High Fashion Culture: The Tip of the Iceberg

By June 14, 2016November 23rd, 2016Uncategorized

How Our Admiration for Public Figures Creates Environmental Damage



artboard-11asdome scholars have argued that when trying to understand environmental problems, one must draw information from various schools of thought in order to tackle the complexity of said troubles. Textile waste is no exception. The complexity of textiles, from conception, to extraction, to production and even waste, requires that this global issue be scrutinized from all its angles.

The majority of textile waste, specifically low end textiles, is a product of a superficial ideology—an admiration for celebrities and newness in the form of wearables. This ideology is an easy target for an open industrial cycle of production, adding on to the chaotic nature of already existent industrial cycles, generating pollution indirectly from production and shipping en masse, and returning the products as useless waste to landfills and incinerators. This industrial cycle is fairly different when it comes to haute couture, but the space where these fine articles first hang before hitting their designer stores—the showroom—is the father of all the woes that follow the fast fashion industry.

This paper examines the connections between our admiration for public figures, the Williamson PR showroom of New York City and mass production of cheap clothing in developing countries.

The Showroom

The showroom at Williamson PR displays expensive, handmade clothing from up-and-coming designers of high fashion. Its brands include well known names in the fashion industry such as Trovata and SPURR, and some starting designers. A showroom is a weird space, where selective designer clothing meets editors and buyers, where each article of clothing is viewed upon as an art piece, each designer as the artist, and the space itself is viewed as the art museum. It is sort of the congregation spot for high quality merchandise, and its reputation is highly esteemed and valued: you know that what you’ll find at the showroom will be nothing but the best. One of the most striking features of a showroom is the care that is taken with the clothing. Not only is every piece handled adequately, but also the concept of textile waste is almost non-existent. Because of the high demand and low supply of the fine articles, the economics of the showroom do not allow for waste. Clothes that are “last-season” are eventually stored in back closets, where, after two seasons, they are taken back out and used for sample sales. Whatever isn’t sold at the sample sales is eventually gifted to editors or celebrities—keep in mind that some of these gifts are quite pricey, such as a $650 pair of Kristen Lee stilettos—and, whatever is left is eventually given to the workers at the showroom and sometimes even the interns. The clothes follow a set out path, but they always end up in someone’s closet. Not one article of clothing is discarded, and because everything is handled so carefully, very rarely is something stained or mistreated to the point that it can’t be worn.

The Creation of Trends Through Ideology

Trends and followers are inspired by what is carried in the showroom—the god’s altar in a way—; a highly respected authority figure that not only demands exclusivity but expects to be adored.  Clothing created by designers automatically gains value. But for what reasons does it appreciate? In our society, an ideology has been implemented that defines trends. The handcrafting and attention to detail that goes into creating high-fashion apparel partly explains their high price—workmanship. The materials used are somewhat more exclusive and the amount of time it takes to create a piece is longer. However, their price ranges are substantially above that of the mass produced clothing not because of the actual production of the article, but because of what we as a population have come to value. What creates this added value? Why have our societal values for fashion gained so much importance? What in our ideology or understanding generates this value? The way this works is very simple: trendsetters covet and eventually wear these exclusive commodities, whether because they individually desired to, or because it was selected for them by a stylist, who, sometimes, is viewed as the actual trendsetter. Trendsetters aren’t just anyone, since in order to actually set a trend, they must be seen, and thus are usually in the public spotlight. They include celebrities, people “around town” (especially in Manhattan[1]) and other fashion designers themselves. As soon as a trend is potentially spotted on a trendsetter (think Mary-Kate Olsen and her cerulean sweaters) our ideology of trendsetting kicks in, which, to our subconscious understanding, makes us follow the trend undeniably, to the point where a commonly ugly shade of cerulean becomes attractive. Although the cerulean sweater was probably made with the finest cashmere and hand-stitched in Milan, our ideology, or our understanding of the words finest and hand-stitched, as well as admiration for Mary-Kate Olsen[2], is what eventually shoots the price to astronomical heights—not to even mention the effect of brands. This is our idea of quality, our understanding of luxury. Our complex, subconscious thought process associates these words intricately to eventually create what psychologists call a schema, or a way of understanding events, situations and physical things. The admiration for such fashion then becomes nation- or world-wide, and it trickles down to the lowest levels of societal life. In essence, it can be argued, everybody wants to be somewhat fashionable.

The idea of something new, exclusive and popular is then demanded by most of society, and eventually the market takes note of the new changes and trends. The result is fast fashion: cheap, mass produced merchandise that strikingly mimics the design of a dress that originally hung on the racks at the Williamson showroom. The simple ideology of admiration for celebrities—why we admire celebrities is a subject for another essay—creates an entire industrial process all on its own. Something as intangible as an idea or a schema has such a tangible effect on the environment.

