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How did the world get to a place where we treat clothes like disposable goods?

To sum it up, industrialization, copy-cats, and outsourcing. 

It’s important to learn how we got here so we know what to do next.  Currently, we find ourselves in the midst of fast fashion’s destruction, and by design. History has laid the perfect path for this harmful trend to take place; and worse, to stay, if we are compliant.

Industrialization

 The onset and advancement of industrialization remarkably affected the speed, demand, and economics of garment manufacturing.

The world’s first water-powered textile mill in England, marked the start of the transition from handmade to machine-made clothes and thus creating the fashion industry we know today. Francis Cabot Lowell brought the power loom, which created the process where raw cotton could be made into cloth under one roof, thus reducing the cost of cotton, to America in the 1810s. This combined with the use of lockstitch sewing machines in the 1830s began the drastic change of garments from something you wear into ‘fashion’. With increasing speed of manufacturing, the relationship, processes, and materials once used were fading, fast. Once popular wool nearly disappeared, being replaced by cotton.



Textile loom.JPG

Lowell Mill Girls

Lowell also found a specific workforce for his textile mills. He employed single girls, also known as “The Lowell Girls”. Many women were eager to work to show their independence. Lowell found this convenient because he could pay women less than what he would have to pay men, and they worked more efficiently than men did, all while being more skilled with cotton production. An eerie foreshadowing of the fashion executives who would follow.

These changes were intensified and solidified during  the American Civil War.  With high demand for uniforms in standard sized, ready-to-wear as we know it now, was born. Ready to wear is the fashion we know today, mass-manufactured in standardized sizes and sold in finished condition.  Following the war this demand lingered, thus manufacturers that were producing uniforms for both the Union and the Confederate soldiers took these practices and applied it to men’s wear and then women’s wear for the masses. This altered the accessibility of clothing thus influencing consumer behavior.

This led garment manufacturers in the United States to produce either of two categories of clothing. The first, large factories, typically in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, mass-produced less refined, standard pieces such as work clothes or undergarments. While in the Lower East Side of New York City, workshops produced stylish and high-quality clothes in smaller quantities. New York City had all the necessary components to make fashion thrive, investors in the world’s financial center, America’s busiest port, and thousands of Europeans immigrants coming to the city every week looking for jobs. The rise of these smaller manufacturers changed the economics of the city, the industry, and the world.

The rise of industrialization set the stage for mass manufactured clothing. This, in turn, paved the way for fast fashion and the disposable relationship with clothing that the world blindly embraced.  The industry and consumers alike quickly adapted to the speed, demand, and economics of garment manufacturing, without considering the ramifications.

Copy-Cat Culture

Turns out that scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway about the two belts is spot on and is a major influence on global clothing consumption.

It is fairly well known that fast fashion brands blatantly copy the designs, colors, silhouettes, etc. from the runway. Runway looks no longer trickle down to the masses, they are ripped from the runway and mass produced as cheaply and quickly as possible, sometimes within hours. Consumers not only demand that runway looks be available to them immediately and cheaply, they expect it. 

For me, the worst part of this practice is the loss of craft.  When runway looks are redesigned for mass production and high profit margins, the skills that define fashion are lost.  We consumers are rarely, if ever, exposed to the art and brilliance that goes into designing a garment. And because we aren’t accustomed to it, we do not appreciate it, nor know how to.

You can imagine the ease to which copy-cat culture is executed nowadays with camera phones, social media, and the internet in general, but this has been happening for as long fashion has been around. Before cell phones with cameras, people would sneak sketch pads into runway shows and draw the designs. When that was no longer tolerated people would run to the nearest café as soon as the show closed to sketch designs from memory.  I will dive into the negative implications of this in another blog post, especially for emerging designers, but until then, let’s examine how it creates a culture of excessive consumption.


