Fashion: Of Desires Provoked and Left Unfulfilled.
According to Business of Fashion, Burberry is one fashion house that admitted in March it would increase prices to attract new, wealthier customers after more ‘exclusive’ products.
For a term as thick in meaning and implication as fashion, and for any critical study on it to be successful, it is important to bring it down from the realm of the abstract, to which it is often relegated, to the concrete.
Fashion, in addition to being one of the most successful vehicles of cultural globalisation, is also one of the global market’s most fetishized ideas: one which neatly integrates both its artistic and commercial connotations, and how one feeds into the other.
THE FETISHIZATION OF FASHION
How fashion has become a fantasy that lodges itself in the minds of so many people, that they aspire to “being in fashion”, or “being fashionable”, can be largely attributed to what Marx would call its “mystical” quality as a ‘commodity’.
Like every commodity, then, fashion also fulfils a “social function”, and operates within the realm of social relations of production.
Marx’s iconic Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof from Capital Volume I (1867)
is informed by that phase of history in which industrial production was in its heyday, and in the garment industry, the sewing-machine, the handloom and the power loom had long been introduced. By the 1850s, the London Press was already calling clothing factories which mass-produced ready-to-wear clothing a “sweating system”. [We now call this Dickensian system, only bleaker, “sweat-shops.”]
(Ready Wear Clothing: Mass Production and Mass Customization)
Although mass-production of clothing took off in the mid 19th century, it was not until the twentieth century and the rise of the European fashion houses that the “apparel” industry began to be “institutionalised” as the “Fashion industry”, which now stands at 1.5tn US$ a year globally.
It is when fashion designers became the “arbiters of taste”, that a new order of interaction between the superstructure sustained by hegemony and the new intellectual class, and the economic base — comprising the labourer — was initiated.
Marx dwells on the social form of the products of labour in Fetishism of Commodities.
When labour employed in the fashion industry finish making a garment, or an article or accessory that satisfies a particular ‘desire’ and ‘taste’, “it fulfils an “enigmatic” social function.
This, it does, by assuming the “form of a commodity.”
“wood (…) is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.” (Marx)
Marx says value is created when products are converted into commodities. And, it is exchange that determines the degree of value.
“It is only by being exchanged [for a premium] that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility.”
In fact, fashion as a commodity becomes more and more valuable as it decreases in utility. One buys clothes out of need, but fashion, is bought for taste. There is no intrinsic social value in fashion until it is put on display, viewed by others, and satisfies the sensibilities of an elite class — an opportunity to assert that it has access to fashion, and the power to possess it.
Exchange values themselves depend on the “labour time” invested to produce an object.
It is no wonder then, that a hand — crafted Birkin bag, which takes so long to produce that there is sometimes a waiting list that runs for as long as two years to buy one — fetches US$150,000.
It can take up to 48 hours to produce a Birkin, and the premium on them is so high, that Hermes closes their waiting lists for the bag once they run into years.
The mystique surrounding the bag is so strong, that owning it is considered better investment than holding stocks or shares. (Brennan)
A Sales Manager in an Hermes store in Sloane Street explains the reason, “Our artisans are trained for three to four years before they are allowed to touch the hide [to make the bag]. Each bag is made by a single artisan — and if you put several bags in front of one of them, he can pick out the one he made.” (Brennan)
And if one tires of the wait, even the most expensive bag at a Forever 21 store — put together by and large on a convenor belt, produced at the rate of a thousand a day, and readily available, will still be priced at less than a hundred dollars.
Fashion, therefore, is a relationship between men and men — producers and consumers — just as much, if not much more, than it is between men and objects of fashion.
Tereza Kuldova, who also borrows from the concept of fetish for her study of fashion, has even suggested that it might just be the
“painful expropriations that lie at the core of luxury” which are the source of the “luxury shopaholic’s pleasure and power.” (Kuldova)
Let us consider the elusive Birkin once again. Surely, intensive labour and scarcity cannot be the only reasons the Birkin invites the kind of curiosity that it does? Marx argues that the mystery and incomprehensibility of commodities — which he describes as their hieroglyphic quality, adds to their value.
Value, Marx says,
“does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language.”
In likening fashion to a social hieroglyphic, as a language we don’t know, we go back to Miuccia Prada, who refers to fashion as language.
The authority of writing the literature in fashion, thus, so to say, rests with the class of men who can read this language. To put it in Foucaultian terms, the intellectual elite create “discourses”, in this case, it is fashion designers who act as “arbiters of taste” to create a discourse around fashion, and in the process, acquire the power to “govern” the labour class.
FASHION AS A FORM OF CLASS DIFFERENTIATION
American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s paper Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection offers a useful commentary on Simmel’s proposition of fashion as a form of “class differentiation in a relatively open class society.” He says that fashion “demarcates an elite group, and “represent[s] a kind of anxious effort of elite groups to set themselves apart by introducing trivial and ephemeral demarcating insignia, with a corresponding strained effort by non-elite classes to make a spurious identification of themselves with upper classes by adopting these insignia”.
Elsewhere, he states that people “respond primarily to (fashion’s) character of propriety and social distinction; these are tempering guides. Fashion has respectability; it carries the stamp of approval of an elite an elite that is recognized to be sophisticated and believed to be wise in the given area of endeavor. It is this endorsement which undergirds fashion rather than the emotional interaction which is typical of crazes.”
