Your Fashion Intellect
Suzy Menkes the internationally renowned British fashion writer this month gave a very revealing interview to AnOtherMag about her views on the fashion industry. Her interview was part of a series by Donatien Grauwho with “prominent thinkers and creatives about fashion”. What was most surprising were her views on the intellectualism of fashion.
‘I think there’s too much mixing fashion and intellect. Fashion ultimately is designed to cover the human body, to give you joy, to make you feel better. I don’t think it has to have a great intellectual meaning… But to intellectualise fashion too much, to me, is just going the wrong way.’
However, if intellect is the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, what does this say to fashion lovers and consumers?
Today it was reported that the biggest online shopping day ‘Cyber Monday’ (26/11/12) had seen the biggest jump in sales in years. In the US, shoppers returned to their laptops after Thanksgiving to make Christmas purchases that in one day came to over 1.5 billion dollars in online sales. In this shopping frenzy do people stop and contemplate the production of the latest addition to their wardrobe? Probably not, while the workers who produce the high street clothes for the holiday season in sweatshop conditions would need to work for at least four months to buy a dress for €100. What upsets me about Menkes is her blatant disregard for the production side of the industry. I wonder if this type of discourse is what Menkes meant by “intellectualizing fashion”? Clothes do cover the human body and do bring temporary joy. But should we buy into the fashion industry without exercising our intellect? More specifically should we ignore questions like the factory fire in Bangladesh?
The fire last weekend at the Tazreen Fashions multi-story garment factory in the capital Dhaka, killed over 112 workers. CNN reported that three middle managers were arrested for allegedly locking the main gate that hampered the fleeing workers. Bodies were recovered from between melted sewing machines and the remains of garments that were ordered by Wal-Mart, Disney and US rapper, Sean (Diddy) Combs label ENYCE. That fire brings the number who have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2006 to around 700 according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group. The payment of workers at theses factories is minimal and safety regulations barely exist. But it seems that the fashion industry does not want to hear about it. During my research I was horrified that not one of the fashion industry news websites covered the story at Tazreen, but these same websites are happy to run editorial supplements like “More Dash than Cash” which are complied and styled using cheap high street fashion. The industry would cease to exist without the low cost labour that keeps producing the garments for the fashion hungry high street consumer, who demands luxury styled trends at the cheapest possible price, which in turn fuels the sweatshop manufacturing industry.
As consumers we have immense buying power, but how cheap are we willing to go before we think about the consequences of our buying decisions? Based on the fashion newswires, not very soon unless these stories start to shift from the news pages to the style pages.
But could high street retailers like Pennys play a role in improving or even eliminating sweatshops conditions? Full year sales at Penneys and sister brand Primark shops rose 15% to £3.5 billion (€4.4 billion) in the year to 15 September, suggests they could afford to pay workers in countries like Bangladesh the living minimum wages. War on Want’s report Stitched Up revealed last year that the vast majority of garments from Bangladesh sold in British stores are made by women 18-32 years old who struggle to survive amid poor pay and conditions. Sewing operators’ pay started at only €37 (3,861 taka) a month and for helpers at €28 (3,000 taka) a month. But women interviewed cited their average household spending on basic needs, like food and housing, as €84 (8,896 taka) a month. Labour behind the Label – Let’s Clean Up Fashion reports, supported by War on Want, have exposed firms which denied workers producing their clothes enough pay for decent food, housing, education for their children and healthcare. The latest report named 29 brands Reiss, Zara, Debenhams, Hobbs, Jane Norman, La Senza, Paul Smith, Peacocks, Republic, Superdry, Fat Face, French Connection, Gap, River Island, White Stuff, Arcadia, Asda George, Aurora, Burberry, H&M, Levi’s, Matalan, New Look, Primark, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Next, Marks & Spencer and Monsoon. Fourteen months since the launch of the report, none of the 29 brands has yet ensured workers in its supply chain receives a living wage. Anna McMullen, campaigns coordinator at Labour Behind the Label, said in a recent interview: “Multinational corporations, which exercise more power than many governments and make increasingly large profits, have the responsibility to ensure human rights are upheld for people who produce and sell their goods. The right to decent wages in the fashion industry is systematically abused both here and abroad. It is the scandal of our times.”
Towards the end of her interview Menkes was asked if ‘fashion plays a political role and if so, in which way?’ “Fashion can be a political statement (…) the way that people dress makes them part of an army, dressed in their own uniform, determined to do something.” Now when it comes to exercising your fashion intellect, you only need to decide what determined army you want to belong to?
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