The BBC’s Breaking Fashion documentary is a cheap, tone-deaf misfire

The series, profiling online retailer In The Style, could have critiqued fast fashion’s damaging environmental impact – instead, it made a six-part advert for it

With instant access to pretty much every TV programme and film ever made at any given moment, like most people, I’m not big into watching shows as they come out. That was until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across Breaking Fashion on BBC iPlayer. With a mixture of behind-the-scenes footage and talking heads-style insights shot in spectacularly unflattering light, the documentary follows Salford-based fast fashion brand In The Style through its summer season. 

Viewers get to witness the brand churn out a new collection every two weeks – shipped from China at a mark up of around 70 per cent – over the course of three months in order to try and compete with its rivals, which include fellow north-west online retailer giants like Boohoo, Missguided, and Pretty Little Thing. It’s compelling TV, and I began watching it as soon as it was available each week without fail, reporting back to a group chat made up of people equally hooked and – significantly – appalled.

Each episode follows a different influencer collaboration. In episode one, we see In The Style team up with Lorna Luxe. I wasn’t familiar with her before, but with over 900,000 followers on Instagram, it’s clear plenty of people are. She was considered a big score for a collaboration, particularly, as we hear approximately 14 different times throughout the episode that she’s considered “very high end”. 

Viewers get a fly-on-the-wall perspective in on the pre-collaboration meeting, where we discover that the plan is to fly Luxe and six hand-picked influencers out to Cannes to make the campaign shoot suitably “bougie”, before witnessing the ensuing panic that comes when it’s not certain she’s going to receive the clothes on time. Thankfully, they do eventually make it, with the key piece originally missing from the line-up hurriedly made and shipped from China in the space of just 48 hours. The brand really doesn’t fuck about with the ‘fast’ element of ‘fast fashion’.

There’s no denying that the show is really well made; interesting, entertaining, and totally addictive, but it’s also a stark reminder of pretty much everything that’s wrong with the fast fashion model. CEO, founder, and protagonist of the show Adam Frisby is, in his own words, never happy. He expects things done impossibly fast and done his way. His high-pressure approach is no doubt why he’s made such a success of his company, but the effect it has on his staff, suppliers, and his long-suffering, frequently eye-rolling partner Jamie is clear to see as they field his constant calls and voice messages.

“Adam is quite a demanding person, he puts a lot of pressure, even in the night time in my home, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock… When he wants something he will push,” says Asim, one of In The Style’s manufacturing factory bosses who is tasked in episode five with making an exact copy of a beige knitted bodysuit seen on Kylie Jenner’s Instagram just days before. They’re up againt it, as every other fast-fashion brand vies to be the first.

Not only is Frisby putting pressure on those in direct contact with him, it could easily be claimed he’s putting pressure on the planet and the people in his supply chain. Founded after he bought six dresses from a wholesaler and sold them online for a small profit, In The Style has grown in scope astronomically since its inception in 2013 and, with Breaking Fashion, we’re seemingly expected to celebrate the rags to riches narrative behind the brand.

But is now really the time to be glorifying this type of high volume, low price business model? We’re in the midst of a climate emergency and the effects of fast fashion – and the fashion industry as a whole – are there for everyone to see, from the deaths of garments workers to dangerously polluted rivers and tonnes upon tonnes of waste. 

“When people think, ‘oh it’s fast fashion that means they’re not sustainable, that means they don’t care’, I like to challenge that,” says Frisby in the intro to each episode. But over the course of six 30-minute episodes, we see very little evidence to support that claim. 

When asked whether any consideration had been given to sustainability, particularly as it’s a licence fee-funded programme, a BBC spokesperson said: “Throughout filming, the team sought out opportunities to highlight and challenge the contributors on the subject of sustainability as stories naturally unfolded. For example in episode three when 400 Danni Dyer bikinis are supplied in the wrong fabric, and the company must find a way to sell them to avoid them going to landfill, or episode five when Adam describes the company’s philosophy on sustainability: ‘we’re not saying buy it once and throw it away, we’re saying buy it once and make it last’.”

“It’s not really right to make light-hearted documentaries about this business model. You’re telling me that they couldn’t find 10 minutes to have a proper investigation into really important issues that dog the industry?” – Lucy Siegle, executive producer of seminal fashion documentary The True Cost

By allowing In The Style to direct the conversation around sustainability, the documentary does absolutely nothing to challenge its business model or supply chain. We don’t know how many garments it makes per year, we don’t know what it does with unsold stock, we don’t know whether the people who make its clothes are paid a living wage, nor do we know what happens to the many samples it produces in the fitting process. And when we asked In The Style some of these questions, ultimately, no one from the label got in touch with a response. 

On its website, In The Style say it works in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society, donating 1p per purchase, and it also works in partnership with the reGAIN app. But that’s merely putting a plaster on a gaping wound that, arguably, it has helped create.

Lucy Siegle was the executive producer for the seminal fashion documentary The True Cost. She is also an author, journalist, a TV reporter, and presenter for a plethora of programmes, including many for the BBC. “I think they may have just ticked editorial policy boxes because they included the main protagonist… Adam, suggesting that he was answering charges about sustainability,” she says. 

While she gets how it passed the criteria, she doesn’t believe that gives the BBC a free pass. “I think it points to some weakness in the commissioning process,” Siegle continues. “We’ve had the Environmental Audit Committee looking at (the industry), there’s a UN fashion charter, there’s actual framework about how we tackle this monstrous system of overproduction. It’s not really right to make light-hearted documentaries about this business model. You’re telling me that they couldn’t find 10 minutes to have a proper investigation into really important issues that dog the industry?”

Qiulae Wong, co-founder of Common Objective, echoes Siegle’s sentiments. “Issues such as the huge amount of waste and pollution that occurs as a result of such high volumes of clothing being produced were unfortunately neglected. The BBC’s Breaking Fashion series missed an opportunity to communicate an important message,” she tells Dazed.

Siegle suggests that the BBC could have produced an accompanying Made In Chelsea-style breakdown of the series. But we didn’t get that, so the backlash played out on social media and Frisby did not take kindly to it. “Get a day job my dear… nobody gives a shit about what you’re saying!” was one response to someone taking him to task over sustainability. His other Twitter responses were just as caustic, and Lorna Luxe got in on the action too, messaging a number of sustainable retailers who had discussed the programme calling them ‘a scam’.

Their defensiveness speaks volumes. The lightning speed production of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of garments a year is, at its core, completely unsustainable and no amount of 1p donations will change that. Our environment is spiralling into disaster and the BBC could have used Breaking Fashion as a kicking off point for an important conversation, but it completely missed the mark. It was nothing more than an advert for a brand that’s piling more pressure on an already weary planet.