This particular tendency of the elite class to socially demarcate itself above the other classes also reflects in Thornstein Veblen’s treatise on consumerism and conspicuous consumption. (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899).
In the chapter Dress as an Expression of Pecuniary Culture, Veblen writes, “It is especially the rule of the conspicuous waste of goods that finds expression in dress, although the other, related principles of pecuniary repute are also exemplified in the same contrivances. Other methods of putting one’s pecuniary standing in evidence serve their end effectually, and other methods are in vogue always and everywhere; but expenditure on dress has this advantage over most other methods, that our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance. It is also true that admitted expenditure for display is more obviously present, and is, perhaps, more universally practiced in the matter of dress than in any other line of consumption.”
The “leisure class” that Veblen spoke of, however, was broader in its implication than Marx’s or Simmel’s “elites”. It also spoke of the middle class that was emerging in the 19th and 20th centuries which had a large percentage of “disposable income” to spend conspicuously. (Investopedia)
Blumer’s own approach to fashion, however, seeks to deviate from both Simmel and Thornstein’s historical materialism in that it regards fashion as a “massive process of “collective selection” wherein choices are guided more by the elusive lure of modernity than by invidious class distinctions as such.” Blumer’s social- psychological take on fashion is based on his conception of symbolic interactionism.
The main principles of symbolic interactionism, according to the man himself, are that
(a) Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them,
(b)These meanings arise out of social interaction, and
© Social action results from a fitting together of individual lines of action.
This collective selection is a consequence of a “collective taste” that consumers develop from exposure to a “common world of intense stimulation”. The direct reference he makes is to women selecting a particular fashion/design collectively, based on their interaction with popular fashion magazines of the day. (More in the chapter Provoking Desire).
Marshall Mc Luhan in “Understanding Media — The Extensions of Man” defines clothing as fulfilling two functions. One, rather scientific and absurd, is heat retention. But the second one is more important. He says clothing is a “means of defining the self socially.”
Tereza Kuldova’s ethnographic and social anthropological take on fashion is extremely useful when it comes to understanding the “human cost” of fashion, and how its hegemony sustains its production. She attributes the success of fashion as an institution in India especially, to the “associated imagery of art, performance, and the pleasurable experience.”
She understands views fashion as a “sociological theatre” where “fashion brands aim at providing ready-made myths” to consumers, and spectators of this theatre, to encourage co-creation of fantastical myths and a “collective effervescence”.
Materialist critiques are often accused of getting stuck in the blind spot of production and the factory as the source of class conflict. In order to understand Fashion as an institution which maintains an unequal society, and a negation of class conflict, Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” becomes far more useful and expressive than the Marxist idea of the “dominant class”. Hegemony critically examines the exertion of the cultural authority of the elite class, and looks at the active role that the subordinate classes play in the operation of power.
Hegemony, when combined with inter-disciplinary fields of social anthropology, materialism and psycho-sociology, is an extremely effective tool for deconstructing fashion’s capitalist interests, and this thesis tries to locate Fashion within these contexts.
Fashion is a business relying on an intricate network of manufacture, marketing and retail.
It has even been described as a hyper-capitalist industry which stands at 1.5 trillion dollars a year. (Chakrobortty)
It is one of the most globalised trades of all, “one that produces goods for short-term use (to be updated or thrown out every six months), sourced from all over the world and generating substantial profits for those at the top…”. (Chakrobortty)
Like any successful capitalist project built on class disparities, the fashion industry rewards the upper-levels of the capitalist pyramid (the intellectuals: CEOs, owners of holdings, top-rung retailers, designers, magazine editors) with “substantial profits”, while the working hands at the bottom languish in poverty, fight starvation, and a continually failing sense of ambition. (Kuldova)
(See: Labour behind the Label)
Aditya Chakrabortty points out the extent to which the Fashion industry is monopolised. Citing Tansy Hsokin’s Stitched Up, he says 60% of the luxury goods market is concentrated in just 35 brands.
These brands, again, aren’t stand-alone entities. Most of them are owned by a few giant fashion firms with large market shares.
Bernard Arnault, the thirteenth richest man in the world (Forbes) is the owner of LVHM Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA. LVMH occupies the highest market share in the global fashion segment.
The Arnault’s family’s influence in the trade is so singular, that Forbes Magazine defines them as “global tastemakers”. (Forbes)
The global luxury goods conglomerate consists of brands like Céline, Dior, EDUN (which was the brainchild of Bono and his wife), Emilio Pucci, Fendi, Givenchy, Kenzo, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. Combined with the next two conglomerates in the list, Compagnie Financière Richemont SA and Hermès International Société , these three fashion firms together account for about 30 percent of the industry’s total market cap. If the next two on the list are also put together, they’d own more than 50 percent of the industry’s total business. (Zaczkiewicz)
THE RISE OF E-COMMERCE IN LUXURY BRANDING
The operative word in the fashion industry is trend, characteristically bound to time and change, or, changing with time. In our times, the currency of trend comes with an additional dimension. A trend is no more what consumers wear, but also how they buy what they wear.
