Wednesday 6 January 2016

Luxury Fashion's Ugly Secret

The comfortable fiction at the heart of fashion is that the clothes just kind of...appear. Somehow, magically, the hangers of stores worldwide are filled with new goodies for us to buy. We don't think about the hugely complex processes that go into every piece of modern clothing.

The thing is, it's in the best interests of the fashion industry that we continue to think this way. We're more likely to consume blindly if we don't think about the massive water and chemical use, or the global transportation costs that are part of even the simplest white t-shirt or pair of leggings. And that's before we consider the abysmal way that the people who make the clothes are treated.

If you think this kind of behaviour is only attributable to the fast fashion sector, then think again. The luxury end of the market has willingly taken up the practices of big brands like Zara and Primark. But worse still, they're keeping in the shadows the work of incredibly skilled traditional craftspeople who should be celebrated and nurtured.

An eye-opening article in Business Of Fashion teases out the relationship between luxury fashion brands and the artisans that help make their garments. India has over 34 million skilled textile workers, employed in everything from weaving to dyeing to elaborate, beautiful stitch work. But this huge force is largely based in rural areas. It remains unorganised, diffuse and therefore easy to exploit. Their efforts remain unsung, and that needs to change. Calling an item "hand-made" is simply not enough. This, from Bandana Tewari, the fashion features director of Vogue India, makes the point clearly:

"In my opinion, there is a basic element missing from the global luxury narrative, which does not give credit to people in countries like India whose skills are employed season after season. We must make the real stakeholders of ‘hand-made’ more visible. And each brand has a role to play in making the luxury sector’s link to these craftspeople visible and, in doing so, we will perhaps be able to address other challenges, like measuring their environmental impact and testing methods of sustainable growth."
It's not all bad news. Major figures like Donna Karan are starting to recognise the major role that traditional artisans pay in the creation of luxury goods. She's working with the Haiti Artisan project, helping to highlight the art and skill of the island's craftspeople. Non-profits like Nest, and smaller brands like Maiyet are showing hand-woven luxury goods at big showcases like Paris Fashion Week, in front of the big noises in the fashion game.

Our View: we think the luxury brands are missing a trick. High-end food products use rare and hard-to-find ingredients as part of their whole product strategy. That rarity and exclusivity makes, for example, single estate coffee or chocolate a highly attractive sell. You'd like to think that high fashion could use the same techniques, making their use of rural artisans a positive rather than a dirty secret.

The trouble is, of course, that luxury fashion brands are based around the concept and image of a sole designer. Celebrating the hard work and skill of the rural artisans behind the beautiful fabric and embroidery of their clothes makes an obvious lie of this idea. I wonder, though, how many people really believe that Alexander Wang does all his hand stitching. One thing's for certain: change is desperately needed, and the skilled people behind the world's most beautiful clothes should be applauded, rather than hidden away.

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