"Fashion should be about self-esteem for the wearer and the worker", says Caryn Franklin

Consumers turning out their garment labels to ask brands, “Who made my clothes?” for  Fashion Revolution day.

Consumers turning out their garment labels to ask brands, “Who made my clothes?” for Fashion Revolution day.

Fashion sits at the heart of our everyday lives - but very ambivalently. The writer Elizabeth Wilson once put it this way:

For everyone clothes are compulsory. This can produce two kinds of individual at each extreme of the spectrum: those who hate it all, who, were it not for social pressure, would not bother with the aesthetics of their appearance and who experience fashion as a form of bondage; and those who live it as compulsion, the fashion freaks for whom dress is a source of passionate interest, who are its addicts; ‘fashion victims’, junkies of the art of self adornment.

--Quote from "Adorned In Dreams", Elizabeth Wilson.

Everyone remembers the scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep walks the snooty young journalist through the economic and social significance of just one colour change in a fashion season. As a consequence, the factories hum, the adverts blare from billboards, the jobs and revenue flow. 

But one could say, at the very least, this is fashion locked into an economic model - based on whim-driven over-consumption - which has serious consequences both for our mental, and planetary health. And yet, many people wish (as Elizabeth Wilson also put it) to be "adorned in dreams" - or at least to find affordable, idiosyncratic ways to express their sensibility and personality on the outside, both finding and transmitting their joy. How can this be done in a sustainable way?

To help think through these questions, we're delighted to have found Address: The Journal for Fashion Criticism. Their "Fashion Unlearned" category has a range of interesting interviews which are aimed at "unlearning" the assumptions that fashion students and practitioners have about their business. 

April's interview with Caryn Franklin, the ex-editor of i-D, kicks off trenchantly:

What frustrates you the most about the current state of the fashion industry?

Caryn Franklin: Creativity is being undermined by capitalism. I suppose by that I mean that most people who are attracted to fashion are very sensitive and very emotional but they are in service to a machine that demands a quarterly profit return increase. The investment of industrialists in the process has turned everything into a very bullying, oppressive, objective and predatory environment. This means that there’s a lot of people who are struggling to remain connected with the thing that attracted them to working in fashion. A lot of people are really having to prioritise looking after their mental health. I question whether their training has given them enough tools to do that.  

What’s worth sustaining in fashion?

Hope. Every single person who enters fashion can create a positive message and be part of a positive community that uses fashion to inspire change about different things. On a very mundane level, we all need to wear clothes. But we don’t need to buy and be addicted in the way that we are to machine that looks to undermine us in order to feed itself. If we felt able to engage in fashion in a different way, both as an audience and as practitioners we could become stakeholders in change. The thing that I love and am energised by, is the hope of the human spirit – that we can give the best of ourselves and make things right for others. I think that’s what we’re all, ultimately, guided towards doing and that’s how we’ve flourished. 

I say to all my students, ‘You are the change. Using the skills that you’ve got and looking after yourself, build self-love into the process. You can shape a new way forward by the choices you make’.  We can make small shifts, we can agree not to be part of something that is undermining by, from a position of humility, asking questions: ‘Why are we doing that?’ In doing so, we empower others to ask questions, too.

One of Address's editors, Emily McGuire, has kicked off the interview series with some important context:

Fashion is tethered to consumerism. For this reason, there’s something increasingly suspect about sustainable fashion. Although brands and consumers alike are making progress toward a more endurable future, there persists an underlying problem that is yet to receive the complete attention of the fashion industry – the system itself...

...This series began with a persistent feeling of unease about industry chatter that the fashion system is ‘broken’. Although the emergence of this dialogue within mainstream media seems promising, the conversation has narrowly focused on the fashion calendar and the out-dated timing of production and consumption.

I’ve noticed that so far, discussions are limited to concerns about the value of in-season relevancy, how to scale business in our increasingly digital world, and adapting to patterns of accelerated consumption. The Business of Fashion report claims that resolving these “wide-ranging” issues will “fix” the fashion system.[1] 

What is missing here is the realisation that the measures for success in fashion are its core failure - because they allow us to escape history and responsibility.[2] If fashion is change,[3] then ongoing creative destruction, the senseless disposal of wearable goods, and exponential growth are achievements for fashion under consumer capitalism. 

Discussions have avoided this deeper problem concerning the metrics of the fashion industry and once again missed an opportunity to address sustainability at a systemic level.

...If we’re to turn fashion’s failures into opportunities, we need a plurality of voices to explore how we might re-write the terms for success in fashion and secure a sustainable future for the industry. Starting with civic responsibility, biophysical limits, and human togetherness we can begin to define the role of fashion in creating a better world.

Other interviews in this series include one with Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution - her story below:

Orsola co-founded Fashion Revolution in 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, which killed 1,134 workers.  Fashion Revolution is a worldwide event that happens annually, which prompts consumers to ask fashion brands, “Who made my clothes?” Through provoking supply chain transparency, Fashion Revolution aims to change how we produce and engage with clothing for the benefit of consumers, makers and industry players alike. Orsola mentioned that the next phase for Fashion Revolution is to focus on influencing policy makers. 

De Castro also gives a take-no-prisoners start to an interview:

What frustrates you the most about the current state of the fashion industry?

Orsola de Castro: Each day, I develop a new frustration. The Chanel show in Cuba I just found so profoundly indecent. Chanel has a complete lack of transparency or moral sense.  I thought it was decadent and pretty but it really felt wrong – pushing these aspirations somewhere where people can’t afford it. It’s wrong for the environment flying all those people into Cuba. We don’t know who made those clothes, and then they’re shown to people who will never be able to buy them. 

What annoys me about the fashion industry, is such clear acts of defiance.  There is a need for change.  There is a want for change. Not just in relation to fashion, but in relation to all industries. Big players like Chanel are peacocking their own vanity with this fake illusion that fashion beats all because of its glamour.  As if we can somehow paint it all in an image of gloss and sparkle and that will take away the substance of the people who make these clothes, the environment in which they work, and the consumer who buy them.  That was my frustration today.

There’s an act of defiance from H&M, too. Here’s a company that is on one level really positive about transparency and yet on another level, is completely lying. H&M is using the oxymoron of sustainable fashion to their advantage; they’re using this moment of confusion and insecurity on behalf of consumers who don’t really know what to do. It upsets me that the fashion industry can’t lead on these issues.

It upsets me that such a visual industry is not using its power to change. It upsets me that such a fundamentally female craft has turned into a fundamentally male business. It upsets me that we don’t value the hands that make our clothes, that we’ve turned them into a non-necessity inside fashion’s value chain.

More from Address here.