Because of this added dimension, businesses now face challenges of a new kind.
Millennials, 20-somethings who spend a lot of their incomes on clothing, are also digital natives.
Bain & Co.’s annual report on Luxury Spending for 2015 suggests that while wholesale and retail channels are still big, e-commerce in the field of luxury fashion appreciated by 7% in 2015.
To not lose relevance with this demographic, luxury brands are now reinventing themselves to engage with the millennial consumer and develop a digital footprint.
Gucci, a brand worth 4bn dollars, has repositioned itself to engage with Generation Y, who wants the “now and the new”, extremely innovatively, but it hasn’t forgotten to play its exclusivity card.
The Financial Times reported that Gucci’s “online sales were up more than 50 per cent during the [last quarter of 2016], boosted by Gucci Garden — a capsule collection sold exclusively online.” (The Financial Times)
Another smart move by CEO Allessandro Michel was his decision to introduce more and more “entry-level goods” in his store. As stated earlier, fashion’s true allegiance is to the aspirational class — one which buys brands as instrument of social advancement.
It is this class of people which is likely to walk into a Gucci store and buy the cheapest variant of the item they want to buy — the cheapest Gucci perfume, wallet, or watch. The idea is to own a brand, and the premium is on the brand name stamped on the commodity they buy, not the commodity per se.
Regionally, South-East Asian countries outperform the US and Europe to be the biggest drivers of the luxury fashion market worldwide. China alone accounts for the largest portion of global purchases in the segment. (at 31%; US: 24%, Europe:18%) (Claudia D’Arpizio)
The Chinese, in fact, also account for the largest number of luxury tourists travelling mainly to Europe with shopping as their main motive.
While big CEOs work on manufacturing desire, (Bernard Arnault is quoted as saying, “My job is to create desire through innovation, quality and craftsmanship,”) there aren’t many people who can afford to have their desires fulfilled. As Fashion demarcates a class group, Veblen also said that the lower classes try to emulate the ways of the elite.
Where there’s a demand, there’s a business opportunity. The demand for high-fashion for low-cost masses led to the birth of the counterfeit industry, which now stands at 450billion USD, and threatens to destroy the very industry which engendered it.
THE COUNTERFEIT INDUSTRY
Traditionally, the counterfeit industry was never perceived as a serious threat to the fashion industry, and legal action against manufactures of rip-offs and fakes was very limited. The reasons were that replicas helped brand name infiltration, and imitation was considered the proverbial form of flattery (It made business sense as well, because the elite clientele luxury fashion is designed for, will not buy replicas any way). (Business of Fashion)
Intellectual property laws in fashion were also not taken as seriously as they are in the field of the arts, simply because it was not viable for fashion designers to put copyright marks on their creations. Copyrighting designs means that customers pay more for a design, and it also becomes difficult for a designer to re-work their own designs, or those of others, as is common practice, to keep innovating.
However, companies woke up to reality when counterfeits started hurting brand reputation. A customer who decided to stop buying Hermes, had this to say:
“Who wants something that can be so easily faked?”
“Hermes is for posers. When you go to Hong Kong, you see there is such a big market for Hermes counterfeits.”
Graver, however, is the serious economic hurt caused to European brands by the counterfeit industry. A report published by Europe’s Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) suggests that European brands lose €26.3 billion yearly, that is, 9.7% of their total sales to fake fashion. Translating that to jobs, the imitation industry has taken away about 363.000 jobs across the retail, manufacturing, and wholesale sectors in the European industry. (Bain)
With the increased penetration of e-retail, it is now easier than ever to sell fakes to a global market. Online shopping for brands means that you don’t get to touch and feel what you buy –you simply buy what is shown to you. ‘Mirror websites’, that is, websites which pose as the brand’s original online store, are especially drawing a number of “deceived customers.”
INDIAN MARKET FOR GLOBAL FASHION
India is now an extremely confident economic force. Owing to Narendra Modi, our national pride has soared so high that “our future superpowerdom” has also translated in generally higher levels of spending (November 2016’s demonetisation was an aberration in the general pattern). Like international fast-food franchises that have attained success here because they adapted to the Indian palate, global marquee brands like ZARA, HnM and The Body Shop have taken to aggressive pricing tactics for the “value conscious Indian customer.” (Anand) The fact that an increasing number of these brands are outsourcing their operations to India itself, means there is better curation and cheaper production — which in turn means the Indian fashion-conscious aspriational class gets a taste of global fashion, albeit, one which is Made in India and Made for India.
Ownership models in the Indian fashion industry are not vastly different from the West. Arvind Lifestyle Brands and DLF Brands hold the Indian franchisees of a majority of the foreign brands that operate here, including GAP, Debenhams, Sephora, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, US Polo, and Calvin Klein.
Arvind’s share in the 800cr ‘Bridge-to-Luxury’ segment in India alone is a whopping 90 percent.
