Tag Archives: fashion

The cult of fashion and the challenge of minimalism

As an environmentalist, I find minimalism a fascinating concept. I define minimalism as the lifelong journey to reduce your material possessions; to live with elegance — only with what you really need or what really gives you pleasure. Books like l’art de la Simplicité, Madame Chic and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying espouse some elements of minimalism as a path to happiness. Clutter creates stress, goes the theory. And who needs more of that in their life?

In this blogpost, I take clothing as an example. I find myself almost constantly looking for something to add to my wardrobe — the damn thing never seems to be complete. What are the barriers that keep me from completeness? I identify seven key ones below, each one harder to overcome than the previous. Together these challenges reinforce the strong cultural narratives we’ve built around consumption which make this prison hard to escape.

1. The unacceptability of wearing an items that looks old or worn out, and the unacceptability of wearing it twice

The fact is clothes get worn out over time, and especially in today’s world with washers and dryers and more frequent washing and drying, and given that fabric quality has even deteriorated in some shops in the quest for lower prices. The fact is that if a shirt has a small tear, it can be sealed with thread and its life can be extended. Instead, we choose to replace it, because we are judged badly by each other for wearing old or faded clothes. And because fast fashion has often made a new purchase less expensive than a repair.

Another problem is the endless quest for variety — on how we mustn’t be seen to wear the same thing too often. A positive change I have noticed is that some people are now bucking the trend. I smiled when I heard girlfriends at business school saying confidently that they wold wear the same dress to the next ball as they did to the last. And why not?

Alexandra Paul is an ex-Baywatch actress and a deep environmental thinker. In her blogpost on simple living, she recounts an incident of wearing the same dress again:

“About 10 years ago, I was at a premiere, going down the red carpet, and a TV reporter said to me, “I saw you in that outfit at an event last week, Alexandra”. My first instinct was to feel embarrassed, that I had been busted, but then I realized that was silly and I was kowtowing to odd societal rules that say you cannot wear the same thing too often or too close together, and I told him the truth, that I didn’t have very many dresses and that I thought I looked good in this dress. He didn’t know how to respond.”

Suggested Actions:

  • Wear it again, wear it proud
  • Don’t judge others for what they wear

2. The prison of fast-moving fashion

Fabrics and colors fall in and out of fashion making last season’s purchases irrelevant. This means if you wanted to stay current, you’d probably be shopping every month.

Suggested Action: Just ignore fashion magazines and do your thing

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

 

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

sneakersmodel.png
Apparently some types of sneakers can work with some types of dresses, but only if you look like a model already

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

4. The belief that looks can be compensated for by fashion

My view on this is that you can fool all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. The astute observer, your partner, anyone who lives with you, they all know what you look like. The right clothes and hairstyle can only disguise you so much.

Suggested Action: Accept yourself as you are. And then you’ll need less fancy stuff to hide it. The key is also to accept other people the way they are. When you don’t accept others, your perspective is that they don’t accept you. When you accept them, you realize it’s both possible and reasonable that they accept you.

5. The general obssession with looks

We search for art in people, sometimes forgetting that beauty can be found elsewhere too — in nature, in paintings, in sculptures, in structures. The beautiful face is every culture is the average of human features. We’ve glorified it so much forgetting that very few people will actually be this average.

Have you ever seen an airline ad where the air hostess has a bigger than average nose or smaller than average eyes?

The real beauty campaigns that are finally gaining some traction are still far behind in my opinion. Aerie real campaign pictures present attractive girls with a tiny bit of cellulite and they’re like “see, it’s ok”. The real challenge is to show someone ordinary on multiple dimensions. The real challenge is to sell women products that appeal to their competence, their skill, their willpower, rather than their desire to be beautiful.

realbeautycampaigns.png
Left: Aerie real’s campaign features women with small imperfections, but are these really that big a deviation from standard billboard images? Right: Singapore Airlines’ perfect flight attendant

I’m a big fan of writer Laurie Penny’s views on this real beauty stuff:

“Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.”

Suggested Action:

  • Be the change you want to see — catch yourself when you are judging someone based on their looks and correct it

6. Not realizing the true cost of things

A fundamental driver of over-consumption is simply that a lot of us can afford items at the price they are sold. The problem is the price at which they are sold is not their true cost.

We don’t realize that everything we consume has a cost for the planet. Products don’t drop from the sky. They are made from materials in the earth and a lot of waste is produced in the process. I think if most people knew the details of how denim is produced, they’d be appalled and ‘need’ fewer jeans.

chinalesothopollution
First photo: Xintang, a Chinese city that produces 1 in 3 of the world’s jeans: “Huge amounts of polluted water flow out untreated from the factory into the East River” – Chinanetdaily, 2013. Second and Third photos by Robin Hammon , http://www.robinhammond.co.uk, are of Lesotho. He says “At rubbish dumps in Maseru, children as young as 3 pick through waste products thrown away by the garment industry. They are often collecting offcuts from jeans to burn for cooking. The smoke from the smouldering waste reportedly causes respiratory illnesses and eyes to sting and weep”. 

Incidentally, Alexandra Paul’s documentary “The Cost of Cool” part 2 on YouTube is a good watch. She traces in a simple way how T-shirts are produced from cotton.

Suggested Action:

  • Get educated on how products are made and spread the education

7. The fact that our entire economic system is based on consumption

The deepest challenge is that, to some degree, we are all condemned to the anti-minimalist life because it’s hard to change a behavior when you are one piece of a giant system.

Our whole economy is built on excessive consumption. You open up the The Economist in these days of economic gloom and you see writers lamenting about manufacturing indices falling; about how governments need to give people tax cuts; about the tragedy of people not spending enough. People’s jobs and hence their ability to support their families depends on endless consumption. This is the greatest tragedy of all. From it stems the greatest unanswered question of all: Does it have to be this way? Is this how value is created in the world? Through endless production and consumption of material goods? Or can we shift more towards experiences and towards the shared economy perhaps, or something else we have yet to imagine? What could another economic system look like? Even more fundamentally, is the point of an economic system to produce ever-more stuff or ever-more happiness?

Suggested Action: If you have a solution to this one, please let me know…Unresolved as this is, I still feel on balance we do more good than bad by consuming less than more.

So here we are: in the shackles of a society still obsessed with conspicuous consumption, wanting to break free but unable to because of a kind of tragedy of commons. It’s only good for me to stop buying shoes if we all decide that sneakers (any type) with a dress are fine. And I hope we will decide for ourselves and those around us that we need less than we initially think we need and we can shop less and spend our money better. Change starts with the individual. The herd only moves when the individual animals at the front start running. And so my run begins…

References

  1. Simple Living thoughts by Alexandra Paul

http://alexandrapaul.com/activism/simple-living/

2. Laurie Penny on beauty: I don’t want to be told I’m pretty as I am. I want to live in a world where that’s irrelevant

3. The denim capital of the world: so polluted you can’t give the houses away

https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6283-The-denim-capital-of-the-world-so-polluted-you-can-t-give-the-houses-away

4. The dark side of denim

http://www.robinhammond.co.uk/the-dark-side-of-denim/

Photos from: https://www.ae.com/featured-aeriereal/aerie/s-cat/6890055 andhttp://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/2013/06/07/becoming-a-singapore-airlines-girl-training/

 

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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.

IMG_1003
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.