5 Ways the Fashion Industry Hurts (And Helps) Women

Over the last two weeks, a large swathe of New York City has been engrossed in the commercial pomp that is fashion week, in which design houses show next season’s lines and regale the city with parties. Fashion week is as dazzling and elaborate as any Oscars or Grammy ceremonies, but its length (10 days) and breadth (all across Manhattan, from Lincoln Center to the Lower East Side) ensure it is an even greater spectacle. The line goes that fashion week turns even regular people into insane, appearance-obsessed gossip folks—and having attended enough shows through the years, I can attest to at least myself becoming an unrecognizable nutcase during these times. (Where is my seat? What if I fall trying to reach it? Are the prints I’m wearing properly mismatched? Etc.)

Fashion week is a dichotomy: hundreds of designers put their creative all into what many consider another form of fine art, while at the same time, the industry is reinforcing the country’s worst beauty and labor standards. Beyond the obvious—the normalization of anorexia/starvation, the maintaining of a beauty ideal that is impossible for most of the world, and general rampant conservatism within the industry—the unfair treatment of models has recently come to light with the first models’ union.  Started by progressive ex-model Sara Ziff and supported by big names like designer Diane Furstenberg and supermodel Coco Rocha, the Models Alliance aims to protect young women in the industry who have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, unfair working hours and non-commensurate pay. Inspired by Saul Alinsky, Ziff’s organization shows the crux of the fashion industry: that while it’s often viewed as destructive, it can also be more progressive than anyone imagined. There are two sides to every coin, and here, we look at both.

1. Labor

CON: There are serious issues within the fashion industry regarding the treatment of its models, most of whom are not the kinds of marquee names that pull tens of thousands of dollars a day. Another issue is with the manufacturing of said items; despite designer clothing being out of most peoples’ price range, runway looks are sometimes still made in China under working conditions we would abhor. Even Prada, the luxury Italian label that is along with Chanel considered one of the gold-standard fashion houses in the industry and is run by former communist/progressive Miuccia Prada, has moved some of its operations to Asia for cheaper labor... yet it hasn’t adjusted its prices to reflect that.

PRO: On the other hand, by definition haute couture lines must use artisanal laborers, who have often spent their entire lives perfecting the process of tailoring and creating the finest clothing. (In French, the term translates to “high sewing,” and is a method of elevating traditionally women’s work into high art that recalls the craft movement of 1960s and ‘70s feminist artists.) If normal designer clothing is beyond reach for most people, haute couture is a queen’s dream, but it does encourage one thing; its premium pricing values not just the designer or the name, but also the workers who put in their time and skills to be the finest in the world. The sewers are represented by the Federation Francaise de la couture, a consolidated trade union representing laborers within the realm of high French fashion—and all design houses operating within haute couture must abide by its rules. Though haute couture represents only a handful of designers, it is the industry standard to aspire to, and sets the tone for the cascade to the lower high-end. And as more and more home designers offer their handmade wares on sites like Etsy, regular consumers have the ability to own unique yet affordable one-of-a-kinds, and to participate in an alternative, localized economy.

2. Feminism

CON: Clearly, feminism has handled all sorts of problems with the fashion and beauty industries, and is still fighting issues that include, but are not limited to: obsession with anorexic skinniness, promotion of an industry-wide concept of “perfection,” disdain for the natural process of aging, and regulation of the gender-essentialist concept of “femininity." Women’s magazines are indeed battlegrounds for women's self-esteem, and anyone who tries to deny fashion’s fetishization with the “perfect thin frame” need look no further than the sizing of designer clothing: many of them do not size higher than 12, and said sizes often do not correspond to a “normal” person’s idea of them.