The Bridge-to-Luxury segment consists of “products craved by the upper middle class that are less pricey than luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, but more expensive than other labels.” (Dalal)
LABOUR BEHIND THE LABEL
“The elite intellectual designs these superpowerdom inspired utopian atmospheres — and the poor folk who build these — are expelled from imagination.” — Tereza Kuldova
Luxury and inequality are two sides of a coin. In a materialist world, it is not possible to have one without the other. Branding and the spectacular facade of fashion’s theatre does a good job of putting the consumer off the scent of its suspect origins, but in truth, global trends in Fashion are also built on large-scale exploitation of workers and establishment of sweat shops in third world nations like India, in South-East Asia and Latin America, and now increasingly, even Sub-Saharan and East Africa.
The fashion industry invests most in localities such as the the Middle East, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, india, Cambodia, Turkey, China, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc. (Kuldova) because of the surplus and cheap labour available, favourable trade laws, and “duty-free access to Western markets”.
As the 1% becomes wealthier and continues to spend, the daily wager stitching clothes in a dingy sweatshop “faces the risk of starvation (it is estimated that one in three textile workers in Cambodia are medically underweight) or death, as in the perennial textile factory deaths of the Indian subcontinent.” (Chakrobortty)
Between the ideological production of a fashion by a designer, and its material production by a labourer, lies a world of economic and social inequality. Fashion firms and conglomerates do a great job of veiling these systemic injustices by producing corporate videos in which workers are beaming with happiness, factories are state of the art, and namesake safety regulations are extolled well beyond their merit. All of it, however, is an entirely manufactured set up.
In 2013, in Bangladesh, where the garment export industry employs 160 million people, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building which housed 28 clothing brands, killed 1,133 people and injured 2,500 others. The biggest industrial disaster in the country, it was as if a curtain was suddenly lifted and the world was exposed to a secret it wasn’t meant to know.
In 2016, 38 people accused in the case were convicted for murder.
But millions of lives continue to be co-opted into a circle of impoverishment in Bangladesh daily — child labour is rampant in Bangladesh, and when workers protest for a wage raise, they are simply sacked by the hundreds. (Safi)
A University of Sheffield report says that even supply chain audits fail to address and highlight problems of systemic inequalities and abuse. The report says, “Audits are ineffective tools for detecting, reporting, or correcting environmental and labour problems in supply chains. They reinforce existing business models and preserve the global status quo.”
The work that these workers do is compensated for so badly that the phenomenon is also referred to as “supply chain slavery”. (Safi)
The Rana plaza factory itself had been audited twice by Primark.
Garment factories employ majorly women, immigrant, and child labour. Gender based attacks in the workplace are common, and there are hardly any safeguards in place. While these people provide low-cost labour, they in turn aren’t given any social or health security.
As the industry makes turnovers worth trillions annually, these workers scramble to fish out money for basic necessities like food and rent.
The middle class false consciousness and repressive, unfriendly State, fears of harassment and arrest, hasn’t even allowed trade unions to keep together. Tamil Nadu-based filmmaker Amudhan AP’s documentary Dollar City, based in the clothing industry hub on Tamil Nadu, Tirrupur, brings to light the fact that there has not been a single workers’ strike in the area in the last 20 years. “It is a perfect illustration of the Gramscian idea of manufacturing consent.” (Amudhan R.P.)
Brands like Ralph Lauren, Hugo and Armani, all manufacture in Bangladesh. (Chakrobortty)
Some of the world’s most expensive brands, source their labour from a country where workers are paid the world’s lowest minimum wage. (54 Euros at present)
Tereza Kuldova says that the fashion industry is one in which there is a “Structural violence” — of rights, humanity, and individuality. Outside of the factory, the situation is just as grim — if not more — labourers live in squalor, to which they return after working 12 hour shifts.
In India as well, there has been a widespread abuse of human rights in the garment industry. Sweat-shop workers, mainly women, have complained of abuse in factories. They are given impossible targets to work with (150 pieces an hour), and when they can’t deliver, they are called “dogs and donkeys”, and told to “go and die”. Physical abuse by factory supervisors is also a common occurrence. Workers claim that they are also “cheated out of their dues by their employers.” (Guardian)
Working conditions depend on a country’s economy. In Columbia, conditions are much better than Bangladesh. The wage is also better. In mainland China, which is the world’s biggest clothes exporter, the minimum wage is 4 times that in Bangladesh. In third-world nations, workers are being used as a mode of production, but none of the benefits are accruing to them.
It is important to think about the question Kuldova raises: what is it that we value in a capitalist society, the headless artisan, or the handless designer?
It is “important to re-embed designers (and fashions) in their socio-economic realities in which they operate daily,” (Kuldova), so it becomes evident that disasters such as Rana Plaza are not anomalies, but “part of a system in which manufacture is outsourced to subcontractors who operate under a regulatory regime that can best be described as turning a blind eye.” (Chakrobortty)
HEART OF DARKNESS
Now increasingly, inverstors in Fashion and designers are looking to East and Sub-Saharan Africa as a “potential site for sweatshop labour.” (Business of Fashion) Already, Ethiopia-born US top model Liya Kebede’s fashion label Lemlem and EDUN, a fashion brand found by Ali Hewson and Bono in 2005 (EDUN, however, is owned by Bernard Arlnault’s LVMH) are operating out of sweatshops in Africa.
Both brands, however, cite philanthropic causes for their interest in Africa. EDUN advertises its philosophy on its official website as such: “EDUN’s aim is to promote trade in Africa by sourcing production through-out the continent.”