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Prior to the industrial boom, clothing was commissioned by someone to their couturiers. If you have seen Brigerton, the French chick, Madame Delacroix (pictured), is a couturier; if not, couturiers are fashion designers who manufacture and sell clothes that have been tailored to a client’s specific requirements and measurements. Those smaller manufactures in the Lower East Side mentioned earlier were “inspired by” (aka stealing from) Parisian couturiers.  Using other designer’s colors, patterns, silhouettes, and more, these copy-cat manufacturers took large orders and produced clothing premeasured to bring “fashion” to the masses. This may have seemed harmless, even today, but this “trickle-down system of fashion” made way for the toxic industry we are all too familiar with. It created the metaphorical crutch that the industry (and thus, consumers) relies on: cheap labor, hazardous working conditions, design theft, and lack of uniqueness and individuality, and disregard for the environment (again, more on that in another post).

There, of course, were positives to the fashion industry boom. The 1930s, often regarded as a time that “everybody dressed up”, was a much more formal time, with a boom in department store shopping.  There was excitement in walking down Fifth Avenue on Thursday to see the new window displays at Bergdorf’s or Altman’s. In 1931, The Garment District in New York City, with newly built Pennsylvania Station as the main artery, had the most factories worldwide.  After WW II another fashion industry boom occurred resulting in an impressive 200,000 people working in the Garment District, who produced 66% of all U.S. clothing.

 

Outsourcing

I hesitate to use the word “outsourcing”, as it holds heavy political, social, and economic connotations, but it’s important to know what happened, so we can learn and do better.  What’s not important here is opinion, what is important is that the result of the fashion industry’s use of outsourcing has left everybody, except top industry execs, as the losers in this game.


If you were trying to keep track…

If you were trying to keep track…

Domestic Outsourcing

Naturally, real estate prices and labor costs increased in the Garment District, thus apparel manufacturing jobs fled in hope of better profit margins. Not yet to other countries, but just a few miles north and east.  In the beginning, apparel manufacturing jobs were moved to the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn. Then, further, and further to Rochester, Pennsylvania, and Chicago.

In my opinion, I think this is the point where everyone collectively stopped caring about garment workers. Out of sight, out of mind.

During this time (1947 – 1956) the wages of Garment District workers decreased by 20%. The other two groups effected by domestic outsourcing, consumers and fashion execs, must be the winner, right? Fashion execs had more money and consumers had the latest trend at a cheaper cost. But don’t be fooled, fashion execs are the only winners of this game. The price of the cheaper trendy clothes was more than monetary; it granted permission for the fashion industry to continue full steam ahead with inhumane working conditions, irreversible environmental damage, and unethical business practices it still practices today.  The consumers were helping themselves lose.

Additionally outsourcing garment manufacturing created the chaotic and complicated supply chains that still happen today. With President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, transporting goods was made easier. The result: fabric was cut in Manhattan, trucked out of the city to be sewn, then trucked back in and all over the city to showrooms, warehouses, and retailers to be bought.

If you are thinking, “is this the point where we all stop caring about the environment too?”, I would agree.


chinatown sweat shop.JPG

The rising demand of “fashion” led to more workers and more outsourcing.  Even with domestic outsourcing, New York City’s Garment district employed 400,000 people during this time. Needing more space, work was sent down to Chinatown, where workers with sewing skills came cheap.  Between 1964 and 1980, workshops in that area increased more than 1,100%. Please note the conscious decision to switch the vernacular from “manufacturers” to “workshops” or “sweatshops” as this is the beginning of modern day sweatshop operations that still happening across America (L.A. being a huge culprit) and all over the globe.

International Outsourcing

More and more fashion executives learned it was cheaper to manufacture overseas than in the states. In 1960, only 10% of women’s wear sold in the U.S. was imported, but by the mid-70s, Hong Kong became the world’s largest apparel exporter with a specialization in low-end Western clothing. 


