The Fashion Industry: Exploitative or Progressive?

Introduction:

In Week 10 of the course, we further analyzed the world of fashion by looking into the industry’s practices. We focused on the working conditions of employees, both factory workers and fashion models alike, and the influences of “ecofashion” or social responsibilities on fashion brands. This week’s readings, “The Fashion Industry” by Elizabeth Wilson, “Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society” by Elizabeth Wissinger, “The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?” by Nathaniel Dafydd Beard, and the documentary “Stitching To Survive” from the New York Times, gave us an account of the development and evolution of manufactured clothing with a heavy emphasis on mass produced fashion. This insight allowed us to better understand how the industry has been represented throughout history and how the people who work in fashion and the brands themselves craft their identities within the business.

“The Fashion Industry”, Elizabeth Wilson:

With the onset of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, many European countries established stable textile and clothing manufacturing industries. At first, many factories worked only with the natural fibers available from the land (wool, cotton, silk, etc.), but these textiles proved expensive and labor intensive to produce. The development of synthetic fabrics not only eased the burden of the industry’s workforce, but also diversified the economy and promoted technological advancement globally. Of course, synthetic fabrics, coupled with mass production capabilities, would eventually lead to questionable work conditions and practices. While many women now look to fashion as a source of empowerment, the industry has historically exploited a workforce predominantly made up of women. It was not until women’s rights were achieved that the landscape began to shift. As they entered the professional environment via positions as clerks at department stores, secretaries at offices, and more, garments suitable to their new lifestyle became widely available.

An illustration of an early rendition of the skirt suit we know today, Wilson describe this looks as such: “The American Gibson Girl [‘Separates’] epitomized the ‘New Woman’ with free and easy ways, whose almost masculine attire only enhanced her femininity.” Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/494903446523925905/

Coco Chanel revolutionized the way women dressed with her tweed suit, which did away with the heavy fabrics and piping of corseted dresses. “Elegance in clothes means being able to move freely, to do anything with ease … Now women go in for simpler lives.” Source: http://ana-lee.livejournal.com/241408.html

We talk about fast fashion today in regards to retail giants like Zara and Forever21, but there was a similar shift in production from 1890 to 1910 when mass production of clothing was established to help the war effort and drive the economy. Tailors and other specialized positions were no longer as necessary now that many garments were bring produced in factories, small workshops, and sweatshops. The 1920s and 20s saw a break down of these inhumane working conditions and gradually regulations were implemented—at the urge of trade unions—to protect vulnerable workers (particularly women and children) from long hours and backbreaking labor.

“Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society”, Elizabeth Wissinger:

One of the most controversial aspects of the fashion industry is modeling, specifically how models are treated and asked to perform on behalf of brands. It seems like every other week there’s a story about pervy photographer Terry Richardson sexually harassing models on set. Wissinger’s article explores another facet of this unique industry: modeling consumption. She argues that a model’s work does not end after the shoot wraps and the campaign debuts: “practices of compulsory image management and socializing glamorize the model ‘life’ and so play into processes used to brand and sell urban space.” Thus, a model must put in a lot of effort behind the scenes; activities like shopping, getting a manicure, and going to the gym–which are usually coded as “leisure pursuits”–become part of the job and can have a significant impact on the model’s success. Wissinger calls this “aesthetic labor” and while these tasks are less tangible than say, compiling a financial report for your boss, they are quite time consuming and costly. One young model says that she maintains an active presence on the nightlife scene and at fashion parties because there are many influential photographers, designers, and other figures that could book her next big job.

“[M]odels produce their image not only in the pictures in which they appear, or how they appear in the street, going shopping, or en route to a photo shoot or fashion show, but also via the energy generated in the various social networks that are a key element of production in the industry” (283). Source: http://instagram.com/joansmalls

“[M]odels produce their image not only in the pictures in which they appear, or how they appear in the street, going shopping, or en route to a photo shoot or fashion show, but also via the energy generated in the various social networks that are a key element of production in the industry” (283). Source: http://instagram.com/joansmalls

Part of the job is going out and being seen. Models, photographers, and editors run in the same circles, so if they can hire someone who they know and like, they likely will. The chance to be photographed with the ‘right people’ is also enticing to a model who is just starting out. “A young model backstage at a New York fashion show was explicit about it: ‘fashion parties are about meeting people, not about having fun.’ Another model at the same show explained ‘I get jobs when I go out into the nightlife. It’s unbelievable who you can meet’ “ (286). Source: http://nymag.com/thecut/2009/02/parties.html

We thought a lot of Wissinger had to say was extremely relevant, particularly within the context of social media. Many models will tell you that gaining a high number of followers can be the determining factor in booking a job. If that means posting a vampy selfie every other day, that’s what they will do. Personally, when I worked for a small fashion label, I would always research a potential model’s social media outlets to get a better idea of her look and personality. It was always a bonus if she had a significant following because if she Tweeted at us or tagged us in an Instagram, it would boost our own following and contribute to our branding. This “give and take” is essential to the industry, particularly now that social media is a factor.

