Today we visited two places that challenged some of my views on fashion, production, and purchasing power.
On one end of the fashion spectrum we have high fashion, which is what you see in high profile fashion magazines and on the runways at Fashion Week all over the world. On the other end of the spectrum is fast fashion, which is what you would find at stores like Forever 21 and H&M. During the past few years I have developed some negative views about both ends of this spectrum, and about much of the fashion in between.
Visiting a bespoke tailor last year on a class field trip I was nauseated when I discovered that the most expensive suit he makes costs around 25,000 U.S. dollars. Appalled, I wondered how anyone could be selfish enough to pay that much for a suit in a world with so many problems.
Watching documentaries in class such as The True Cost and China Blue showed me many of the horrors on the fast fashion side of the industry: people working in unsafe conditions, without breaks, for sickeningly low wages. I began to feel as though there was no way that I could ethically buy new clothes unless they were from a thrift store or a certified fair trade company.
While I still believe very strongly in the positive ethics of purchasing clothes from thrift stores and supporting fair trade companies, visiting the high fashion workshop of Rahul Mishra and the shoe factory of Vanilla Moon gave me a new perspective on the importance of supporting other forms of fashion as well.
At Rahul Mishra’s workshop we viewed incredible high fashion designs covered in meticulous hand embroidery and an intricate Indian tie dying technique called bandhani. These clothes are the product of hundreds of hours of work done by highly skilled artisans. Handicrafts like these are ancient art forms that are dying all over the world. Seeing some of the artisans work and learning about the 5,000 some people that Mishra employs made me reflect on what the expense of high fashion actually means. Buying these pieces creates jobs for thousands of people and keeps ancient art forms alive. According to Mishra’s wife, there are only two families left in the world who can create the bandhani tie dying technique utilized in some of Mishra’s designs. I realized for the first time that without high fashion employing these artisans many of these art forms could be lost forever.
Later, at the Vanilla Moon factory, I was able to view the manufacture of mid price range shoes. As we walked through the factory we were able to see workers create shoes from start to finish. Each shoe was stamped “Made in India.” In the past, when I read this on a label, I would imagine the terrible conditions that the people who made the item must deal with. Contrary to this notion, the factory was clean, safe, and an overall pleasant place to be. I do not know exactly what everyone there is being paid or how many hours they work each day, but I got the sense that it was all quite fair. I realized that this was a good job and that by buying shoes from this company consumers are providing that job. This is not a fair trade company, but it is a decent one and there are many others like it.
Unfair working conditions are still a major problem in the fashion industry and difficulties in discovering anything about the manufacturers of the clothes we buy can make it nearly impossible to determine how ethical any given item is. High price tags and publicity about unfair conditions only provide us with half the picture. It is important to be aware of our power as consumers and to utilize our buying power to maintain jobs for people around the world.
Just remember, a tag that reads “Made in India” can be interpreted in many more ways than you may currently realize.