Behind the cloak of glamour

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There is a big gap between what people wear on the catwalk and real life

In a new series of columns Rena Niamh Smith will look at aspects of the fashion industry, from ideology to racism, sexism and the environment. She begins with Fashion Week and how it conceals the system beneath.

This month, Spring/Summer 2019 Fashion Week swaggers into New York, followed by London, Milan and Paris. The carnival of shows is one of the most visible elements of an industry which cloaks itself in mystery. It is a multimillion-pound charade masking practices typical of capitalism: worker exploitation and artificially high consumption of the world’s resources.

An interest in clothing is not inherently problematic. To dismiss fashion is lazy. For socialists, a serious rethink of society must address basic needs like clothing, but also recognise that style can be an expression of individuality. However, understanding how the rag trade under capitalism systematically disguises inequality is a powerful ideological lesson.

The rigid hierarchy built on sweatshop labour at the bottom engineers a VIP club at the top. Simply getting into the industry requires the right accent, appearance and the means to intern for free. Once inside, access to fashion week is tightly regulated. Fashion show attendees are mostly wealthy customers, fashion journalists and buyers; if one does not own a fortune, one must either have a readership or clientele that does.

During fashion week, designers release collections competing to be named best of the season. Most luxury brands are owned by just a handful of conglomerates like Kering and LVMH. Meanwhile high street retailers, similarly dominated by multinationals, reproduce the hottest trends.

Fashion companies compete for profit, and encourage consumers to compete with “personal brands” in a solipsistic pursuit of happiness through the cash desk. There is an art to dressing imaginatively, but when creative genius is synonymous with expense, it’s not art; it’s business.

Each season in Paris, Chanel hold the centrepiece show, transforming the Grand Palais into sets with breathtaking attention to detail — a space station with a rocket that launched, a forest with century-old trees, even a street protest.

Despite this exclusivity, labels like Chanel rely more heavily on the wallets of ordinary people than their clothes wait lists suggest. Christian Dior began selling his name to licence handbags and hats in the 1950s. Now the majority of sales of luxury fashion houses are £50 fragrances and £200 sunglasses, not haute couture or ready-to-wear collections.

Fashion week is pure marketing spectacle. The quality of luxury goods often does not match their extortionate price. In her book Stitched Up, Tansy Hoskins quotes an anonymous Louis Vuitton executive who describes their success as “the biggest sleight of hand since snake oil. Can you imagine that this is all based on canvas toile with a plastic coating and a bit of leather trim?”

Few runway looks bear any resemblance to anything anyone might wear, and many are never actually produced. Fashion shows are theatrics far removed from normal life, but they are a necessary tool in creating the spectacle of “fashion”, obfuscating the realities of production and confusing consumers into spend overdrive.

In The Fashion System Roland Barthes wrote that “in order to blunt the buyer’s calculating consciousness, a veil must be drawn around the object — a veil of images, of reasons, of meaning”.

Fashion week is far removed from the crippling reality of the garment industry which employs one in six people worldwide. In a $1.5 trillion industry that relies heavily on human hands, gross inequalities are necessary to maximise profit. In this magazine last year Anthony Sullivan provided an excellent analysis of production practices such as piece rates and sub-contracting, familiar to Karl Marx 150 years ago and that remain the norm today.

In countries such as Bangladesh workers have been forced into sweatshops en masse. Through subcontracting, factory bosses compete for the business of multinational companies. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 which killed 1,134 workers was the deadliest garment factory accident in history. In the same year riot police in Cambodia killed and injured garment workers demanding the minimum wage.

The fashion industry divides the working class between labourers in the Global South and Western workers rebranded as consumers. Artificially cheap fast fashion gives Western workers an illusion of wealth and smooths over class difference. The system demands constant spend, be it the £540 Gucci loafer or £15 Primark version.

Natalie Singh, Head of Denim and Street at trend forecaster WGSN told Hoskins that fashion “is all about making you feel that what you’ve got is not quite right already. It’s ultimately about making people feel insecure.”

Store cards — with APR rates of up to 30 percent — target that insecurity with a form of relief known as “retail therapy”. Is it any wonder that some of the 2011 rioters, a generation increasingly marginalised and excluded, decided to loot what they could not afford to buy?

Marx said, “a garment only becomes a real garment in the act of being worn”. Like a garment on a hanger, clothing does not exist in isolation. There is an ideology at work beneath the fabric here that is putrid.