Lemlem’s Liya Kebede, likewise, says, her clothing line is an attempt at “giving back” (Sherman) to her home country, Ethiopia.
In early March this year, All India Skin and Hide Tanners and Merchants Association (AISHTMA) in Chennai signed MoUs with East African countries like Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to set up tanneries there, so as to “leverage the availability of cheap and surplus labour there.” (Vaitheesvaran)
An AISHTMA official said to The Economic Times, “The labour costs [in Africa] are just about 60% of what we need to pay here. Power supply can be brought in at a third of what the expenditure is in India.” (Vaitheesvaran)
It doesn’t come as a surprise then, that the Fashion industry wants to foray into a continent and its array of cultures that make not only economic sense, but are also easy to culturally hegemonise.
PROVOKING DESIRE: TOOLS
“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizers of a new culture, of a legal system, etc.”
- Antonio Gramsci, Formation of the Intellectuals.
The global fashion industry has been called opaque, and rightly so. An entire system built around branding, advertising and the fashion media manage this opacity, and embellish it to make it appear so engaging and beautiful in its own that one wouldn’t want to look beyond.
For Gramsci, intellectuals act as functionaries of the superstructure, that is, they mediate between the economic production at the base and the superstructure. (Chattopadhyay)
These intellectuals, the top-brass of fashion, are the show-managers. Tereza Kuldova calls fashion a sociological theatre. Its plotlines, actors, directors and producers are stage-managed to the point of perfection.
LOGOS AND BRANDING
Karl Lagerfeld’s entire range of bags for women, K/Signature, is designed around a single piece-de-resistance: Karl’s Signatures.
This range of bags includes wallets, satchel-bags, slings, and shoulder-bags, in varying colors and sizes, but all bearing the same K Signature. That is the USP of this collection which starts at 235 dollars and goes up to 500$. His another signature line is called Fly with Karl, in which Karl himself is depicted as Pilot, his flying ID bearing his name, and the highly fetishised dark glasses and black tie are stitched onto the bag.
Karl Lagerfeld, may we be reminded, is a person. But more than that, he is a brand. Whatever he touches, bears his name, becomes a commodity of heightened value.
Like Marx’s thought is known as Marxism, Lagerfeld has his Karlisms. (karl.com)
Logos are now so ubiquitous that Naomi Klein, an activist journalist and campaigner against MNC intrusions, feels they are the closest thing we have to an international language. She recalls her days as a young teenager, when she would embroider Alligators into unbranded t-shirts to pass them off as Lacoste.
Branding has intruded our thought so much that even toddlers grow up conditioned with brand awareness.
“Labels like baby gap and GAP Newborn, [even Tommy Hilfiger for Kids] imprint brand awareness on toddlers and turn babies into mini-billboards.”
she refers to a friend’s seven year old who marks his homework not with “check marks but with little red Nike swooshes.”
“These logos served the same social function as keeping the clothing’s price tag on: everyone knew precisely what premium the wearer was willing to pay for style.” (Klein)
She says the logo itself became an “all active fashion accessory”, growing in size from a “three-quarter inch emblem into a chest-sized marquee.” The result: sentient billboards.
Branding only the products that a company sells is however long been an outdated concept. Klein talks about the next level of branding: branding the outside culture as well. She says, “Branding for companies was not just a matter of adding value to a product. It was about thirstily soaking up cultural iconography that their brands could reflect by projecting these ideas images back on the culture as ‘expansions’ of their brands.” (Klein)
It was now culture, which added value to their brands. This “cultural expansionism” is about full-frontal branding which is much “more than traditional corporate sponsorships.” Think Coke Studio, think Nike After-School Basketball, and Izod zoos.
All these Klein calls examples of “sponsored culture.” (Klein)
Swiss watchmaker Swatch went to the extent of branding time itself. In 1999, it reconceived time in terms of “Swatch beats”, wherein each day is divided into a thousand Swatch Beats.
The ultra-innovative branding game was veiled, once again, under the guise of innovation itself. Internet time, said Swatch, is same all over the world and enables one to think independently of time zones.
It is the age of “Sensory branding, neuromarketing and manipulating customers and their subconscious.” (Kuldova)
Nowhere is brand expansionism more evident than in the rocketing practice of native advertising. Brands are pumping huge money into digital publications to tailor-content for them in a way that it looks like an editorial story, but is actually an advertisement/promotion in disguise. An article that reads like, “10 Best Floral Designs this summer” is very likely to guide you to a brand which has manufactured these designs and paid for the article. Or ad?
Outbrain, an award winning native-advertising platform, writes this as a native-advertising do, “ Use body copy to smoothly lead the reader to your intended next step”.
THE MYTHOLOGY OF ELITENESS
Tereza Kuldova calls fashion a “class-specific fantasy.”
The mythology of eliteness is an important tool in perpetuating the hegemony of fashion. Referring to the spectacular, larger-than-life fashion shows that are put up the world over — Paris, New York, London, New Delhi, Kuldova says “Staging events that invite the audience to participate in “co-creating” an affective, joyful atmosphere” is an effective way of positively projecting the universe of a brand positively onto the customers’ universe. “It is in the collective movements [of designer and the client] that one embraces the embedded ideologies and brand mythology.” (Kuldova)
With these “staged theatrical events”, the idea is to create a world of intense stimulation. The stimulation of a lifestyle associated with the fashions on display. You buy the fashion, you buy the lifestyle. It is apt to recall the Marxist theorist Guy Debord at this point, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” (Debord)
THE ROLE OF THE FASHION MEDIA
“The dress was stunning”!
