Friday, 20 March 2015

Telling Stories

While reading a piece in The New Yorker on Shiguru Ban, the Japanese architect that creates buildings out of cardboard tubing, I came across a statement that gave me pause. It said:
This radical-chic architecture echoes a larger force at work in the marketplace. Just as the environmental movement spawned greenwashing, the altruistic bent of the under-thirty-five generation has given rise to what you might call goodwashing. TOMS, a company that started out making canvas espadrilles, has built a half-billion-dollar-a-year business on its “One for One” marketing platform: for every pair of shoes you buy it donates a pair to a child in need. TOMS has given away more than ten million pairs and its shoe dumps have engendered some controversy, of the giving-a-man-a-fish-versus-teaching-him-to-fish variety.
More important, it has inspired copycats. (See Skechers’s BOBS shoe collection, whose slogan is “Making a Difference for Kids” and whose marketing materials look like a Save the Children campaign.) Then there is Maiyet, the luxury leather and jewelry company born at Davos and sold at Barney’s, which employs artisans in the global South, pays them a living wage, and storytells the hell out of their narratives.
TOMS has always fascinated me as a company, regardless of how ugly I find their shoes (spoiler: very). This very notion of baking a doubled production into your company's mission statement is bold to say the least, and it's clearly working if sales and the appearance of copycat lines from competitors is anything to go by.

The slightly sneering attitude that the writer of the piece, Dana Goodyear, effects towards brands with stories seems a little short-sighted to me, and comes from someone that doesn't really know that much about ethical fashion. The truth is that there are hundreds of brands out there that put the stories of their workers front and centre on their websites and promotional material.

It's a marketing ploy, of course, but there's a bit more to it than that. Ethical fashion has transparency at its heart, and part of that is knowing not just about where your clothes come from, but who makes them. Expressing an interest in the lives of a cotton farmer in India, or a seamstress in Bangladesh, or a finisher in China means that we as consumers are much more likely to empathise with their struggles, and want them to do better. Decent pay and conditions for fashion workers can come from an insistence on the part of the customer that the brands they buy do right by the people who provide them with the goods in the first place.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with a brand that's prepared to show us the people that make our clothes. It means they have nothing to hide, no dodgy practices that drop costs but cause suffering. It's interesting that Dana Goodyear chooses to highlight Maiyet as a brand that 'storytells' its employees. The luxury market is rapidly rediscovering the notion of ancient skills and practices as a marketable commodity, and one that fits into high-end fashion in a fresh way. Look, for example, at Saigon Socialite, a footwear brand that blends traditional Vietnamese pagoda carving with luxury French leather to create stunning results.

I think a brand that has a story to tell about the people it employs is a brand that has a little more to offer from both an ethical standpoint and in terms of attracting consumer interest. We all have that one article of clothing that has an interesting story attached. We like to talk about our clothes. Let's keep the discussion going.

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