Informed by the grace of a few women in my very early years, in this case my immensely talented mother who made her own clothing and a dear friend who mentored me in my late teens, I learned to love nice clothing. Later I learned why a beautiful designer jacket cost so damned much. That was nearly forty years ago.
The current fashion industry is worth some three trillion dollars. It’s the second largest polluter in the world, right after oil and gas. Whether it’s tanning leathers and leaving toxic wastes in people’s front yards or sucking up umpteen gallons of water to make a single cotton t-shirt, this industry devastates the world in the name of our egos.
Now look. I love to look gorgeous just as much as the next person. For years I used to subscribe to the Holy Grails of the industry: Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, all of them. I wrote about fashion for various magazines, and I invested vast sums in the acquisition of fall’s best looks. I was a true aficionado, even though most of what I bought I couldn’t or wouldn’t wear. Why? No workplace I entered after leaving the Army back in 1978 would have tolerated my creative fashion sense (to wit: a bank in North Carolina dunned me for wearing PANTS, for Christ’s sake, and that was in 1996 and yes I sued, and yes I won).
As the years went by and I began to shift from accumulation to shedding most of what I had that didn’t work, I also shifted my focus from fashion to fabulous experiences. I travel. I do adventures all over the world. One of the great gifts of immersing yourself in other cultures is to see what women wear, and how they express their remarkable creativity. Rather than souvenirs, I often bring home indigenous clothing. And, I wear it on stage. It’s pretty damned spectacular.
I still love gorgeous designer clothing. That hasn’t changed. However this fall, I made some additional forays into this world just to see what was new, and what I had learned from my hiatus away from the hype.
This year, for the first time in ages, I bought the September tomes from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle.
Boy did I learn a lot.
The world of designers, which is now so crowded and jammed with newcomers that it’s hard to have a voice, is full of thieves. People who outright steal the ideas, designs and precious work of indigenous women worldwide without paying them a red cent. For example: https://mic.com/articles/121008/this-designer-s-mexican-dress-is-a-lesson-in-cultural-appropriation#.iRfELVpbl.
This isn’t new.
The women of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec are going after French designer Isabel Marant for appropriating their traditional costume without reparation. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jun/17/mexican-mixe-blouse-isabel-marant. Isabel Marant isn’t a designer. She’s a thief. And she’s in excellent company.
This “cultural appropriation” is widespread. Hardly limited to Mexico. A few years back I traveled to Vietnam. Spent time in the villages of the far north, where the Hmong tribes create gorgeous clothing. In Sapa, which is an overly-touristy town near the Chinese border, my guide took me to see her mother in a large warehouse where many indigenous women work, and sell local clothing. I bought plenty of it for pennies.
Not long after I got back to America, I noticed some of the same designs that had been lifted from those communities used on blouses and dresses which retailed for thousands. These women, whose immense creativity gave birth to this beauty, continue to live in squalor while the designers who stole those ideas live in mansions.
To see some of those designs, see https://www.pinterest.com/suzilicious/hmong-design-inspire/
It disgusts me that the fashion industry wreaks havoc on the world’s poorest communities and pays immensely low wages so that we can have beaded wedding gowns for paltry sums. American tariffs are beginning to affect what you can and can’t buy, and whether or not you and I can have those gorgeous beaded gowns that women in China are- for now- willing to bead for nearly nothing. That’s changing fast, says Steve Lang, president of the American Bridal and Prom Industry Association and owner of Mon Cheri Bridals. From the NPR interview:
“I can’t find labor (in America) to do the kind of work that I need done. I mean, some of our garments have 150,000 hand-sewn beads on them. There’s nobody here that wants to do that work, and even if I could find people to do that work, my dresses would become 10 times the cost of what they are right now. It’s always been the option, but nobody’s taken up that charge because it isn’t just a matter of cost, it’s a matter of finding the laborers that want to do that kind of work. Even in China — there’s a labor shortage actually in China right now — there are even people there that don’t want to do that kind of work anymore because they have options. http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/08/23/tariffs-bridal-shop-owner-china.
Years ago when I went to Thailand, I spent time looking through small shops to find interesting clothing. It was plentiful. I bought lots of pieces, some of them well worn (which to me made them vastly more intriguing because of the history lived into the threads of the garments). I have since seen many of those same designs offered up for thousands. And what of the village women who created them in the first place?
This mass theft of symbols, many of them sacred, is hardly limited to the fashion industry. The outdoor community has lifted Native American designs and symbols wholesale, without permission, and used them on every kind of goods. Here’s the op-ed from Outside Online which addresses this continued rape of our Native culture:https://www.outsideonline.com/2328411/stop-buying-native-inspired-designs.
From the article:
Mainstream — that is, mostly white — culture continues to steal from and profit off Indigenous people who have already lost land, language, culture, and countless lives to colonialism and cruel policies. Using meaningful Native images on products simply for aesthetic reasons is a way of ignoring the context of colonialism and stolen lands. The trendiness of Native imagery compounds the problem even further by making it harder for talented, motivated Native people like ( Navajo graphic designer Vernon) Kee to break into the industry.
The outdoor industry — from which I also purchase a great many products — contributes close to $400 billion to our American economy. Like Kee, I walked the aisles of the Outdoor Retailer Show last January. Yesterday I was in Taos. As you walk the galleries on Canyon Road, you pass a story full of uber expensive wool ponchos all sporting Navajo designs. Think the Navajo got recompense for that?
