Cruel beauty: when will fashion become ethical?

We love fashion. We love fashion magazines, we love movies with good fashion (Devil wears Prada and S.A.T.C are two of my favourites). We love fashion because it’s art that you wear, and it makes art self-indulgent in a whole new way. I love fashion too, though you probably can’t tell this from the way I dress most of the time.

The focus of my article is the fashion supply chain. This has been an area of interest for me since a trip I made to India in July 2006. I went to New Delhi and Mumbai and I shopped a lot. In New Delhi, I shopped at Connaught Place – a circular market modeled after Piccadilly circus in London actually. In Mumbai, I shopped at the famous Fashion street which is so, so, so long – Wikipedia estimates it as having over 385 shops (legitimising Wikipedia as a source is one of my tasks throughout this blog, we all use it, get off your high-horses. If you think it’s not credible, you also better know nothing truly is).

In these places, you see western brands like Warehouse, Marks & Spencer, Topshop, Tommy Hilfiger. I’m sure you see the more upmarket ones too, but I hadn’t come across those yet when I was there. I did see a lot of lookalikes though, with quality almost indistinguishable to the ones you’d buy in high-end shops here, because 10 years later, I’m still wearing some of those clothes (the ones I still fit in).

I bought a Warehouse skirt for 500 rupees – that’s £5 in today’s money. It was a skirt that sells here for £40. I’m pretty sure I paid a decent profit margin for it at £5, which got me thinking as I admired it’s lace handiwork, how much did the artisan who actually made this skirt get for it?

That is the person who is poor, who has put in the most work, and who deserves to get the bulk of my money. That is the person, I guarantee you, who gets the least.

Living in London, I’m in somewhat of a fashion capital. The ladies in the company I have worked for for two and a half years (recently taking a break), are particularly fashionable and particularly have the pounds to express it (money pounds, not weight pounds – to be clear). We were once invited to a Ralph Lauren event, luxurious as heaven, near Bond Street. I remember walking there with two of my colleague-friends, excited. Myself, pretty sure I wasn’t going to buy anything but I love to try what I can’t afford. Getting there, we were served champagne and canapés by good-looking men in suits and bow-ties. We tried on various clothes, helped by a personal stylist. It was a lot of fun trying on different clothes with her soothing, authoritative voice. She made even ordinary items look special. I guess that’s what branding is all about…or what being a numpty consumer is all about.

She tried really hard to get me to buy a netted black skirt. As I stood in the changing room, looking into the mirror, her showering me with praise on how it made my figure look so good and how I could pair it with a business blazer and wear it to work (Uh, yeah, if I worked for Vogue I could. My mining clients might find it a bit shocking), I looked down at the £360 label. Many people love many brands because they love emulating movies and think that paying frankly silly prices for things is something to boast about. Or what do you do when everyone is carrying a certain brand of handbag and everyone wears certain scarves (a real disease in London – see any tube carriage)? Even if you shouldn’t, you have to buy it to express your ‘sameness’ with these people you hang out with.

We looked at beaded scarves which one of my friends admired: ‘Look at the detail of this beadwork’. Me: ‘Yes, seven year olds in Bangladesh have good eyesight’. Needless to say, I left the store with zero bags.

That was a fun night, but I reflected on it later, particularly when I recalled the price tags of those items. Scratching the surface of my feelings, I felt disgust.

 Disgust. Because I am well-travelled enough to know that this skirt is not worth £360, that no piece of netted fabric can be. And that the person who made this skirt was probably getting around £2 max for making it, and it’s a cruel joke how the fashion industry keeps talented people in poverty, bars them from reaping the fruits of their labour and pockets a fat margin for hosting products in a fancy showroom. Now, it’s not just their fault. The whole system is set up that way – overpriced rents for showrooms, consumers who are willing to pay the equivalent of an air-fare to Turkey for a skirt, a Government that charges ridiculous taxes on ‘value-added’ to goods and has an interest in that value added being high. Apparently, immense value is added by adding a zero to a price after you take out a product from a shipping box, and by marketing it through over-priced models.

By the way, I can imagine it is incredibly difficult to set up a fashion business – it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while but never found the time or resources to do yet. So I do think mark-ups are justified for the very act of organizing labour and capital to produce beautiful goods (organization is not easy) – but I just don’t believe these types of outrageous profits are justified.

What many people don’t realize is what they pay for fashion items does not always reflect its quality but often reflects an arbitrary egoistic mark-up by the fashion designer. Prada handbags, Gucci dresses, Desigual shirts. Fashion items are often even designed in India by Indian designers. I’ve tried so hard to find some academic paper backing up what our tour guides told us, but supply chains are not all that well documented. But just look at many of the items you see in high-street fashion – their intricate eastern influence speaks of their creators. And quality can be highly variable. I remember shopping with a friend in Bicester, the designer outlets village near Oxford. Some of the flimsy crap looked like it belonged more in Primark than on a Ted Baker rail.

Anyone who has lived in India and goes to Accessorize will actually face-palm at the over-priced trinkets sold here that sell so cheaply on Indian streets. I bought a beautifully designed bag adorned with silver threaded elephants in the small Indian town of Pushkar for 120 rupees – that’s £1.20 (without haggling). And similar bags in Accessorize sell for north of £20.

Shops at Covent garden, London. A prime hangout place for the fashion-conscious

And luxury brands that claim to manufacture their goods all in Europe are sometimes basically lying. As an NY times blog “Made in China on the sly” in 2007 put it “Some hide the “Made in China” label in the bottom of an inside pocket or stamped black on black on the back side of a tiny logo flap. Some bypass the “provenance” laws requiring labels that tell where goods are produced by having 90 percent of the bag, sweater, suit or shoes made in China and then attaching the final bits — the handle, the buttons, the lifts — in Italy, thus earning a “Made in Italy” label. Or some simply replace the original label with one stating it was made in Western Europe.”

