The dark side of London Fashion Week

Tansy Hoskins, author of 'Stitched Up'. Credit:  Henna MalikAs London Fashion Week gets under way – Pluto Press has published an anti-Capitalist book of fashion. Stitched Up by Tansy Hoskins moves between Karl Lagerfeld and Karl Marx, exploring consumerism, class and advertising to reveal the interests which benefit from exploitation in the clothes industry. The book has attracted the attention of many high-profile campaigners, fashion designers, and feminists. Susie Orbach spoke on the panel at the launch, which was attended by Katherine Hamnett, War on Want, and prominent members of the union for models, Equity.

Below we’ve re-published Aditya Chakrabortty’s review of Stitched Up from the Guardian. He discusses how the veneer of fashion is used to hide the darker realities of one of the most damaging industries on the globalised planet.

‘Fashion likes to dress itself up as something more, but it is one of the most hyper-capitalist businesses…

It is one of the very few businesses allowed to present itself as not being wholly about commerce, but the facts say otherwise

Here are three facts about the fashion industry. It is worth $1.5tn a year. It is one of the most globalised trades of them all, and has been since at least the British empire. It is also one of the very few businesses allowed to present itself as not being wholly about commerce.

For proof of that last point, simply look around you. At the moment, the fashion industry is in the middle of the first of its biennial marketing blitzes. Not that it is presented as such – instead, it is counted as news. Seasoned correspondents file from catwalks and media organisations, including this one, run live blogs from the runway shows. Meanwhile, the pricier glossies detail what you need to buy for those beach holidays and that the high street has dumped the merino for linen – which, as of this morning, feels as climatically appropriate as being assailed with a sprig of mistletoe in July.

But now and again the mask slips and all those column inches and picture galleries are called what they are: advertising. The press release for London fashion week, which ends on Tuesday, makes no bones about it: “UK media coverage each season exceeds £160m,” while the value of foreign media publicity is put at £120m. Getting on for £300m of free promotion for a four-day trade show: not bad.

Much of the coverage, however, pretends that what’s going on is an art show, or that style is some quality of a refined soul: up there with a grade eight on the violin.

In 2009, The Sartorialist posted a photo of a homeless man in New York. Under the caption “Not Giving Up”, blogger Scott Schuman expressed delight at the destitute man’s matching of blue glasses with blue shorts and boots. Readers concurred: “I love that although he is homeless, he hasn’t forgotten about the color blue”; “You can just tell by looking at him that there’s some sense of style wanting to be unleashed”; “LOVE the blue boots and wonder if they were a conscious choice or if they’re simply something he was lucky enough to find in a dumpster. Either way, they’re fab.”

Every so often, the fashion world imitates Zoolander. In this case it was the film’s launch of a new clothing range, Derelicte, “inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique”.

However distasteful, such obliviousness can be entertaining. The same goes for the self‑presentation of Karl Lagerfeld as mad scientist-cum-artistic genius. But whatever else the Chanel designer is, he is also a highly paid employee of a vast firm.

Fashion is among the most hyper-capitalist businesses of the lot – one that produces goods for short-term use (to be updated or thrown out every six months), sourced from all over the world and generating substantial profits for those at the top, even while those workers at the bottom face the risk of starvation (it is estimated that one in three textile workers in Cambodia are medically underweight) or death, as in the perennial textile factory deaths of the Indian subcontinent.

High fashion doesn’t like being lumped in with the likes of Primark. It is about investment buys rather than fast fashion; ateliers not low-paid workers in the developing world. But in her new book, Stitched Up, Tansy Hoskins brings out the falsity of that opposition, through the diffusion ranges, the licensing of names and the outsourcing of production. Lagerfeld’s Chanel makes 55% of its money from perfume and cosmetics. Ralph Lauren, Armani and Hugo Boss all manufacture in Bangladesh.

Hoskins also demonstrates just how monopolised fashion has become, so that 60% of the luxury goods market is concentrated in just 35 brands. Bernard Arnault sits atop an empire comprising Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and Marc Jacobs, among many others, and is sufficiently rich and rightwing that he announced he was applying for Belgian citizenship for tax reasons. But fashion is one of those rare industries where, as Hoskins puts it, “monopoly brands” sit alongside monopoly media, and it is in neither’s interest to annoy the other. For proof, look at the last September issue of US Vogue, with its 665 pages of advertising. Assuming the magazine charged its usual ad rates, then one issue of one edition of Vogue pulled in over $115m of marketing revenue alone.

Most other sectors wouldn’t get away without at least some scrutiny of themselves as industries, of the toll on their workers and the environment. The diligent can read LVMH’s results in the business section of the papers, but the rest of its trade is covered further forward in the book.

It is one of the great conjuring tricks of capitalism. And the result is to paint out the producer, the subcontinental woman in her unsafe factory. It means that disasters such as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which killed 1,133 people and injured 2,500, are treated as anomalies – rather than part of a system in which manufacture is outsourced to subcontractors who operate under a regulatory regime that can best be described as turning a blind eye. And it ignores the end product: the 350,000 tonnes of clothing go into landfill in Britain alone.’

This article was first published in the Guardian on 17th February 2014.

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