In the first part of a new series, Tansy Hoskins examines who shapes what we wear, tracking the power of the fashion industry.

Want-it!“A mild interest in the length of hem lines doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from reading Das Kapital and agreeing with every word.” [1]

Dismiss fashion as trivial and you dismiss the issues of workers rights, globalisation, the environment, cultural representation, identity construction and body image to name but a few.

From anti-Bush t-shirts to £10,000 dresses, the bits of cloth we put on our bodies all have history and meaning. Wear a hijab or the niqab and you’ll be attacked by Jack Straw and outlawed by the French Government. Wear a miniskirt and some courts will say that you are to blame for being raped. Since polyester is made from oil, fashion has even taken us to war.

This article is the first of five examining the impact fashion has on our lives. It considers who is controlling what we wear; fashion during production, distribution and consumption and the controlling power of the fashion industry.

Fashion is a truly global industry. A typical piece of clothing can be designed in Italy, approved by a fashion house in England, sent to a manufacturer in China who imports cotton from the USA and dye from India.

Once made, the item is shipped to the USA or Europe to be worn once or twice till out of fashion. When discarded, the piece of clothing could be donated to Africa if it’s a summer item or Eastern Europe if it’s a winter item or become recycled textiles in Germany or be sent back to China as landfill.

The production of each item starts with a design. This does not mean, however, that fashion designers are the ones determining what we wear. Whist most fashion designers dream of being a brand in themselves e.g. Christian Dior, very few actual achieve this dream.

Due to lacking the market power needed to influence shops, the overwhelming majority of designers who launch brands fail. Instead most fashion designers work without independence in the fashion industry. The lucky ones work for fashion houses or high end fashion shops; the unlucky ones work for the value fashion market.

Ruling all designers is the mass market. Selling to the mass market triumphs over creativity or personal vision. The art and creativity in fashion is secondary to the need to create a product that can be produced quickly and cheaply and sold thousands of times over. Profit demands a constant flow of new designs that can be manufactured as cheaply as possible.

Once a design has been approved, it’s then manufactured, invariably in China. Despite not having a single well known fashion brand of its own, China has been the world’s number one garment producer since 1994. In 2000 China made 11.6bn pieces of clothing and exported US$36bn worth of them.[2]

Other major manufacturing countries are India, Honduras, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia. (The second article in this series will look more closely at the human and environmental cost of fashion production).

Providing the link between production and distribution are teams of buyers employed by shops to select their stock. High end buyers hold the power to make or break a brand by agreeing or refusing to stock them in their shops.

They control vast sums of money, for example China recently announced that seven buyers with combined annual sales of US$157bn attended a private sourcing event for summer garments and fabrics.[3]

High end buyers traditionally spend January and February buying clothes to sell the following Autumn, and spend August buying clothes for the following Spring. Calculating forthcoming fashion trends is a risky business for buyers who will have spent 80% of their budget before a season has begun.

Budget shops, on the other hand, work on an incredibly short turnaround, demanding design, manufacture and shipping be completed within a matter of weeks.

Philip Green, owner of monolithic company Arcadia, a retail superpower with over 2000 outlets including Topshop, stated that he wants to “run my business on a 6 or 7 week stock turn around.”

Demanding such short turnaround puts inevitable pressure on those most easily exploited in the production chain.

Once selected for sale, distribution is done by clothing shops. These shops range from high end shops stocking designer fashion, to ‘value clothing’ shops like Topshop and Primark.

A recent development in fashion has been the rise of online shops like ASOS. In 2008 clothing was the fastest growing online sector with sales rising 1,990% since February 2001. This threat to high street shops, coupled with rising costs in rent, energy prices and staff, plus the recession, has made high street shops desperate to keep prices as low as possible.

The next link in the chain is consumption. This is the part that sees your average British woman (if such a thing exists) spending 25,184 hours of her life shopping.[4]

woman shopping in glamorous clothesBut what are we shopping for? Apparently we don’t wear 48% of the clothes we already own and we’re in the middle of a massive financial crisis, so why do we keep on consuming fashion?

Firstly, we shop because the fashion industry is a hugely powerful machine that tells us that we are lacking something that it alone has the power to fix. It is an industry that thrives on people’s anxiety and on the fear that to be social acceptable we must conform to certain standards of dress and appearance.

In today’s society many people are unhappy with their lives. They may feel isolated, hate their jobs, get no real fulfilment from their leisure activities and feel crushingly powerless. The fashion industry advises that consumption is the best cure for this alienation.

No matter what is happening with your life, at least you can look good. ‘Treat yourself!’ Buy this coat to be a better person, buy that dress to get the man of your dreams and buy those new shoes to be happy.

Unlike other things that we consume, there is no hiding what you wear. You are on display seven days a week – your own self-billboard, displaying who you are, what you do and what you are worth.

Plus, the real billboards are everywhere. The average person sees hundreds of adverts every single day with some studies suggesting that the average American sees up to 3,000 adverts a day. These adverts turn life into one long bombardment of images of things you don’t have but that you could have if you‘d only spend another £50. A black hole of lacking has been created in us by capitalism.

But what happens if you give into the adverts and the consumption and spend that £50 on a must have item which does briefly cheer you up? Does it stop there? Definitely not. The item that you bought to stop feeling lacking is quickly out of date, now there are a hundred new items that you don’t have so you lack even more.

Oscar Wilde called fashion “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Philip Green would scoff at this – now it’s replaced every six weeks.

This is the unavoidable essence of fashion. Fashion is fashion because it is short lived; it’s a beautiful butterfly doomed to die too soon. No matter how lovely an item is, its destiny is to be replaced by something new, because for fashion to work it has to sell things that people do not already have.

This search for the new, for gaps in the market, has recently led us through some bizarre fashion trends, from body con, peasant chic and space goth to the nautical look, pirate chic, tartan and nu rave.

Many of these pieces of fashion are worthy of being admired as art. It is sad that the creativity behind them has been reduced to a cold search for new commodities and more profit.

As well as creating desires for trends that have no basis in reality or sanity, fashion also maximises the options within each type of item. Take boots for example: knee high boots, over the knee boots, ankle boots, cowboy boots, ugg boots, pirate boots, shoe boots, biker boots, riding boots, ski boots, moon boots, wellington boots, high heeled, mid heeled and low heeled boots, flat boots, zip up boots, lace up boots, pull on boots…

In every possible colour and in every possible material. Therefore, even if you own twenty different pairs of boots there are still thousands you don’t have. The system we live in cannot allow us to stop buying, so it has created in us a never ending need to consume and matched it with an inexhaustible pile of things to buy.

The other powerful promise that the fashion industry makes is the promise of a way out of conformity. In a society where so much of our lives is dictated and pre-determined by our financial status, fashion promises individuality. For many it is the main method of aesthetic expression and identity construction. Its freedom of choice on a hanger.

A later article in this series looks more closely at this issue. With real creativity stifled by the need for swift production, cheap materials and the mass market, and the tight controls laid on us by society, there is as much room for real individualism in fashion as there is for a black model on a Prada catwalk.

Tansy Hoskins is a writer, activist and co-organiser of the Mutiny event ‘Fashion on Trial’, which takes place in east London on 29 September.


[1] Elizabeth Bibesco
[3] 2008/08/13/19437
[4] GE Money Poll of 3,000 women.
[5] Until recently Prada had only ever employed one Black model – Naomi Campbell in 1997, there was a ten year gap till they hired another – British model Jourdan Dunn.