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By Chere Di Boscio
Fashion has never been faster. Producers can create a look direct from the runways into a product on the racks within two weeks, and these are almost certain to be snapped up immediately by trend-hungry consumers–in fact, the Ecologist magazine reports that despite the recession, UK shoppers are buying 30% more clothing than they did four years ago, mainly thanks to low cost retailers like Primark, Zara and New Look, whose clothing line is often ‘inspired’ by the catwalk.
The effect of this may be positive for trend-loving teens, but for workers in factories in developing countries, there is a dark side to the fast-fashion industry. Bloomberg Business Week magazine reports that to keep their contracts with large fashion retailers, companies in manufacturing nations often put the rights and safety of their employees below the bottom line.
The results of this can be disastrous: as a result of overcrowded conditions, Bangladeshi garment factories suffered two major fires within two months earlier this year, resulting in over 100 deaths. The factories were producing clothing for giant American retailers Sears and Walmart, who have since moved production elsewhere, but it is unlikely these tragedies will end: surging wages in China have made producers move to ever cheaper countries, looking to maximize profits, and Bangladesh is close to ports for transport and textiles produced in India. Bangladeshi Commerce Minister Ghulam Muhammed Quader told reporters on January 30th that ‘the industry grew out of proportion compared to our facilities or our controlling capacities’.
Whilst most large retailers insist that multiple varieties of up-to-the-minute fashions and fast turnover is essential to keep up with the competition, some disagree. “This is a very American way of dressing”, says Parisian boutique owner Camille Menton. “The French buy trendy clothes, yes, but far fewer pieces than Americans might, and better made.” Indeed, in France, fashion isn’t focused on trends, but rather on lasting, classic beauty. And no French tradition better reflects that than haute couture.
The couture connection
Rather than sweatshop workers, ateliers are staffed with specialists highly trained in their field, be it stitching, beading, or embroidery. Only the highest quality materials are used and only the highest standards of working conditions are implemented, but these standards are at risk now too, thanks to easier and cheaper manufacturing processes. To help point out the eco-importance of couture and preserve this art, actor Colin Firth’s wife, Livia, has created Green Carpet Challenge and events such as The Green Cut, which showcase celebrities wearing high end designs made from ethically sourced and produced materials. Firth’s emphasis is on the sustainability of couture; she also considers vintage gowns to be green and encourages celebrities to reuse and upcycle existing garments.
Haute couture’s approach to creating clothing is one that is reflected by ethical fashion designers too. Atelier Tammam, established in London in 2007, is one good example. Their custom-made bridal gowns and evening wear is constructed only from natural, organic materials and made under completely Fairtrade conditions. For this house, the traditional skills of the couturier mesh beautifully with the savoir fare of seamstresses and embroiderers in India and Nepal. Atelier Tammam shows that it is possible to combine couture with ethical production in the developing world too.
Another example is Honest By, created by Paris-based designer Bruno Pieters. Pieters created the label after being disillusioned with the rather ‘wooly’ look of many ethical brands, and vowed to create clothing that merged high end design with ethical production. The result is clothing that fills the gap between haute couture and fast fashion: gorgeous clothes, to be treasured over time, made ethically and sustainably, through traditional and artisanal craftsmanship.
Certainly, haute couture is a dream, not affordable for most, but brands such as Honest By and Atelier Tammam are aiming to slow fashion right down, for the good of not only workers, but consumers too: these are pieces to be treasured over time, not trashed every season–easier on our pocketbooks, and ultimately, the planet.
Leading image by Emmanuel Sarnin; Second image courtesy of Elie Saab, Third image courtesy of Honest By Bruno Pieters