Garment industry

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Garment industryDisaster singes fashion ethics.
Two weeks on, the Rana Plaza catastrophe in Bangladesh is now the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the garment industry, with the death toll toping 1000.

The gruesome accounts of rescuers cutting off limbs from trapped workers (sometimes without anaesthesia) surely leaves a stain on brands that no new collection, celebrity endorsement or micro-trend can wash away?

It was simultaneously shocking and grimly predictable. Those who have petitioned the fashion industry to face up to its responsibilities will have felt as sick as I did when they heard a factory complex had collapsed in Dhaka. Yes, there were other types of businesses in Rana Plaza but we knew immediately that the bodies pulled from the rubble would be garment workers producing clothing for the retailers and brands we all patronise.

Because garment workers are always there, bulking up the casualty lists of the biggest industrial accidents, and setting mortality records. At this particular complex when dangerous cracks were reported, other workers were apparently sent away. Garment workers were ordered back in.

When you’re part of the Cut Make and Trim (CMT) army, as we might call the estimated 40 million producing fast fashion around the world, 3.5 million in Bangladesh alone, there’s no let up.

A makeshift factory might collapse at night as happened in 2005 in the Spectrum knitwear factory, also in the Savar district of Dhaka, leaving 62 dead. Or it might catch fire during the day as in Tazreen last November when fire escapes were locked and more than 100 died. Either way, garment workers will be trying to complete near-impossible orders.

Perhaps, though, the Rana Plaza tragedy could be a tipping point. Maybe young consumers (often considered difficult to reach) will be jolted into action against the brands they seem to worship.

“I would urge any young shopper to think about whether they believe over 500 deaths is an acceptable scenario,” says Stacey Dooley, who saw the real cost of fast fashion production, for the BBC3 series Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts. “If not, they should let the retailers know and threaten to take their money elsewhere,” she adds.


It’s indicative of the chaos of today’s fashion supply chain that many brands don’t know where they are producing. An order might be placed in a first-tier factory that ticks all the auditor’s health and safety boxes. But, according to Doug Miller, emeritus professor of supply chain ethics at Northumbria University and author of Last Nightshift in Savar: “Factory owners can’t make money on the original order – the price has been set too low – so will therefore find someone who can,” subcontracting to producers of ever-declining standards.

“In Bangladesh,” Miller says, “you have a glut of buyers in search of a cheap product wanting to place enormous orders; and capacity is built hurriedly. Factory installations are shoddy, workers locked in and lead times are too tight.”

It remains to be seen whether consumers will tolerate the usual excuses from brands. Perhaps the most pernicious of all – I paraphrase – is: “We don’t own the factories so we can’t help what happens in them.” This is usually followed by devolving responsibility to the host government. It is technically true: but let’s not pretend this is a regret. Over two decades the big retailers and brands (not just those caught producing in Rana Plaza) have systematically distanced themselves from the manufacture of their product.

Meanwhile fashion brands seem allergic to collective action. Instead of coming together as one body with NGOs to thrash out living wages and safety agreements, they go it alone. They excel at dreaming up new schemes that look great in a corporate social responsibility video but are useless at creating any effective change. “The answers to this latest crisis have got to be collective in every sense of the word,” Miller says.

Baroness Young

Antitrust laws (also known as competition laws) are cited by fast fashion brands as a reason for refusing to discuss pricing strategies, costs in the supply chain or the factories they source from. Further hope for change, however, was provided last week by word from within the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on ethics and sustainability in fashion.

“Let’s now be really serious about the true cost of clothing,” Baroness Young, its chair, said.

“The APPG is determined to call to account all of those companies that are implicated in these kinds of practices. And we want them to understand that we will examine how supply chains function and expect them to remedy problems.”

Many believe that the whole fashion supply chain is caught up in the problem. “Do not for a minute suppose that just because a brand you wear wasn’t found in the rubble, it is clean. It could have been any of the brands,” says Sam Maher of the campaign group Labour Behind the Label.

Just two companies – PVH, owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein among others, and Tchibo, a German retail brand – have signed the Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement drafted late last year. Gap led the negotiations but pulled out in favour of its own agreement.

The deadline for brands to sign the agreement is May 15. They must consider it a cultural licence to operate. The ethical brand People Tree wants consumers to join its Rag Rage campaign demanding retailers sign a plan which includes the Bangladesh fire and safety agreement.

The window to demand change is closing. The Bangladesh finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, has played down the significance of the tragedy. If we don’t act now, it’ll be business as usual followed by shopping as usual.

