Advantages Full of Fashion Bargains...
Disadvantages Cheaply made, Crowded Stores, Questionable Ethics
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In a recent edition of the Sunday Observer's glossy magazine, a London PR girl, stylishly snapped in all her finery, was waxing lyrical on the subject of her fashion favourites. The shoes were Blahniks, the bag was Gucci. The diamond brooch? A priceless heirloom. And the skirt? Why it was Primark, of course. 'My heart sank' sighed this glamorous twenty-something, 'when Primark started to get featured in Vogue. It used to be MY secret… Now EVERYONE goes there!'Seen any Primark advertising lately? I certainly haven't. Primark, it seems, don't 'do' advertising, at least, not in the traditional sense. But then again, why should they, when the media (especially the print media) seem to be cheerfully supplying them with an almost constant stream of free publicity anyway…
Once a little-known, discounted chain of Irish clothing stores, Primark is now riding high on a tidal wave of canny consumerism. In an era in which Ebay have effectively morphed the thrift-shop into an electronic medium, and supermarket giants sell fashionable, if poorly-made clothes amidst the soap and the celery, Primark have become a retailing phenomenon. Stella McCartney may well be designing for H&M, but soap-starlets, footballer's wives and wannabe 'It' girls like Lady Isabella Harvey are suddenly buying their T-shirts at Primark. Along, it seems, with practically everyone else.
The Nautical look? Check. Eighties style, thigh-skimming T's? Check. Flimsy Victorian-type blouses? Clunky bangles? Dark Military culottes like the ones at Topshop? Absolutely!Primark have their finger pressed firmly on the Fashion pulse, and they can afford to churn out a proliferation of fly-by-night Fashion essentials at a moment's notice. Their Buying and Merchandising teams, the Primark website states, 'travel internationally to source and buy up-to-the-minute fashion basics that best reflect each season's key fashion trends'. New lines are shipped in by the freight load on a weekly basis, and whisked off the shelves in a matter of days, only to be swiftly supplanted by some other, desperate, dernier cri... They may well begin to stretch or unravel at the seams within months, or even weeks of purchase, but who really cares? After all, they'll generally be out of fashion by then, anyway.
So, how well are Primark reflecting 'each season's key fashion trends'? Well, very well indeed, as it happens. In fact, they're frequently beating most of their competitors to the punch when it comes to a lot of must-have times, and aren't hamstrung by lengthy sales to shift previous lines before proceeding with something new. Primark brought out a navy military-style jacket early last spring, just weeks after they had appeared on the catwalks. Perhaps even more tellingly, it was also several weeks before Warehouse or Topshop brought out their own versions, by which time Primark had extended the line into several variations, with a number of different fabrics, cuts & colours added. Primark's jackets cost between £8 and £10. Elsewhere, these were selling for more than £50.
The first Primark I can ever recall visiting was very much in that vein. This was the store in Brighton. I entered it on a hot July day about four years ago, and encountered one ungodly mess, with violent hordes pushing & shoving each other along the aisles, and a scrambled melange of summer dresses abandoned across the floor. This, I came to learn, was pretty much a standard Primark experience…However, the company's recent renaissance is becoming particularly evident in the stores themselves. Whilst these were traditionally housed behind large, dingy shop fronts at the fringes of cities or the less salubrious ends of provincial High Streets, recent affluence has lead to a stream of refurbishments in old stores and the establishment of smart new ones. The mess and the chaos, however, have yet to disappear altogether. People have no respect for garments that cost so little, and the combination of crowds and a sense of imperilled bargains appear to have a disturbing effect on many of Primark's customers.
The nearest Primark to me, like many others, has recently been given a fairly stylish face-lift. The floors are now all blonde-wood, the walls impeccably white, and a sleek, modern staircase with aluminium rails leads up towards the second floor. The new changing-rooms are spacious and well lit. All in all, it differs very little from the Gap outlet next door, at first glance, anyway… However, whilst the interior is fresh and bright, and cheerful clothes hang from the shelves, the long queues of grim-faced housewives at the till still resemble communist-era breadlines.
My last proper Primark spree took place last summer, when I contrived to secure an entire wardrobe for a 2-week break in Corfu for about £50. Cheap things are ideal when you've already spent a fortune on a holiday, have small children, and know your clothes are probably just going to end up ruined anyway… So, for the £50 I bought 5 bikinis, two sarongs, two pairs of shorts, three skirts, and about six vests. Must say, I felt very pleased with my clever, penny-pinching ways as I sashayed away down the High Street afterwards.
Fast-forward a week and I'm at the villa in Kassiopi, head to toe in my Primark bargains as I recline by the pool on a sun-lounger. The Father-in-law returns from the village with two bottles of Greek wine and a two day old copy of the Daily Mail. I later find it abandoned beside the pool, slightly damp but still legible. And there in the centre, amidst the so-called 'FeMail' supplement, is a feature on Primark. Carol Smillie and a couple of other minor celebrities are taking some sort of 'Primark challenge', which consists of seeing just how many outfits they can cobble together in exchange for a £50 note… Just, in fact, like me. The experiment was a success. 'Only £3 for this skirt!' exclaimed Ms Smillie, in an ecstacy of astonishment. 'It should be £40 at least!' By God, she's right, I think to myself. And suddenly, I begin to feel a little less clever and a little more conned.
Whilst the general quality of Primark merchandise isn't always very high, this can also extend to the fabrics and materials used. I spotted some very cute little boy's pajamas in Primark recently, priced at £4 for two pairs. Closer inspection, however, revealed these to have been made out of a highly flammable, synthetic material. This is scarcely a good idea, in fact, I'm astonished to find it is even legal, given the very real potential for disaster. After all, children frequently doze off near radiators in winter, and most house-fires occur in the middle of the night - when children are wearing pajamas. But then, I suppose it's one of those things you don't tend to think about until it's too late.If Primark's goods are produced cheaply, it's also fairly safe to assume that those involved in their production are unlikely to be very well paid. Sure enough, a recent study published in the Independent revealed Primark to be the UK's least ethical company, scoring just 2.5 out of 20 on an ethical index that ranks the leading clothing chains on criteria such as workers' rights and whether they do business with oppressive regimes.
It's certainly worth noting that a lot of other well-known High St. retailers fare little better in the ethical stakes. Whilst paying peanuts to manufacture their clothes in sweatshops abroad, very few of these companies pass the savings on to the customer. Primark, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a godsend to the fashion-conscious consumer. However, whilst the clothes may be cheap, it's fairly safe to assume that someone, somewhere is paying the price.
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