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More Culture, Less Clothing: Fashion’s Global Repuation

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

When you first think of the word “fashion,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably high-priced, sometimes hideous clothing, on rail-thin models acting as lifeless, emotionless hangers. Am I wrong?

The more I become immersed in the fashion industry, the more I realize that it’s being misrepresented to outsiders; those who aren’t involved can’t understand the inner workings and the impact it has on the world.

While the main focus is the clothing, fashion is beyond just what we use to adorn our bodies. It’s about the exchange and collaboration of ideas across all platforms of subject areas, all incorporated into one word with many dimensions. What fashion represents is something that has a lack of respect by those who aren’t directly involved in the industry. It has this superficial reputation and is something that needs to change.

Fashion is a complex concept that involves many different people on a multitude of levels in various places around the world. Fashion is a powerful idea that reflects upon the culture of the people who wear the clothing, which is why it deserves a greater respect on the global scale.

The global apparel industry is valued at $1.7 trillion as of 2012, and employs about 75 million people globally. The amount of global textile exports is valued at $294 billion, while global apparel exports is valued at $412 billion. These statistics show the global fashion industry makes an impact on the worldwide economy. Strong-economy countries such as the United States, France, Great Britain, Spain and Italy are the frontrunners in the industry, receiving most of the exports from third-world countries such as Bangladesh.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Garment District in NYC, 1955 (Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia)

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing one piece of clothing. It begins with harvesting or synthetically producing the individual fibers, and ends with a tagged and labeled garment on a hanger in your favorite retailer. Within each step, there is someone around the world responsible for furthering the production process.

The design house in Milan communicates with the factory workers internationally to make sure the product is up to the designer’s standards in terms of size, style and color. This communication between designer and manufacturer builds a global community and is something that expands the apparel production process to the rest of the world, not just the wealthy nations where the designers reside.

However, there is a double-edged sword when it comes workers in third-world countries such as Bangladesh. One issue they are guilty of is extremely low wages; Bangladesh factory workers are paid the lowest wages in the world, at $38 a month. Despite the seemingly harmful work conditions, the garment industry accounts for 45 percent of industrial employment, while clothing accounts for 80 percent of total exports, accounting for $27.07 billion.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Bangladeshi women sewing (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

While the poor work conditions are the most prevalent issue, it should be noted that TEB Fashion International, a Turkish based company with a production unit in Bangladesh, makes it a priority to take care of their employees. They offer 400 employees three hot meals a day, pay wages 50 percent above minimum wage, and offer medical aid and child care. Huseyin Guller, head of sales and design for TEB, said the company wants to be an “example for other companies,” because “only then will you get the best quality.”

While the conditions seem undesirable, it provides an opportunity for employment to those who don’t get the chance otherwise. Though wages are low by our standards, they provide something to people who have little to nothing. This system is only in place because it is less expensive to export labor than it is to manufacture domestically.

That being said, many brands know very little in how their products are made. Statistics show that 61 percent of brands don’t know where their garments are being made, while 93 percent don’t know where their raw materials come from.The argument can be made to increase transparency and better identify the people and materials behind their products. In a separate study, 74 percent of consumers say they would rather pay an extra 5 percent for their clothes if it meant workers would be treated more fairly.

This is what the true cost of fashion. Would you rather have inexpensive clothing or poorly paid workers? You can’t have it both ways. Clothing can’t be inexpensive without having inexpensive labor. This is where there is a lack of communication to consumers. If consumers don’t understand this trade off, there is no way to initiate change if consumers are fixated on the cost of their product, but not the cost incurred to the worker.

The global cultural makeup is also responsible for the creation and cultivation of trends. Trends don’t solely come from the runways of Chanel or Dolce & Gabbana, but from individuals like you and me. They come from the subcultures we participate in and the lifestyle of the place and people around us.

A perfect example of this is Swedish retailer, H&M, collaborating this spring with Coachella to produce a collection of pieces inspired by the distinct boho style clothing festival-goers display. You would never expect the famed annual music festival from Indio, Calif. to influence the likes of one of the biggest fast-fashion brands in the entire world.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Coachella in Indio, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Trends can be started anywhere and are inspired by anything from the military, to the dress of other nations. For instance, camouflage started in the military during World War I, and reemerged as a powerful symbol during the Vietnam War in the early 70s. Now, it has resurfaced as a fashion trend, gracing both the runways and the wardrobes of fashionistas worldwide.

Another example of this is the trend of exoticism, which was first executed by couturier Paul Poiret who was inspired by Orientalism at the beginning of the 20th century. He, like many designers, drew inspiration from textiles that were native to China, Turkey and Japan. When air travel began to surge in the 1960s, designers such as Emilio Pucci incorporated non-Western textiles in his clothing, standing as a status symbol for wealthy jetsetters.

London, Paris, Milan and New York are no longer the only places to go to see the trends on display; other countries have gotten in on the act to display their own unique perspective. Now world capitals, such as Tokyo, Istanbul, and Moscow all host their own fashion weeks to display their country’s finest designers and clothing, further influencing the global marketplace.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Fashions from a Slava Zaitsev show in Moscow (Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Each city and country comes with their individual approach to fashion: London’s fashion scene is rebellious, Milan’s is provocative and sexy, Paris’s shows sophistication and grace, and New York’s is sleek, powerful and daring. Even Africa has a noticeable style; aside from playful prints and colors, the African silhouette is becoming more well known among the fashion community. In response, Mercedes-Benz, the major sponsor of fashion shows worldwide, is hosting the Mercedes-Benz Africa Fashion Festival this May in Ghana, with the idea to create a global fashion community.

Fashion remarkably bridges the gap between all other industries. Yes, I know this is a rather bold statement, but let me explain. Fashion is powerful, in that it derives from the arts and humanities, while also incorporating technology in the design of apparel and accessories.

An example of this are various brands like Tory Burch, Rebecca Minkoff and Opening Ceremony, who debuted wearable technology accessories on the runway last fall during New York Fashion Week. Ralph Lauren followed suit, incorporating the idea on nanotechnology in athletic clothing that measures biological and physiological information during the US Open.

Photo courtesy of youngmarketing.co
Wearable technology accessories from Rebecca Minkoff (Photo courtesy of youngmarketing.co)

While it may be at the early adopter stage, there is promise for the marrying of fashion and technology. This is true in the case of incorporating 3D printing to make accessories, like Justin LeBlanc, a semifinalist on “Project Runway” season 12 did, pulling from personal experience to use the budding technology as part of a metaphor to explain how 3D hearing works.

I applaud the collaboration of fashion and more technical industries. No one thinks about technology and fashion merging. Fashion and art maybe, as art is a close relative, as much of avant-garde and haute couture clothing are considered works of art. Fashion’s adoption of technology reflects consumers in this day in age, who want their technology to be convenient to match their fast-paced day to day activities. What better way than to incorporate it into what we wear?

That is just the beginning of fashion’s ubiquitous influence. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, fashion is important. Not only because it is a multi-billion dollar global industry, but because of the interaction of people in the global community. Each country has their own voice when it comes to the fashion they bring to the global playing field. Still don’t think it’s important? Try to convince me when you purchase the Apple Watch this spring.

 

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