Daughter therapy

Fashion’s Betsey Johnson goes to therapy in made-for-TV comeback.
Mother-daughter therapy, nightly branzino dinners and pulls from a mimosa-filled water bottle at the gym.
Welcome to just some of the life of Betsey Johnson, the eccentric and frenetic fashion designer whose personality goes on display in a reality television series beginning on Sunday on U.S. cable network Style.”XOX Betsey Johnson” casts an eye on Johnson, 70, best known for her bright, girly punk dresses, and her daughter Lulu as the inseparable duo look to relaunch their fashion careers after professional and personal setbacks.

The eight-episode series is as much a psychological trip through the pair’s emotional high-wire act as it is about the nuts and bolts of the fashion industry.”I think we were always content in our lives, so the joke is ‘Why not do a reality TV show when our lives were completely falling apart?'” Lulu, 38, told Reuters in a joint interview with her mother.

For the mother and daughter, who live a few doors apart in the same apartment building on New York’s Upper East Side, their lives were ripping at the inseams.
Johnson, who still ends her fashion shows with a trademark cartwheel and split, was forced to shutter her company’s 65 retail stores and file for bankruptcy last year while selling off her brand to footwear giant Steve Madden.”I felt I had lost what I had built and didn’t know if I could continue and get it back,” said Johnson, who is now the creative director behind her brand.

Meanwhile, Lulu, a divorced mother, is in the midst of launching her own fashion line.
In the first episode, viewers get a taste of a day in the life of the fun-seeking Johnson, whose exercise routine is more flirting with her personal trainer and sipping from her mimosa-filled water bottle than sit-ups and squats.

The designer also never misses her favorite meal: a daily dinner of branzino and a half bottle of white wine.But Johnson’s twitchy anxiety about her new gig takes center stage ahead of a big launch party for her Steve Madden brand.

Like taking

“I’ve never had to answer to anyone else,” Johnson admits before the party. “I never was controlled. What I’m most afraid of in terms of having people boss me is my pace; I’m very fast.”
Never mind that Johnson is a hit at the party in a billowy, embellished gold lamé gown because the series saves its drama for moments away from the boardroom and catwalk, when Johnson and Lulu butt heads as mother and daughter.

“I felt that I really unzipped my soul and kind of squeezed out every bit of who I am, and it was rather painful,” Lulu said of the series. “It was like a really big therapy session.”And therapy sessions are what Johnson dislikes the most.

“It’s like taking a shovel to cement to try and get this girl to talk about anything emotionally,” Lulu said about her mother, even after a steady schedule of couples therapy.”I don’t like to talk about my feelings,” Johnson said after one session on the show. “Sometimes Lulu is short with me and it hurts me … Lulu really loves therapy, I just like to keep going like a race car. Vroom!”
Despite an appearance as playful and Pollyannaish as her designs, the show offers a peek into the dogged work ethic of a successful fashion designer who does not know how to stop.

“My work has driven my life,” Johnson said. “I’ve gone through husbands and boyfriends and I can go through anything as long as I have my work.”In the end, Johnson said she found her therapy in an unexpected place: shooting the series over several months beginning last August.

“The filming was such a great, wonderful support system for me when I had kind of failed at the business,” Johnson said. “I think I would have been really miserable if I didn’t have the show because it kept me going and it kept me in the spotlight.”
Style is part of NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast Corp.

Fashion magazines

The trouser is so now in the singular world of fashion.
The people who brought us jeggings, skorts and coatigans have decided the letter S is no longer fashionable.
I love fashion. I mean really love it. I can become obsessive about the cut of an ankle boot, I dream of one day hunting down the perfect silk blouse in just the right shade of oyster, and I devour fashion magazines – well, as if they’re going out of fashion.

However, while I enjoy looking at the lovely shiny pages showing lovely shiny clothes, I find the language that accompanies these images equally compelling – and most peculiar.

Take the letter S, for example. In recent seasons it appears to have become redundant in the lexicon of fashion and style. It’s as if an edict has been issued from Vogue HQ banning its use.

In fact the plural is now more last season than a floral maxidress. The likes of Anna Wintour and Victoria Beckham would be more likely to let a chip butty pass their lips than a rogue S.

So we now talk about a printed trouser, a heeled shoe, a nude lip, and no one bats a (smoky) eye – it’s as if we’ve collectively forgotten that, until very recently, there was an obligation to add an S to these nouns.

Why has this happened? Is it that the soft, curvaceous form of the letter S offends these rail-thin style mavens? Will they start using other letters in its place? Perhaps K or Z with their bold and angular lines will become a more fashionable choice.

Well, you may think, what’s the problem? The world of fashion is all about novelty and affectation – this won’t filter down into everyday parlance. Don’t be so sure.

The whole raison d’être of fashion is to influence – it’s why we no longer wear a boot-cut jean or a square-toed shoe (see how naturally I’m doing it). If fashion dictates that we no longer need plurals, S will be condemned to the linguistic discount bin quicker than you can say “boho-inspired-shrug”.


