One of my favorite DIS editorials is this one, with two models—one male, one female—shot against a blank studio background. The girl is styled in the season’s DIS taste. The guy is there to tell us what’s what. She wears a taupe suit, denim ball cap, navy polo, and white croco platforms. He wears a white oxford and socks (Risky Business) emblazoned with her credits: suit, Jean-Paul Gaultier; hat, Tommy Hilfiger; shirt, Vivienne Westwood; shoes, Marques’Almeida.
Who are you wearing? The way the fashion system works now, with a little education, one can read a stylist’s picks without corner credits or logo frontispieces. A literate fashion follower can look at an ensemble and identify: top, J.W. Anderson; shorts, ACNE; shoes, Forfex? With that little education, it becomes hard not to read outfits like that. My knowledge of the who’s who of fashion will often obfuscate my view of a garment’s form. A Céline suit is, I could say, modern, refined, and comfortable, but I shorthand all that information in my mind as just Céline. Lawrence Weschler wrote that “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” It is exactly that mode of primary perception that the fashion system trains out of you. Branding is blinding aura.
In ingratiating myself to the fashion system, I have absorbed, not just the brands’ seasons’ trends and markers. I have also seen behind those seams, to the design and labor conditions of the production of the clothes. This is something many of us are attuned to now, with the news of a series of garment factory fires and collapses in Bangladesh, which have resulted in hundreds of deaths, and have revealed (surprise) the atrocious conditions behind familiar labels like Joe Fresh and Primark. The state of the Bangladesh garment industry is news, but it’s not new. We know—we know—that most of our commercial crap is hurting someone, but we also like to forget, until the news won’t let us.
I find it almost impossible to shop these days, as what I see when I see a garment is how it was made. I see the brand credit, like DIS showed. But I also see the person or team who designed it and the board that approved it. I see the “Made in” label and the sales sheets (production cost, buyer’s cost, suggested retail price) and the marketing campaign. I see all of that and I want to shop but my savings keep accruing. It’s hard to find ethical products to fit one’s taste.
We can protest Primark or say we won’t buy Joe Fresh, but that’s like saying you won’t eat McDonald’s but that Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and Coca Cola products are okay. Primark will apologize and Joe Fresh can be our scapegoat, this time, but the problem is larger than those two cheap brands.
Cheap, fast fashion brands like Joe Fresh are fueled by the designs of high fashion, which moves just as quickly, expires just as quickly, and wastes the same as high street (plus, their production may not be as valuable as you think). Joe Fresh, Tommy Hilfiger, J.W. Anderson, Jean-Paul Gaultier, etc. are all part of the same system and that system depends on our wanting more and more—not just cheap—but more, more, more.
Writing for the Guardian, Vijay Prashad suggested that what is needed, for the standards in Bangladesh to improve, is, “a clear-cut opposition not to this or that retailer, but to the system that produces pockets of low-wage economies in the south in order to feed a system of debt-fuelled consumption in the north.” This means, not just boycotting Joe Fresh, but looking at the individual and industry habits that contribute to injustices like we’ve seen in Bangladesh (and Cambodia and New York).
So, what can you—the Bullett demographic, the probably-economically-comfy consumers of fashion and other goods—do? For one, don’t treat the current news from Bangladesh as a trend. Remember that even when Fashionista isn’t reporting this stuff like it is now, it’s probably still going on. Two: recognize your connection to global commerce and your power to, through small acts of consumerism, change it. That’s informing yourself about where your consumables come from and buying accordingly. Buy local, buy fair, buy vintage. Since knowing what’s ethical is tricky (“Made in China” is not necessarily bad, and “Made in Italy” does not guarantee quality or fair labor), the easiest thing you can do is buy less. The fashion system needs us to consume—addictively, mindlessly, continually—to function. But we don’t need to consume to function. And three: read, read, read!