As mentioned in an earlier chapter on theory, Herbert Blumer calls fashion an outcome of “collective selection” which is informed by “common exposure” to the fashion media.
He cites his experience at a Parisian store opening as a case in point. In order to explain why only a handful of pieces from the new designer collection at a Parisian store were the most successful, he spoke to female shoppers at the store and concluded that they converged on the same designs because they already had an impression of what was “in fashion” based on the fashion magazines they were all reading, and the lively discussions they had in this “common world of intense stimulation”. “Due to immersion in this world”, he said, “they developed common sensitivities and similar appreciations”. And they all thought that the dress Blumer held up to them, the fashion magazine prototype, was “stunning.”
A large function of the fashion media is to ask celebs on red carpets the all-important question, “What are you wearing?”, and the expected answer is not the obvious, “ I’m wearing an evening dress.”
It is rather, “I’m dressed in a custom-styled Valentino.” And “my jewellery is custom made by Tiffany & Co.” Custom-made jewellery and sponsored clothing for the celebrity and the right question by the fashion media (which, once again, is corporate-owned) work in conjunction to perpetuate the hegemonic discourse on fashion.
“…now and again the mask slips and all those column inches and picture galleries are called what they are: advertising. The press release for London fashion week, which ends on Tuesday, makes no bones about it: ‘UK media coverage each season exceeds £160m,” while the value of foreign media publicity is put at £120m. Getting on for £300m of free promotion for a four-day trade show: not bad.’ But it is all dressed up in a blinding way. The media tells us because we supposedly “need to know”, for the sake of “refining” our tastes.”
Live tweeting and live blogging what they see on the runways is no more than free publicity dressed up as “important” news as well.
The powerfully hegemonising role that the fashion media plays can be perfectly illustrated in a report from Indian Express titled How Chikan crossed the Road. (Zakaria)
After elaborating on the intricate nature of chikankari,( it involves “36 types of stitches”) the article gets to the point:
“the Great Revival of chikankari in the modern times is credited to Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla.”
“Soon,”it says, “the Abu-Sandeep label was on everyone’s lips and laborious chikankari came to be known as its signature.”
But the labourers themselves were on nobody’s lips. The report mourns the loss of the original nuance of chikankari in the wake of machine-embroidered cloth, but the ecosystem behind weavers moving out of the business? The question is conveniently brushed aside. How much were they paid for their craft? Neither did the reporter bother to find out, nor the clients who happily shelled out lakhs for these pieces. The report itself reads like an advertisement. “Tarun Tahiliani soon picked up Chikankari as his style staple…”
“His chikan is also painstaking, elaborate and beautiful”. The fact that the media contributes to the fetish associated with fashion is amply visible here. This chikan is valuable to the elite precisely because it has been painstakingly produced by a very impoverished class of people. (along with the assurance of Tarun Tahiliani’s expensive label.)
The report adds, “Chikankari is essentially made by hand and so is very expensive. It is naturally a favourite of Indian and international elite.”
Almost every news outlet has a segment on fashion these days. Celebrities are regularly assessed (or dissed) by the fashion police for their public appearances. It is as if the fashion media has assumed guardianship of the fashion industry, as well as its moral agency.
The media also mobilises culture. The famous Annie Hall uncoordinated look, for example, became a fashion because it was so favourably represented in the media.
Diana Vreeland, former Vogue editor, captured the sentiment that the fashion media tries to provoke perfectly: “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.”
ROYAL CHIC AND THE INDIAN ELITE
The Indian Elite of the 21st century wears a hand-woven Raghavendra Rathore ajrakh with Dior shoes. And it is not an incongruous ensemble in the least. The Indian fashion industry, young as it is, (the first Fashion Week in India was held in 2000), is now more than ever, proud, and even obsessed with its Indianness.
It is culturally confident, considerably wealthy, and derives its unique mark of distinction from its rich heritage. As Kuldova puts it, “Heritage luxury has become an inevitable part of the power mystique of the Indian elite.”
JJ Valaya, one of the “finest couturiers” of India and an exponent of this lavish, heritage luxury fashion captures the attitude thus:
“When you wear a Valaya original, you are expected to naturally possess fine taste, respect for culture and a considerable amount of chutzpah”.
She attributes this new found “elitist fantasy” of romanticising the country’s heritage to a sort of “neo-feudal orientalism” prevalent in the Indian elitist circles.
When the FDCI was working with designers to put out some of its first fashion shows, their thrust was largely at “westernising” Indian couture: clean, sharp cuts, a conscious distance from over-embellishing anything, and a subdued color palette.
Now, several years and hundreds of fashion weeks across the country later, designers are trying to play up “Indianness” on the catwalk with an unparalleled confidence.
Except, the India that they all want to portray — with the grand running theme being royal chic — is an India that hardly exists beyond the dramatic sets of a fashion-show, a heritage-themed wedding, or a Delhi Page 3 party.