Michael Bell, author of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, discusses the extensive power of ideological thought. Although his chapters on ideology focus on environmental domination and concern, his discussion of the meaning of ideologies is wholesome. The admiration that stems from celebrities has mainly a historical component, a detailed path that has led us to the admiration of a public figure, “there is an ideology at work.” (Bell 127). This ties into his lofty discussion on the treadmills of consumption and production, by quoting Weber “a man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as in necessary for that purpose” (Bell 129). In the same case, people don’t “by nature” wish to have new, trendy clothes every six months. However, our societal customs have embedded a thought process in our minds that triggers our newly created need for this clothing— our admiration for icons and public figures, and our almost instinctive drive to satisfy this newly created need.

The Need For Fast Fashion

After the popularization of trends, fast fashion producers, such as Urban Outfitters or H&M, copy the designs, which are strikingly close to the original (but not exactly, in order to comply with certain copyright laws). The designs are later outsourced to developing nations for production, where low wage labor is the market force for production.  Robert Gottlieb discusses the work structure of a “green” company, Patagonia, where in the same work environment there is an incentive for green business, while at the same time the low-wage janitors face a plethora of health problems as they deal with toxic chemicals—all in the same space. This dichotomy is universal, although not necessarily applicable to the “same space” scenario that is characteristic of Patagonia. In the case of the showroom, clothes were handcrafted either by the designers themselves or by a few, handpicked “stitchers” in New York, L.A., or Milan—all who probably enjoy fairly adequate working conditions.  However, in the case of fast fashion, the representation of the clothes is in no way a mirror image of the process of its creation.

The clothes that hang at H&M were most likely created in immense factories that employ children half the age of the people who end up wearing the clothing. Working conditions in such sweat shops are nowhere near adequate: there are concerns for health risks, pollutants, low-to-no wage and overworking. It is interesting to understand how this is a matter of ideology. Bell uses the example of how many environmental problems or even the treadmill of consumption can be traced back to Christianity, but in this case, the historical underpinnings include questions such as: why the admiration for celebrities? In a shorter understanding, the showroom can be blamed as the creator of the ideology, the space where designer clothing hangs and is eventually sought after by celebrities and department stores—the catalyst that eventually allows the ideology to cascade all the way down to every social class, where fast fashion is made affordable enough for excessive consumption.

When it comes to low-cost apparel, materials are cheap and low in quality, but still materials nonetheless, and massive amounts are used. As opposed to the limited collections of designer clothing, which require a much lower amount of materials to leech from the earth[3], fast fashion producers require infinitely more raw materials for production, as well as industrial spaces, which eventually create more pollution. Fast fashion sparks an interest in material resources, because insane amounts are needed for production. This production is carried out in the very well-known open industrial cycle, where waste leaves the cycle and eventually more resources need to be leeched off the original input warehouse (in this case, our Earth).

According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed. This transformation of energy inevitably leads to increased entropy over time, as stated by the second law of thermodynamics. The idea of the materials cycle is based on the notion that resources extracted from the Earth follow a cyclical pattern. In the natural materials cycle, which Robert Ayres distinguishes as those “of water, carbon/oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, etc.”, most of the waste is automatically re-entered into the cycle for re-cycling, making waste usable for more production. He appreciates how these cycles are closed, and contrasts them with the industrial, man-mad cycles “[which] are open.” (1994, 25) Ayres says that the natural cycle, which is already existent in our biological environment, has a way of “recycling its nutrients.” In essence, if left to work on its own, resources used up in the environment are usually returned to the earth as other, or the same, usable resources—it recycles its own waste. Although entropy keeps increasing in the natural cycle (some dissipative heat or waste is inevitable) it does so at a much lower rate.

Fast fashion production is in no way a natural cycle. It is an example of an utmost industrial, unsustainable, open cycle. Given the way the world is structured nowadays, materials extracted by corporations are transformed through processes to create consumable products. Opposed to the closed, natural system, lays the industrial system of production and consumption, or the industrial materials cycle. In this open system, very little waste is returned to the environment as useful raw materials. Most industrial waste is discarded, settled in landfills, or released into the atmosphere as gases. As Ayres put it, “the industrial cycle does not generally recycle its nutrients” (1994, 25).

Cotton, farmed in China—the leading producer of cotton in the world—requires irrigation and nutrients, all of which are taken from no place other than the material resources of our Earth. Extraction of this cotton requires machines and some human labor. Eventually, it is transported to factories for reprocessing and refining, shipped to huge design warehouses in India or around China, where hundreds of thousands of cerulean blue sweaters are created and eventually shipped back to developing countries like the US and exhibited at H&M. Desperate for fitting in with an idea of trendiness, teens flock to these stores for the next best thing, and thousands of sweaters are sold all across America. But wait six months, when cerulean is no longer “the new black,” and the same teens will be quickly ridding themselves of the article, exacerbating the already critical problem of textile waste. The original cotton that is returned to the Earth as waste is hardly recyclable, since it is returned in a “degraded form” (Ayres, 1994, 25).