I look forward to the day when fashion goes the way of bananas and coffee – when we have a ‘Fairtrade’ option. The problem with fashion is that it is not a commodity like bananas and coffee – having the latest designs and the best designers matters and kudos is key. So it is a huge challenge. What we can do as consumers is be less obsessed with the label, and care more about the actual product so that we give new entrant businesses a fair chance.

Aparna buying scarf
Me buying a £1.90 scarf in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Scarves and fabrics from here are exported to everywhere in the world.

I mess around with a lot of ideas these days, but may be after business school, this is what I’ll do – fair fashion. Though we must all be aware, the opportunities for fairer trade are endless, this way of running supply chains is relevant for so many industries, not just fashion.


Misogynist India: what the ancient forts in Rajasthan tell us about the status of women in Indian society

History has been cruel to women everywhere. I write about India because I know it better than other countries, and because the legacy of cruelty continues here until today, more so than in many countries.

Fort 1: Amer Fort

On our first day in Jaipur, we went to the stunning huge Amer fort (pronounced Amber by western tourists). Amer fort has a 12 km wall surrounding it and encasing the old Amer city. There are watch-posts along the wall where guards stood in olden times. It was built by Raja Man Singh I in 1592. For those of us who watch Bollywood movies, this might mean something to you if I say Raja Man Singh I is Princess Jodhaa’s dad.

Watch tower on the 12km wall around Amer city


And by the way, the Bollywood epic Jodhaa-Akhbar romanticizes things extremely and actually glosses over very important facts:

  • Jodhaa was Akbhar’s third wife. He also had many concubines and was a total womanizer like most Indian Kings. The movie makes out like they’re both falling in love for the very first time.
  • Jodhaa was converted to Islam before marrying Akhbar. Her muslim name was Marium. The movie incorrectly makes out that Akbhar accepts her as a hindu bride. Though we have to credit the Mughals for being a bit more accepting of other religions as they created another religion called ‘Din-e-ilahi’ which allows its members to be basically hindus or muslims and marry.

I found all this out from our cheerful Kazakh-descendant driver from elefamily.

In a previous post, I called Jodhpur the city designed around caste. I call Amer fort the fort designed around oppression of women. Though that’s probably not how the architects thought of it, constrained by the cultural views of their time and unable to hold a mirror to themselves and take a deep first-principles-based look at their thinking.

The fort has four main quarters: Diwan-e-Aam or the “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas or the “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas which is a courtyard designed to be cool even against the hot Rajasthani summers. The beauty of the fort is undeniable. The cruelty to a modern feminist shocking.

Women had their own quarters where they lived. There were 12 wives and many other concubines. They could only go in women-only areas so that they never came into contact with any men other than their shared husband. Wonderful.

They never ventured outside the palace. Their only contact with the outside world was through female servants. Female servants would carry merchandise into the female quarters and here women would look at clothes, art, jewellery, furniture and decide what to purchase. They each had their own ‘apartment’ in the palace, which they tried to decorate in the most elaborate ways possible, vying for the attentions of the King – “Please do come visit, I love you so much I’ve had your face embroidered in this hanging carpet and I worship it every day”.

Under this parapet, women servants would bring merchandise for the queens to inspect
Blushing, our guide was like ‘And this is the hot-tub in which the King and other royal men sat with their concubines’

Twelve “Queens” competing desperately for the attentions of one King who rarely visited and also had multiple concubines. Pains me to see how these women were forced to be pathetic. Poorly educated, unable to rise up to their oppressors, unable to even realise they were being oppressed…and worst of all, contributing to the oppression of each successive generation of women. Women oppress women in India, sometimes more than men do. Look at cases of dowry deaths: in the majority of cases, mother-in-laws burn daughter-in-laws for dowry money.

Another symbol of patheticism was a wheelchair for women. Women wore heavy dresses and jewellery and would sit on the wheel chair and be wheeled from one place to another by eunuchs. It’s funny how different mindsets can be. Some women would have thought of this as a luxury. To me, it’s sickening to be so heavily laden with jewels and cloths that you cannot move independently and have to be wheeled around.

They watched any event, any ceremony through blinds on the top floors of the palace. They could see out but no one could see them. The poor women were better off in some ways, they were out in the open at least, only their faces veiled with scarves.

Imagine looking through this your whole life

Fort 2: Jaisalmer fort

‘Sati’ is the ancient Indian practice of forcing widows to jump into the fire that their husbands are being cremated in. This is now ILLEGAL, and the last recorded case happened in 1987 in Rajasthan (way too recently for my liking). The ‘logic’ is that women are property of their husbands and their life revolves around their husbands. Once their husbands are gone, there is no point in their life and they better go with him.

In Jaisalmer and in Mehrangarh fort, we saw the handprints of the women who’d been forced into the fire.

Sati handprints

Fort 3: Mehrangarh fort

On the entrance of Mehrangarh fort is a painting that tells it all. It shows a wedding happening, with the members of the man’s family on one side and the woman’s family on another side. The woman’s family have their hands folded and are hunched over in humility. The painting is too faded and fine to make this out via a photo, but you get my point.


And these are three forts I’ve featured in this article. The others were similar, designed to keep women away from the outside world and from advancement.

Faces unseen, voices unheard and worst of all, their own minds undeveloped. These are the ancestors of modern Indian women. The women who we must NOT be like.