“The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?”, Nathaniel Dafydd Beard:

“The Mark’s & Spencer’s Look behind the label marketing campaign highlighting its use of Fair Trade cotton and food products, has proved extremely beneficial, becoming its most successful consumer campaign ever” (Beard, 452). Source: Marketing Society (https://www.marketingsociety.co.uk/the-library/2010-marks-spencer-marketing-sustainable-consumption-case-study)

“The Branding of Ethical Fashion and the Consumer: A Luxury Niche or Mass-Market Reality?” by Nathaniel Dafydd Beard showcases the concepts that lie behind branding and marketing ethical fashion. Beard analyzes the continuously growing ethical fashion market and its impact on the globalized fashion industry and the product of the industry that is created as a result. He believes that consumers and companies are both confused in terms of understanding exactly what ecofashion is and what the term stands for. He claims that the “use of phraseology in the debates surrounding ecofashion” is what confuses both sides, those supplying and others demanding for “ethical fashion” (Beard 450).  Indeed, it is a hard to find the perfect balance between sustaining a healthy business, highly expected of these fashion companies by their consumers who really care for the issue, and making sure to avoid alienating their potential customers, those who are offended by the “politicized” ethical message and those who do not “like to feel they must make a decision purely because it appears to be the ‘right’ action to take” (452).

Laura Bailey, an American actress, joined London College of Fashion with their week-long project called ‘Is Green The New Black.’ Source: British Vogue (http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2007/04/30/is-green-the-new-black)

The root of the incentives and initiatives for ecofashion lies in the fact that we are living in a “liquid society,” a term borrowed by Sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, today. The term “liquid” was used to reflect the prevailing “fluidity and uncertainty” in our society. Beard comments that people are constantly in a state of flux when making significant decisions about a career path or even to the “more mundane decisions, such as the brand of shampoo we should choose” (454).  In a world consisted of high consumerism and intensifying competition to achieve social status enhancements, discovering a way to better contribute on society at a larger scale becomes the next popularly-shared obsession. As a result, consumers consider themselves to be contributing to improving society when they make “responsible” fashion purchases through vendors or brands that produce ecofashion products. The article also discusses the impact of this trendy phenomenon appearing in businesses. Businesses participating in the ecofashion development have been experiencing “an upward trajectory in terms of sales” (452). Beard concludes his article by suggesting that mainstream firms avoid simply attaching their brand name to the ecofashion trend for publicity purposes and work towards help solving “genuine ethical concerns” (463). He also has high hopes for the future generations of the fashion professionals that will help improve the ecofashion industry and deems necessary to educate these people in order to achieve the long-term goal.

Class Discussion:

Our class discussion focused around the idea of ethical fashion and what exactly qualifies as such. We agreed that production and consumption of fashion with a moral dimension will always consider the resources and people affected by the industry. Many consumers want eco-friendly or socially conscious products because it highlights their sense of ethics and could translate into cultural capital, which opposes Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.

Kim Kardashian in real fur and Khloe Kardashian in faux fur. Hypocritical? Source: http://hollywoodlife.com/2014/02/24/khloe-kardashian-fur-coat-fxck-yo-fur-kim-kardashian-fur-scarf-nyc/

Many students in the class has various ideas about what could be considered ethical. For some a vintage fur coat was acceptable, while a new one was not. For others, it was simply reinforcing the appeal of fur by putting it back in fashion. A few people even discredited faux fur as an alternative because they felt it still perpetuates the commoditization of real fur. Although the debate got heated, with many strong opinions, we agreed that perhaps our individual stances on controversial topics like these are affected by how closely exposed you are to the immoral practices in question. In that case, is ignorance bliss for an animal lover that loves the look of fur? This argument could be applied to many facets of an industry that sometimes employs exploitative practices in order to promote a certain look or benefit financially. Luckily, several new companies (like Toms and Warby Parker) have a sense of social responsibility and an ethical code that is synonymous their business model, a trend we don’t foresee ending soon. By Abby Kron and Lauren Lee

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