CAN WE THINK FASHION DIFFERENTLY? THE FASHION REVOLUTION HAS STARTED…
Turning fashion inside out
the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, last year left graphic images of horror as 1 130 garment factory workers were trapped and killed under the rubble. Images of faces, bodies, arms holding each other in one last embrace, covered with dust and debris, splattered screens around the world and tinted with blood the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ labels that hang at the back of most fastfashion and large retailers’ garments.
It wasn’t the first time that fashion was behind a tragic disaster: a factory fire destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York in 1911 and trapped 146, mostly women. Maddeningly, many of them jumped through the windows to their death, because the company’s owners had locked all the safety exits to prevent theft by the workers. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is still commemorated as one of the deadliest events in New York City before 9/11.
In 2012,the fire that destroyed the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 117 people, and the ones that ravaged two Pakistani garment factories in Karachi and Lahore, killing at least 257 people, are constant reminders that fashion’s currency trades sometimes in human lives.
Yet, although the disturbing images of bodies crushed by concrete and a mass of fabrics in Dhaka shocked the world, and while the unbearable stories of sweatshops have been told many times over, the majority of us will keep buying garments because of an attractive price tag or some eye-catching aesthetics rather than because they are made locally and ethically.
The call to buy affordable clothes is often stronger than the call to ethicality, and closing your eyes to one garment’s journey to the rails and the shelves seems easier and more comfortable than refusing to buy something produced in a sweatshop in Asia.
Carry Somers, founder of the Fashion Revolution campaign which aimed to raise awareness on the true cost of fashion, explains: ‘In the days following the Rana Plaza disaster, it became clear that several brands did not know whether or not they had been manufacturing there,’ adding: ‘Recent Australian fashion reports found that 61 per cent of brands did not know where their garments were made and 93 per cent didn’t know where the raw materials came from.’
The domination of fast-fashion, with major retail stores Zara, Gap and Mango populating malls around the world or its local equivalent, Mr Price, has speeded up the pace at which we consume fashion. In an interview with the Daily Maverick at the time of the launch of Zara in South Africa in October 2012, Spree.co.za fashion director Chris Viljoen noted,‘They want you to come to the store and want [a garment] because it might not be there tomorrow; they make a lot of ranges that are very short; they design and produce eight for every store; if you go to the store and if you don’t buy it now, it might not be there tomorrow; they are creating a bunch of fashion agnets around the world who need to go to the store and get their “fix” now; if you love those trousers, you need to buy them now because tomorrow they will be gone.’
‘In the days following the Rana Plaza disaster, it became clear that several brands did not know whether or not they had been manufacturing there’
Short ranges, updated regularly, require shorter production processes and that’s what garment factories in Bangladesh, Pakistan or China offer. But not all of them do it ethically and the poor working conditions in the factories can lead to terrible consequences.
Since Rana Plaza, a new agreement has been created to improve working conditions. The Bangladesh Safety Accord on Fire and Building Safety ( Bangladeshaccord.org) is ‘an independent agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces’; but only 150 retailers from 20 countries (mostly from Europe), have signed it; Walmart and Gap have refused, preferring a less stringent agreement also signed by 27 American brands; for the rest of the factories, it is left up to the brands’ goodwill and conscience, and that has not, more often than not, been good enough.
More than ever, it seemed urgent to change the narrative and on 24 April, the
‘The marketing teams focus more on sales than on educating consumers, and a number of companies simply cut off the “Made in India”, or “-China” [labels] and replace it with their own “designer brand” label’
Fashion Revolution Day did just that: launched a year after Rana Plaza, it asked the question ‘Who made your clothes?’ and aimed it at celebrating fashion as a force for good while sparking conversations around the global fashion supply chain.
The brainchild of Carry Somers, the designer behind ethical fashion brand Pachacuti, the campaign for ‘ethical and sustainable fashion’ trended worldwide on Twitter with the hashtag #insideout. The idea was to ask celebrities – top model Christy Turlington, American actress Amber Valletta and French singer Zaz were among the active supporters – and other people around the world to turn their clothes inside out so that labels would appear and let their [dirty] secrets out. Thanks to local teams spread out across the world, the Fashion Revolution movement praised a different way of thinking and consuming fashion.
In Kenya, the country coordinators organised a spoken word and poetry competition on the subject ‘Who made your clothes?’ In Barcelona, Spain, 2 000 people gathered around an outdoor catwalk while the team in Germany produced a music video on the same theme. In South Africa, the campaign didn’t go much further than an interview on SAfm but that’s not to say that it didn’t prompt some conversations. South Africa’s coordinator Tammy Nicol explains that ‘many industry players were hesitant to jump on board’ but she is confident that the movement will grow stronger in the years to come.
Interestingly, despite a lack of general awareness of the public, South African designers are working hard at producing their ranges locally. Kim and Natalie Ellis, two sisters who founded The Joinery, a boho fashion brand mainly produced by certified Fair Trade sewing co-operatives in Cape Town townships, or MaXhosa by Laduma Ngxokolo, a line of knitwear based on Xhosa designs manufactured in Port Elizabeth are a few examples of the efforts designers put into keeping the production local.
Yet, producing locally only works if consumers also buy locally. While some brands are explicit about where they produce their collections, others make sure that the origin of the garments remains unclear.‘The marketing teams focus more on sales than on educating consumers, and a number of companies simply cut off the “Made in India”, or “-China” [labels] and replace it with their own “designer brand” label’, says Nicol.
There is no doubt that it will require more than just one day of revolution to change the way we think and consume fashion. But it’s a start and one that has ignited a much-needed debate around the global supply chain. It is also up to us individually to make sure that we change the way we buy clothes. As Jim Morrison once said: ‘There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level.’
This page Fashion Revolution Day posters photographed by Kieron O’Connor.
Left Students form a‘fashmob’ on Oxford Street on Fashion Revolution Day.
Left At least 80 people were killed and 600 injured in 2013 when a building in Savar on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka collapsed in 2013.
Below The interior of New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, gutted by a fire on 15 March 1911 that killed 146 workers.
Right Belgian fashion designer Bruno Pieters launched his Honest brand in 2012, which has a 100 per cent transparent supply chain.
A series shot by UK photographer Trevor Leighton for Fashion Revolution Day included celebs and fashionistas such as (clockwise from left) Baroness Lola Young; Caryn Franklin; and Melanie Rickey and Mary Portas.
Below Sushil, a garment worker who makes clothing for YesOuiCare, a French/Indian brand; Yan Wang, a worker at Ragtime Clothing; a worker in Swaziland.