Our assertion of Indianness, appropriating our (royal) culture ourselves before the West does, a “self-orientalisation”, so to say, is a way of expressing confidence in ourselves as a society to “acquire materialist powers.”
Aping the West, an accusation the Indian fashion fraternity has long has to deal with, is a thing of the past, and to the elite, “oh-so-middle-class” .
it is the sort of thing Maya would say to Monisha in the popular television series Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai , when Monisha turns up wearing cheap Indo-Western, ready-made outfits and does not have the ‘grace’ to pull off the handmade silk sarees she herself wears.
Third world commodity to first world brand
Increasingly, in the last decade, homespun cotton fabric (Khadi/Linen) is being taken from the space of poor household consumption and Swadeshi nationalist symbolism, and turned into a fashion fabric currently marketed by numerous fashion clothing labels.
The British brought mill-made cloth to India, when the country was traditionally rich in weaving and handlooms. (Khaire) As the face of the Indian self-sufficiency movement, the khadi fabric, with the charkha in tow, was such a powerful symbol of resistance that the British forces in the country would hunt down khadi weavers and jail them. To escape imprisonment, craftsmen would cut off their own thumbs. (Ramagundam)
Rahul Ramagundam in his paper Khadi and its Agency, even ventures on to make the claim that khadi divided the nation between those who clothed for “self-satisfaction” and those who acted for “social well-being.”
From being the “site of desire for an alternative modernity” for the Indian fighting for self-rule and Independence, to now a “high-street” phenomenon, khadi has been yoked onto an unnatural course of cultural appropriation and exploitation.
FROM HANDSPUN TO HIGH-STREET
In conjunction with the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, the Fashion Design Council Of India did a fashion show called “From Handspun to high-street.” “The aim,” said FDCI President Sunil Sethi, “was to not let “serious nationalist fashion become just entertainment for non-resident Indians”. (Vasudev)
Shefalee Vasudev , author of Powder Room, points to the Gujarat government’s attempt to grotesquely mix “history, heritage and nationalism with mainstream fashion”, taking khadi entirely out of its context while it does that. Participating designers in the fashion show were trying to break “the notion that khadi cannot be a luxurious, fashion fabric.” So they sent out “over-embellished “khadi garments onto the ramp, “ dhotis, kurtas, “rural” shirts (loose, rather shapeless and unfitted, with unstructured collars and no darts) and indigo-dyed denim jackets — on a handful of men from the pastoral Rabari tribe, adding “realness” to his ramp.
Tereza Kuldova also views khadi as a case of cultural capitalism. Considering the re-emerge of the nationalist narrative in the country of late, and the ruling government’s development agenda, khadi plays an even more important part in completing the nationalist imagery of contemporary India. (Exhibition: Spectacular Capitalism)
Over the years, handspun/handwoven khadi has acquired many connotations. Most recently, there is an attempt to lift it from its “intellectual middle-class university crowd status” and explore its “fashion quotient”. (Vasudev and Kuldova)
Many state KVICs (Khadi and Village Industries Commission) have been collaborating with the National Institutes of Fashion Technology in their states to train khadi makers to produce more fashionable, “designer” clothes. Some of the bigger Khadi Gramodyog outlets in Karnataka, for example, now have a “designer shelf” where they stock these creations. The cost of such “designer” kurtas is considerably higher than the conventional KVIC pricing.
Increasingly, khadi’s organic links to the community of weavers which produces it is are being broken. Lisa Trivedi in her book Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun And Modern India questions whether “the Swadeshi movement’s various techniques for popularizing Khadi textile production — posters, exhibitions and tours — in its attempt to bridge differences of language, literacy, region and religion” are possible today, and whether it even has “a market — for those who live in India’s ordinary households, for those who do not see it as a marker of their elitist status.”
Vasudev argues that, “Today, it is easier to develop a “Khadi product” for the international fashion and décor market”, but it makes no sense for “a toiling, undernourished labourer” to choose “textured cotton Khadi to cheap, wash-and-wear fabric.”
Putting Khadi in the luxury realm is taking it terribly out of context. Misquoting its symbolism, and misunderstanding it. It is now a product of the very industrial capitalist force that it was trying to fight. While the charkha is in museums, khadi is all over. This is because “desi charkhas have been long forsaken because they are slow in production.” (The Hindustan Times) Almost all of the khadi produced today is on the semi-mechanised Amar charkhas.
Even as the KVIC fights FabIndia over its right to advertise its products as “khadi”, it is also struggling to revive “defunct Khadi institutions, which have closed due to low wages, lack of funds for replacement of charkhas and looms and inadequate marketing support.”
The KVIC has undergone such a great paradigm shift that its brand image is now Narandra Modi, instead of Mahatama Gandhi. Images of Modi sitting with Gandhi’s charkha in the 2017 KVIC calendars cut a somewhat farcical picture, and indicate also, a shift in what khadi once meant, and how hegemonised it has now become.