PRO: At the same time, fashion and feminism are not mutually exclusive. Take Coco Chanel, for instance, whose pantsuits in the prim 1920s and ‘30s liberated women from the proper attire of skirts and made more masculine silhouettes both acceptable and fashionable in an era of feminist suffrage. In more modern times, many designers approach their looks with at least female power in mind, if not explicitly feminist intent. Miuccia Prada is known for challenging traditional ideas of female dress through humor and playfulness, while Alexander McQueen spoofed femininity cartoonishly while creating “armor” to protect women from this cold world. When fashion and style are viewed separately from the capitalist industry that propels it, the ideas can be eye-opening...a continuation on the theme that designers are simply visual artists in a different medium. (A must-read on this topic: the writer Minh-Ha T. Pham's piece "Fraught Intimacies.")

3. Race

CON: The most glaring issue at fashion week, and in fashion magazines, is the appalling paucity of models of color. With the exception of a few of the superfamous—Liu Wen, Chanel Iman, Liya Kebede, Jourdan Dunn—the most-booked models tend to be white. Jezebel has tallied up models of color on the runway at fashion weeks past (this week's tally is not yet available), and has seen a significant uptick since 2007, but the site calls the autumn 2011 season “the whitest in years” on the runway. Last season (spring 2012) was markedly better than the season prior. Still, the breakdown is astonishing: of all models walking the catwalk in NYFW, a full 84 percent were white, 8 percent were black, 6 percent were Asian, 2 percent were nonwhite Latinas, and .07 percent were listed as “other.”

PRO: Increased awareness within the industry is dovetailing with a more vocal demand for models of color, who are getting better jobs, bit by bit. Still, magazines and catwalks are lightyears away from reflecting the diversity the 2010 census documented in the US.

4. Animal Rights

CON: This is one of the worst areas of certain fashion houses—when luxury is part and parcel of your label, what is more luxurious than an archaic, 12th-century monarchy idea of animal fur as a commodity. It’s almost as though synthetics were never invented! Anti-fur activists such as PETA and the Anti-Fur Coalition have protested certain shows for years, yet the use of animal pelts continues undeterred in many fashion houses. This fashion week, for autumn 2012, designers incorporating animal fur into their lines include Zac Posen, Yohji Yamamoto, Theysken’s Theory, Thom Browne and The Row (by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen)—all coveted among fashionistas, and certainly doing nothing to alleviate the cruelty of the international fur trade.

PRO: The protests have made their mark, and certain high-end designers refuse to use fur and even leather, as in the case of Stella McCartney, whose highly regarded fashion line is 100-percent animal friendly. Along with clothiers who are more affordable but are completely dedicated to making vegan lines, such as Beyond Skin, Matt and Nat and Loomstate, more mainstream retailers such as Topshop and American Apparel have promised never to sell items made of animal products. (The latter outlets have a tangle of other issues, such as sweatshops and workplace harassment, that might cause consumers to think twice, despite their animal-friendly bent.)

5. Economic Inequity

CON: High fashion tends to feed into the credit-card economy, unsustainable for individuals and the country. While designer clothing is geared toward the luxury set that is the 1 percent, a combination of cultural pressure and aspiration has created a society where young women will purchase items they might not necessarily be able to afford on plastic, in order to fit in or feel fabulous or for bragging rights or a myriad of reasons. It may have started with the television show “Sex in the City,” in which protagonist Carrie Bradshaw wrote a seemingly sporadic advice column for a smallish New York newspaper yet still seemed to be able to afford an unending supply of Manolo Blahnik shoes, which retail at around $800 a pop. Since then, the economic crash seems to have reigned in this kind of extravagant spending—or at least representations of it in pop culture—but certainly some of that credit-card debt Americans are laboring under is due to the cultural pressure to fit in via designer clothing.

PRO: This is the least defensible category when it comes to fashion. As noted prior, often the cost of making designer garments is not commensurate with the price at retail—you’re paying for the name, and also reinforcing the economic stratification of the country. Fashion as an art form can be a wonderful, edifying experience—but there’s a reason the best fashion icons emphasize the difference between the fashion industry and personal style: it’s not about who makes the clothes, but how you wear them. Also, know your allies: while Occupy sought to shut down Calvin Klein’s runway show in protest of its general 1-percentness, other designers, such as punk icon Vivienne Westwood, support the movement.

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