Planet fashion is also the spiritual home of the portmanteau word. Fashion and its inhabitants move at unrivalled pace, sped by the advent of Instagram and other social media, and merging two words into one is brilliant linguistanomics (I’m patenting that one before Grazia bags it).

I remember first reading about jeggings (jeans+leggings) in 2009. How ridiculous it sounded then, a word that conjured up images of urinary infections and squished buttocks. Four years later, the M&S website devotes an entire section to this fashion hybrid. We as a nation have embraced the jegging: the concept, the garment, but first and foremost the word.

And it doesn’t stop there: greige, skorts, coatigans, recessionistas, glunge, glamping – all these linguistic mashups began life on the pages of fashion magazines or style blogs and have since gone more mainstream than a Louboutin stiletto.

Other ubiquitous fashion words include directional (meaning grossly unflattering on anyone other than a six-foot-tall, seven-stone teenager) and “on trend”, which means, umm, ubiquitous.

I don’t blame the journalists or bloggers who pen these fashion dispatches. The real svengalis behind fashionese are the marketers. They are the ones who write the press releases and coin the buzzwords that end up on the glossy pages and blogs of the style arbiters.

Designers speak

I have a confession. I have played my part in the propagation of fashion speak. I worked in the murky world of fashion PR in the late 90s. It was my job to persuade fashion journalists that my client’s collection was a significant departure from their last; that they had captured the essence of the cultural zeitgeist, simply by adding an embroidered butterfly to a cashmere sweater.

It’s then the fashion editor’s job to bring readers information on what is new and “zeitgeisty” (another perennial fave). If they don’t talk about the new, readers won’t make their weekly online pilgrimage to Asos to buy the new, and the industry will collapse upon itself.

The truth is that there is no seismic shift from season to season in fashion. Designers may come across as capricious divas, but they also have a business to run. If a particular blouse sold well for spring/summer, they’ll simply update it in a heavier fabric and a deeper colourway for fall (please note: fashionistas no longer say autumn and would never say colour without putting a “way” on the end).

So we come back to the power of language. Where fashion is concerned, the quickest way to make something seem new is to coin a new word or phrase to describe it. As Coco Chanel said: “Fashion fades. Only style remains the same” – as relevant to the written word as it is to one of Mam’Zelle’s little black jackets.


Victoria BeckhamMidi skirt is hailed as unexpected fashion hit of summer.

Loved by Victoria Beckham and hipsters at Coachella, the length once seen as dowdy is perfect in unpredictable English weather.
As the British summer falls flat on its face with yet another false start, a new fashion trend is on the rise. The midi-length skirt – with a hemline which falls below the knee and is most often written off as dowdy – is on course to be the sleeper fashion hit of the summer.

Thanks to an unlikely trio of factors including the blustery weather, Victoria Beckham’s much-photographed personal wardrobe and a glut of hipster pop stars pictured at the Coachella festival, the midi skirt is being hailed as the skirt of the season. The shape even scored a red carpet success earlier in the week. Fashion commentators praised Carey Mulligan’s appearance at the Met Ball in New York wearing a midi-length dress by Balenciaga at fashion’s most high-profile event.

“The midi is grownup but slightly subversive,” says Katherine Ormerod, senior fashion news and features editor at Grazia, “and that is a winning combination.” It’s a length that has been ignored for some time but women are rediscovering it,” says Jane Shepherdson, chief executive of Whistles.

Celebrity aesthetic

Retailers across the price spectrum are seeing a steady sales increase. At the high-end e-tailer sales of the midi length are selling 10% faster than other skirt shapes. Meanwhile Asos insiders report that the midi – currently sitting on the front page of the site as a “right now piece” – is up at least 200% on last year’s sales.

Part of the midi’s current success lies in its multi-generational appeal. Women in their 20s who are tuned into the celebrity aesthetic of Solange Knowles and Rita Ora are wearing the hemline, as are fortysomething women looking for a more grownup summer look. “It’s an elegant length,” says Sarah Curren “I think you would be surprised as to who is buying them. It’s as much twentysomething women as fortysomething women. The younger women see it on Victoria Beckham as her length of choice and for slightly older women it’s a really flattering shape and length.”

Fashion commentators agree that the midi will be a lasting trend that will outlive the summer. “Fashion at the moment is completely polarised between a hip, street aesthetic, and a minimal ultra-luxe stealth look – both of which have a place for the midi skirt,” says Ormerod. Shepherdson, in common with many retailers, has a vested interest in the look lasting. In the autumn Whistles will stock a midi-length leather skirt which has already attracted a waiting list of fashion insiders.

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