Laila Tyabji, crafts-activist and co-founder of Dastkar, a society which enables craftspersons from all over the country to sell their goods in the metro markets without the interference of middle men , says that “Crafts are community trade and tradition in India.” (Tyabji)
She attributes the questionable success of the crafts community in India to the “crafts-friendly policies” in India and “crafts-friendly icons”, like Indira Gandhi and Shabana Azmi, who’ve made wearing traditional Indian crafts stylish.
Notwithstanding these crafts-icons, India is losing ten percent of its craftsmen every decade (Tyabji), as they move on to more profitable professions: be it the Banarasi silk workers in Varanasi, or chikankari workers in Lucknow.
Now when powerlooms are steadily replacing handlooms, and when machine-emulated embroidery is taking away from so much of the business of authentic weavers, no “Crafts-friendly policy” seems to be able to salvage the situation in the face of Delhi’s big designer studios which buy out entire villages to produce crafts for exhibitions held in gated five-star hotels.
Tereza Kuldova’s fieldwork in the villages of Lucknow’s chikankari villages brings out the dismal state of the thousands of families involved in the craft. Chikan work is so intricate that women involved in it are reported to go progressively blind. The Nawabi craft is now “patronised” under the guise of empowerment by designers who market the creations of these weavers as their own, and at prices highly incongruous with the wages that they’re paid for their labour.
Kuldova says that Lucknow’s Chikan villages have relegated themselves to social fatalism. Directly and truthfully, she says there is “no career in fashion” for chikan workers, and there is “nowhere to climb to earn more.” She points to local women politicians and NGOS and empowered-women groups, like SEWA Lucknow, that keep forcing women to work more diligently in the hopes of economic independence. The demands that the NGOs put forward to State governments and traders are “cosmetic changes that largely work in the capitalists favour”, or in this case the NGO (which happens to be established by traders themselves.)
In fact, NGOs then market this chikan to the “conscious consumer” with the “added value of “Fair trade”. Kuldova recollects how once a prominent designer patronised an entire village so the embroiders were essentially doing the exact same work — but with “a changed” mindset, now working for an elite clientele of models and Bollywood stars rather than the mass market. The designer fled, eventually, and as the villagers allege, without paying them wages for the final three months.
Fashion is both medium and message, but it does not explain itself. (Loschek) From the hieroglyphic quality which makes it such a global fetish, to the exploitative truth about its consumption, the fashion industry, very much like society, is a living and breathing organism.
it is a “moment of invention, a distillation of desire, a reflection of zeitgeist”, (Loschek)but it is also a tale of deprivation for the masses who bring it to life by the force of their hands — their labour.
The fine print of “Made in Bangladesh/Cambodia/Vietnam” on tags sewn into our favourite apparel tells the story of subsistence labour, hyper-capitalism and industrial disasters.
Not only that, the hegemony of fashion operates in the realms of gender and conceptions of beauty also, and with devastating consequences.
While anorexia in runway models to meet impossible standards of beauty (or frailty?) is no news, calling models’ lives “indentured servitude is no exaggeration”. “These models, who are the faces of desirability and luxury, are in fact caught in the middle of deeply unequal and borderline exploitative labor relations” as well. (Hackman)
Fashion’s hegemony is built on a synthesis of a number of tools — advertising, branding, the creation of spectacle, and the fashion media. As the ‘brand expands’, so does the premium people pay for owning it. In the words of Singanapalli Balram, “In America, if one pays 100$ for a Levi’s trousers, he is paying 10$ for the trousers and 90$ for the Levi’s label: the intangible image.” (Balaram)
In India, the hegemony of fashion is starkly visible in the ways the country’s traditional fabrics and crafts are being remodelled and taken completely out of their contexts to market it to global audiences, while depriving the labourer of his dues. Although a perverse version of crafts in India continues to flourish, the craftsman doesn’t.
Following the election of Donald Trump in the States, the Brexit vote, and the rise of right-wing political parties in the European Union, the fashion industry stands at crucial crossroads. The “ sharp shift away from the political and economic liberalism that have underpinned Western policy for decades,” threatens to “slow the integration of global markets with new curbs on the free movement of both people and products. The fashion market with its highly globalised talent pool and supply chain is uniquely susceptible to these shifts.” (Business of Fashion)
in what manner the fashion industry responds to this possible crisis in the future remains to be seen, but it will very likely adapt.
As much as fashion is exploitative, it cannot be vilified entirely. Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up- the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, says “one cannot neglect its role as creative, engaging and inspiring art.” She says, “Fashion will never be free without an end to capitalism. And yet fashion can contribute to the remaking of the world.”
There are a number of counter-movements which try to expose the hegemony of fashion. Fashion Revolution Day, for example, is celebrated on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Collapse (24th April, 2013). On this day, people who are sensitive to the issue of exploitation in fashion wear their clothes inside, out so that the label is on display, in order to to raise awareness about sweatshop labour.
Can we, then, talk about sustainable fashion?
Unlikely, but one can hope.
“Garment workers and models need to be listened to and supported with unionisation. International accords on Health and Safety need to be legally binding and obligatory. Catwalks need to be more representative and diverse, portraying beauty in all shapes, sizes, abilities and colours. And fashion can be this space, a place for inspiration and debate, it can contribute more to the discussion than pretty frocks — it can, embrace diversity and yet address adversity.” — Anna Fitz Patrick, Centre for Sustainable Fashion.
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