On this day, April 24th, in 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, causing death or injury to over 3,000 workers in Bagladesh, a complex whose largest output was for the North American market. That day is the reason behind the social movement Fashion Revolution. The movement has different aspects of importance – calling for greater transparency from the fashion industry, and also calling for consumers to rethink what their choices are and where clothes really come from.
This movement has a specific popularity among people who are able to sew. We have a tangible ability to directly transform our clothes – to reuse, recycle, and reform our needs, and to bring awareness to our immediate social connections. I relate to the campaign on a personal level in this way. It makes me feel good to refashion instead of throwing out. I feel better about my material things when I know how well considered they were, and when I am feeling compulsive I know I can talk myself out of many questionable purchases.
I have a complicated relationship to the issue though, because I work in the fashion industry. I have a duality of interests to protect. I have a responsibility to ensure absolute transparency from the producers we partner with at my place of employment. I also have my personal concerns for the economic, environmental and social costs of what I do. I see both sides of the problem. I think most Americans can’t or won’t afford what it costs in most cases to produce the clothing we wear. It’s why we prefer to buy things on sale. Why we shop at stores like Forever 21, H&M, Target, Ross and TJ Maxx. We believe the amount we pay for a coffee run to Starbucks is about the same amount we would really like to pay for a t-shirt. I’ve read the comments on the Web pages for the brands I’ve worked for calling the prices “absurd” and “extortion”. Yet, I know the aspects of what goes into those garments. I know what drives cost up and down, and where different aspects can be manipulated to offer something to a consumer at an attractive price. There is a threshold to this balance. When I am out shopping, I know when I am looking at a price that is too good to be true. When you only have to shell out the smallest amount of cash, someone or something else is making up the difference in that price. It comes at the cost of clean air and water, jobs here and abroad. Most sadly, it can cost people’s lives in places where the low rate of labor allows certain kinds of production to exist.
One of the worst job interviews I ever went on was for a large apparel company that at one time or another has been scrutinized for their business practices, rightly so or not. I wasn’t sure I wanted to work there, but a friend recommended me so I felt I should go. I knew almost immediately I didn’t belong there and half way through the interview I was looking for an out. I learned a quick way to bring about the end of an uncomfortable interview is to ask, “What does this company do to help ensure best practices for ethical production?” I work in an industry that does not want to pull back the curtain. It’s not really glamorous back there, and I don’t think most hiring managers are really looking for an employee who asks what’s going on rather than focusing on making margin and delivery.
But what does it say about me that I only asked this question to tank the interview? Why have I not asked it when interviewing for jobs I really wanted? I wanted them trusting that they have been ethical places to work. Early in my career I was less concerned – I was too green to understand all the factors, and my main objective was to survive, to have access to health insurance, pay the rent, chip away at my student debt…the same circumstances that most people are in when they need to pay rock bottom for a t-shirt.
Thankfully there are practices in the industry that can allow for mass production to still be ethical toward garment workers. However, there are larger issues of consumption and wasting of resources that need to be addressed on a much bigger scale than just by one industry. Most days when I think about these things, my conclusion revolves around how unable we are to sustain things as they are.
I love what I do. I love the design process. I’ve spent my adult life becoming very good at my profession. Yet, I see the problems with it. The solution I have come to live with now relies only on my own personal actions. To think deeply about what I need, and be able to provide for myself and those close to me using my talents and abilities in flexible ways that can and will need to change in my lifetime.
So there is my soapbox for Fashion Revolution Day. Now let’s have some fashion. I made this skirt from fabrics in my stash which I acquired when an associate of mine in the industry was cleaning out their NYC showroom. Like me, they hate to see fabric go to waste. So I had an opportunity to grab some things for myself before the rest was donated to the design schools in the city.
I paired two different types of jaquard fabrics that individually were not enough to make a garment. I also used a lovely silk satin left over from my college graduation project (digging deep!) For the facings.
I also used a salvaged zipper. Whenever I have worn something out I always pick the zippers and buttons out for a future project. Here is the final project, based on Simplicity #1202, a simple skirt with two big, inverted pleats in front and back.
When I was taking these photos I noticed how similar the pattern is to my dining room rug. In another life maybe this fabric could have been a chair cushion!