U.S. Imports in USD Million

U.S. Imports in USD Million

It’s important to note that America essentially built the cheap labor force in Asia after World War 2.  Truman’s “trade-not-aid policy” led to the creation of the Japanese textile industry, making way for low-cost exporters countries like South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. This, of course, upset stateside manufacturers who successfully lobbied Washington that resulted in higher tariffs, complicated quotes, and exemptions for those economies fueled by exports.

Initially, designers opposed the idea of manufacturing overseas because of design, lack of oversight, and slower transport times. Nonetheless, once exposed to the substantially greater profit margins, even the most contested designers were manufacturing overseas. The garments coming from oversea workshops proved to be good quality with low overhead, the formula for financial success.

Between this shift to foreign manufacturing location and Regan’s heavy emphasis on free trade, the job flight forced unions to quickly act. Job loss was not the only consequence. It was believed that if this trend continued, America’s capacity to produce would permanently be destroyed, thus unions lobbied Washington to stress the importance of buying America. At the time it was estimated that the American apparel industry lost $25 billion a year through outsourcing overseas. 


LOL.JPG

The resulting solution, “Quick Response” (or QR) paved the way for the disastrous Fast Fashion trend we know all too well today.  Nonetheless, this lean cost model focusing on predicting trends before submitting production orders aimed to cut inventory levels, increase inventory turnover, and reduce excess inventory. Just enough U.S. manufactures implemented QR to increase American production and decrease imports, but, it was speculated that foreign competition could easily adopt QR and out-perform the U.S. again. That’s exactly what happened (more on this when we dive into Fast Fashion).

Over the next few decades U.S. manufacturers felt the negative effects of trade agreements and outsourcing. By 2006, it was estimated that 1 million jobs were lost due to trade agreements between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Nonetheless, Washington continued to shake hands on deals that encouraged outsourcing.

 

The Illusion of Winning.

All three factors, industrialization, copy-cat culture, and outsourcing snowball into each other, with the snowball being pushed by us, the consumer. Consumers may feel and certainly act as though they are a winner of this game, yet they are very much losing; their disregard, oblivion, and actions are fueling the game while hurting the people and resources necessary to play.

Let’s start by acknowledging that many garment workers live below the $2-a-day global poverty line and are forced to work in harmful and dangerous conditions, all so we can have a dozen jeans, jersey’s with other people’s names on them, t-shirts commemorating a bachelorette party, hoodies that we use as napkins, and shoes we wear once.

The sickening reality of a garment workers day-to-day is too much to dive into here (look out for that blog post!), yet this population is treated as pawns in the game, yet without them there is no game. Trade negotiations always promise “pay bumps” (aka making enough money to live above the global poverty line, not the million-dollar-bonuses their bosses get), but they rarely happen. The media covers deadly workshop disasters, causing us to take pause, then move on and forget too quickly. Additionally, the magnitude of destruction that the fashion industry is causing on this planet is nauseating. As I previously wrote, it is breaking down environmental, social, and governance foundations.

It’s important to learn how we got here so we know what to do next.


upcycle definition.JPG

Now we find ourselves in the midst of fast fashion’s destruction, and by design.  History has laid the perfect path for this harmful trend to take place; and worse, to stay, if we are compliant.  Without industrial improvements the ability to copy designs and outsource workers wouldn’t be possible; yet, copy-cat culture and outsourcing are evolving right along-side technological advancements. 

With the knowledge that technology is advancing a lot of the underbelly of the fashion industry we must use it to create platforms for more sustainable fashion.  Understanding that copy-cat culture is driving our most innocent of shopping choices, we can take a step back to discover the designers they are copying and rediscover our own personal style in the process.  Knowing the multitude of negative implications caused by outsourcing, we can make purchases that mitigate that practice.

Upcycling is one of many choices we can use to harness this knowledge for better decision making. Everything is at our fingertips to understand, discover, and purchase materials that are already in circulation.  We can use the technology available to us to search for, find, and purchase from local upcycled designers, and use other technology to share, showcase, and encourage others to do the same. But most importantly, we need to learn what we did in the past, as to not repeat it in the future.

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