In this September’s Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine is full of examples of indigenous theft. I saw page after page of immensely expensive woven purses, the identical twins to purses I saw made by weavers in Peru when I traveled there some years ago. I could go on. But you get my message.
Today’s designers are lauded for their originality. What pure unadulterated bullshit. They are thieves. Making their millions off the backs of the real designers, the village women who saw beauty in Nature, wove it into sacred designs which had deep meaning and symbolism for their tribes. Men, too, let’s be fair here. However now far too many of those women now see their precious toil taken from them and co-opted by the rich, celebrated assholes who march their models down the runway with “original” pieces for more money than millions of those women could make in a lifetime. Some of those women, desperate to feed their kids, now work in the very industries that took their artwork from them.
Here’s another take on this widespread practice: https://publish.illinois.edu/iaslibrary/2016/04/13/crimes-of-fashion/
Want to see stupid? http://www.janylinshoes.com/top-12-expensive-womens-shoes-world/. Imagine. Fifteen million for a pair of f*cking SHOES. A year years back I cancelled my subscription to Marie Claire, a woman’s mag that I once respected for writing about global women’s issues. They had a piece that advised us all on how to have the look without going broke. The year they called a $500 shoe a bargain is the year I wrote them a scathing letter and told their editors where to shove it. You and I can- if we are determined to ruin our backs and totter around on uber high heels that have come back again this season- can march to the local TJ Maxx and score a pair for $39.00. They aren’t any better made. Same leather and plastic. They break just as fast. I have a few pairs, I only wear them for the boyfriend, I have them on for perhaps fifteen minutes to gain his full and undivided attention, and that’s the only time they get worn. They will last me decades. He’s easily entertained, and there isn’t a scuff mark to be had on the bottoms.
Fashion is a criminal enterprise.
The hooks in our collective cheeks to acquire a given brand name which adds cachet to a piece of shit blouse or shoe or jacket- easily sold for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction less given its real value- are deep. We are vain. We want to feel superior. We ache to look lovely.
I do too.
But here’s the catch, folks: I refuse to give ETRO, whose designs I used to like, thousands for lifting indigenous designs and selling them as their own. Please see page 85 of the September Harper’s Bazaar. I refuse to give Alexander McQueen, whose truly original designs I loved before he took his life, $3300 for a woven bag (page 108, same magazine) whose twin I have stumbled on for a few bucks in a number of Third World countries.
Today’s designers, in an all out war to be original, have done little more than lift the life out of the truly original men and women who have taken their inspirations from Nature all over the world. All you have to do is travel. I do. I see the real designers face to face. I speak with them, buy their clothing, and ensure that my small contributions go directly to their families.
As an aside, many years ago a fellow speaker had a piece of material that I thought had tremendous merit. She had originated it. Wasn’t using it. I asked her permission and paid her for its use. She was pleasantly surprised. The fact that my offer to pay her for this particular tidbit of her own original, copyrighted material was shocking to me. She owned it. She deserved to get paid. That we- and women in particular- have a bad habit of giving our goodies away (and yes I mean that on all levels) without a return on our efforts shocks me still. Yet we continue to do it. (Please, this happens to men too but that’s not the cant of this article).
But I say it again. Fashion- the place where we play to look special, costs. It costs millions of people so that we can have bragging rights. Three trillion dollars often built on the backs of the REAL designers whose work has been ripped out of their truly creative hands. Indian, Chinese, American Indian, Vietnamese, South American, African, name your tribe. They’ve all been visited by these vacuous, creativity-challenged clothing manufacturers, who think nothing of ripping those folks off.
Are there other, more positive stories? Of course. Please see https://www.vogue.com/article/indigenous-fashion-designers-cultural-appropriation-activism. Here’s another: https://www.refinery29.com/2018/06/203184/frican-designers-shopping-guide-industrie-africa. However that doesn’t make up for the worldwide thievery. There are some models of color who have returned to their roots and are working hard to create jobs and opportunities for the tribes of their origin.
Not all designers do this. Of course not. Some have terrific social consciences, give back, create jobs and markets and do a world of good. Just not enough givers and too many takers. Here are some fair trade folks worth considering: http://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/fair-trade-clothing
I love fashion. I hate fashion. Or rather, I hate what it does to the real designers and creators in our world. Those people are disappearing fast through poverty, land loss, and the cavorting of the uber-rich, who, by the way, are wearing their designs to charity balls which are supposed to raise money for the poor.
How goddamned generous of you.
I’m heading for Africa this November. Will be visiting villages and markets, where my valuable US dollars will go to the people who actually fashion the fashion. There’s a lot to be said for that. I would rather spend my money on the trip, and bring home something of real value, while leaving behind cash where it can educate the kids, feed the family and support the world’s original fashion artists.
But that’s just me. You can spend your thousands on a Navajo ripoff. I just can’t conscience the idea. Here’s a better one: head to Chimayo, New Mexico where I was just yesterday. There, at Ortega’s Weaving, you can purchase a wool vest for about $180, a piece of true history and fashion woven onsite, using traditional methods by eighth generation family members. THAT’S the real thing. http://www.ortegasweaving.com/. Oh, and by the way, the scenic drive to get there is breathtaking. I try to do it every year. I enjoy seeing the faces of the people who really do create the fashion, using local wools, local talent and local love.
But again, that’s just me.
Happy fall shopping.