery in the world, destroying the visual identities of cities we once visited for their unique charm.
If there is one consolation, it is that, for once, the Americans have been beaten at their own game. Once hip U.S. chains such as the Gap and J. Crew have been outplayed by Inditex, Swedish-based H&M and Uniqlo. There is an upside to everything, I guess.
Still, stand in any major retail intersection these days and it's almost impossible to tell what city or country you're in. Yes, if you look up high enough, you might notice the distinctive architecture of London or Paris. And there are still local department stores to remind you you're in Madrid and not Manchester. But the logos of El Corte Ingles in Spain, Galeries Lafayette in France, Selfridges in Britain, Karstadt in Germany, Macy's in the United States or the Bay in Canada are exceptions amid the giant wave of red Hs and Ms and ZARA wordmarks that have washed over most shopping streets.
Besides, department stores are a dying breed. Those that survive will likely only do so by going global. Nordstrom is now in Canada. The Bay's U.S.-controlled parent, Hudson's Bay Co., has taken its Saks Fifth Avenue banner both across the Canadian border and across the pond. This month, a Hudson's Bay store will open in Amsterdam as HBC begins a push into the Netherlands. While the idea of spotting a Hudson's Bay blanket in the store window in Utrecht might warm the heart of any Canadian, the odds are against HBC as it battles not only fast-fashion behemoths, but the Internet. Ditto for Quebec's Simons chain, which has just embarked on a Canada-wide expansion. I hope it works, if only as a visual reminder of what country we're in.
Because a part of me dies each time I return to Madrid's Gran Via – where the new Primark outlet, at 135,000 square feet, is now the Irish chain's second-largest store – as a once-grand avenue is sublimated in a sea of sameness. Of course, as home to Inditex, Mango and others, Spain practically invented the business of fast fashion. But the visual monotony wrought by a handful of global chains on the streets of the world's great cities does make me nostalgic for the days when visiting a foreign country included a foreign shopping experience. Hasta la vista, baby.