The Triad of Society

American society is arranged hierarchically, in a capitalistic economic model and a democratic political model. Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers argue that the main traits of American society derive from this “capitalist democracy, a structure it shares with virtually all of the world’s most advanced industrial states” (Cohen 1983, 47). The American societal model is made up of three major players, namely the working class (those non-capitalist[4] masses), the ruling political government, and the capitalists (corporations/business sector, etc.).

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the showroom, we can argue that the state isn’t really present. Other than to enforce the labor laws of New York City, the government serves no other function to the showroom. If we consider environmentalism to be somewhat in the realm of the state, at least when it comes to excessive pollution or waste laws, then the state should focus on regulating the amount of clothing that is mass produced, and how and where it is produced. The environmental aspects of production are to be protected and decided upon by governments and international committees, and the mass production of textiles needs to be revised. In the case of the industrial spaces in places where the work is outsourced for fast fashion, there is absolutely no type of governmental regulations, where working conditions are devastating and waste is abundant. It is unfair and yet somewhat comical to think of the intricate labor laws that are set in stone in developed countries, when we are composed of a society which consumes significant amounts of what is produced under terrible working conditions in offshore nations.

The workers are an enormous unorganized social group consisting of the average person (for lack of a better categorization). Inside this group, however, are some organizations, such as civil unions, environmentalists, and the like. The notion of a capitalist democracy is “different from plain capitalism, since workers possess political rights.” (Cohen 1983, 50). However, workers have relatively little capital in the American economic model and are considered a weak group for any type of social change.[5] As Cohen and Rogers put it, “both an unemployed worker and a millionaire owner[6]…enjoy the same right of free speech, but their power to express and give substance to that right are radically different” (Cohen 1983, 50-1). They refer to this idea as “resource constraint,” which is exactly what it is: the general population lacks the means, the “resources” necessary to create change.

This originally seems plausible for a sphere where all workers share the same set of labor laws and guidelines, but the resource constraint is the incorrect term for countries where laws and their enforcement are inefficient or non-existent. The mere existence of sweat shops in developing countries is enough the raise doubts on the concept of resource constraint, since in this case the resource is not constrained; it is not available to begin with. There is no system for complaints, or no process for effectively creating a stance. Public movement is absolutely ineffective and rarely there—sometimes because of fear. Sweat shop workers in developing nations do not face the same types of resource constraints as workers in North America. Indeed, even the lowest paid worker in the United States still has the viable pathways for generating change, argument, discussion or drawing attention to unfairness within a corporation. In developing nations, however, these pathways either haven’t been created or are blocked by excessive bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, as “[complaints] intensified, a number of consumer product companies sought to shift their own marketing strategies to incorporate ‘green’ messages about their products, even when such changes in product ingredients were minimal or had not taken place” (Gottlieb 158). This includes companies such as Urban Outfitters, who released tote bags that said “Save the Planet, Go Green,” in order to market itself as an environmentally responsible clothing company. The tote might convey the right message, but everything that went into the production of that bag was as environmentally irresponsible as anything else that is created by fast fashion.

As stated above, corporations seek to increase profit, and this “profit provides the motive for investment” (Cohen 1983, 52). Cohen and Rogers marvelously describe the reciprocity inside the societal system, by understanding the simple nature of capitalism. In short, capitalism aims to increase profits to satisfy business owners. Profits are increased by means of investment strategies designed by their corporations (business owners are commonly the ones who provide this investment capital). Last, but most certainly not least, workers are needed to create the necessary outputs, be it products or services, for these corporations. If production, and its subsequent consumption, are successful (think back to the materials cycle), profit is achieved. This is what I refer to as the capitalist cycle, whereby, just like the materials cycle, every actor is dependent on the other: “…if profits are insufficient, there will be no investment. If there is no investment, then there is no production or employment. If there is no production or employment, then workers…starve to death.” (Cohen 1983, 53).

This cycle of production and consumption is the result of our embedded ideology, the need to consume, the need to be fashionable, trendy, and to express class and social status. It all comes back to the admiration we hold for public figures, their sophisticated appearances and our eventual need to structure our life around them and in essence, try to become them.

[1] Trendsetters don’t necessarily need to be wealthy, although most are. Some people gain fame for having their own specific “style” and are later gifted high quality clothing by very well known brands such as Prada or Fendi. An excellent example are some of the most prominent figures of the NYC social scene, who have become well known for being “party kids,” who live a somewhat impoverished lifestyle but still manage to make it to magazines, where they publicized and viewed by an entire audience of Manhattanites.

[2] Arguably, Mary-Kate Olsen’s style.

[3] I am not by any means discrediting the impact of designer clothing on textile waste. Of course the production loop is still an unsustainable one.

[4] Capitalist as understood by the business sector/entrepreneurs/business owners and corporations themselves.

[5] Although some authors, including Cohen and Rogers, suggest that en masse, workers could be very powerful if well organized. History proves this, too.

[6] More specifically, a capitalist.

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