If one is to judge fashion by glossy magazines, there are really only three major questions of importance: (1) leopard print or not, (2) sexy being “back” or not, and (3) what to wear if you aren’t wearing all black.
High fashion, for most people, is a passing blur of bewildering, ever-shifting, sometimes ridiculous seasonal image statements. Whether you are an avid follower of trends or believe yourself to be unconscious of style, or even fashion-contrary, unless you are a militant nudist, you are clothed every time you leave the house and are subject to snap judgments about your overall person by anyone who sees you. The items you have selected to cover your naked form communicate more about you than you may realize.
High fashion is a manifestation of the immediate zeitgeist: call it a mood ring, or a way to read the tea leaves of larger culture. What came to be the most interesting discovery of my tenure as a fashion critic at The New York Times was how much subliminal voodoo is crammed into the semiotics of advertisements for major luxury brands. In this age of total information manipulation, ads from the big luxury fashion companies contain what may be the most diabolical use of advanced social psychology, murky motivational levers, and Madison Avenue dirty tricks. The images are often entirely surreal and frequently incomprehensible. They are a drill moving directly toward your consumer libido, urging the lizard part of your brain to need that handbag.
In 2007 the national mood was one of ecstatic bloodlust, war drums, and camo-prints, and Dolce & Gabbana ads featured nearly naked models in apocalyptic deserts being pawed into orgasmic submission by cheetahs. The subliminal code being promoted: we are at war, war is like sex but bloodier and bigger, we’ll have our dirty way with the world, the world will love it and we don’t care who watches.
Fashion has ostensibly changed very little in the last few decades; once “everything goes,” as fashion editors announced in the 2000s, there are few drastic shifts in silhouette, either season to season or decade to decade. Changes are mainly visible through sexual temperature, e.g., after a rash of Sexy Back, there is often a whipsaw volte-face back to haute prude, as if all the models suddenly sobered up after a summer of rampant polyamory. The October 2019 cover of Harper’s Bazaar featured Demi Moore dressed in Victorian schoolmarm wear, replete with knotted collar and wire-rimmed glasses. (The subscriber cover, at least. The nonsubscriber edition featured cover girl Demi once again in the nude—showing what still sells on newsstands, no matter the day’s fashion.) A return to uptight values for women is apparently in order. This is also evident in the recrudescence of the Little House on the Prairie look for younger women, a style that has historically been a favorite among the chronically abstinent.
In Demi’s issue, a glossy ad for Gucci printed in the pages before the magazine masthead is jammed with a subtle, studied brainwashing. The ad depicts a private trunk show in a wealthy, intimate setting. Everyone present is dressed in the aristocratic drag of old money—bespoke suiting, chunky gold baubles—right up to the tall, teased hairstyles on the handsome older women. They are all wearing Gucci loafers.
At this trunk show, there is a model walking down the parquet runway into the gauntlet of posh, discerning figures. They are all feverishly, if reservedly, agog. The model is an enigmatic apparition, veiled by a heavy gold fringe of glass beads down to her chest—as if Theda Bara’s face were going to a Halloween party dressed as a car wash. Her eyes are not visible; there is only the shadow of eyes—an unsettling smear that looks as if she had witnessed all of the world’s pain in one electrolysis session. It is unclear whether the golden triangle atop her head is made of ceremonial wheat or actual hair; it is a samurai-esque headgear-construction evocative of the weirder portraits of Aleister Crowley. She is wearing what appears to be a leopard-fur coat with fox trim. She carries a large red handbag with a golden Gucci logo the size of a bar coaster. Like her stunned peers, she is wearing Gucci loafers, but she is somehow light-years beyond them. She is the Delphic oracle, an ageless priestess of the Instagram age.
With this ad, Gucci—a classic label if there ever was one—is reflecting on the state of power. Power, it says, is the new black. You can no longer get by merely draping yourself in the pelts of endangered game; no, Gucci is suggesting that the new chic isn’t just beyond your price range, it is possibly beyond your comprehension. Secrecy reigns. The extremely rich have removed themselves, even from the circles they used to be in. Super-plutocrats have ascended, with their armed privacies, firewalls, and nuke-proof airplanes, to the mystery and unknowability of gods. The Gucci model, face covered, conveys a new type of hermetic pagan divinity. While Gucci was once an “aspirational” label—a manufacturer of the kind of handbag you might save up for—there is no longer a point of ingress. Luxury fashion now wants to be seen as a closed vault sealed in black magic. Its new look is mysterious, encrypted—in a word, unattainable.
Historically, the non–fabulously wealthy who craved the latest in conspicuous consumption had no recourse but to eat their hearts out. But today, the faux-finish of “getting the look for less” has never been easier. Those of slender means who aspire to wear up-to-the-minute runway fashions no longer have to wait for garment racks to fall off a truck and land in a Chinatown basement. Readymade knockoffs of couture unattainables aren’t a dirty little secret anymore; fresh cheats can usually be found in bright flagship stores within a few blocks of the originals.
Attainable luxury often has dirty secrets, as it invariably pretends to be something it isn’t (just think of the strivers who shelled out for the doomed Fyre Festival, or the braggarts and Bovary-aspirants exposed on Instagram’s “BallerBuster” account). At a time of rampant perception management, perception has a tendency to override reality. Today, the over-availability of the latest styles for the slimmer budget, or “fast fashion,” presents an entirely new set of problems. The debts for the illusion of financial comfort, for clothing that conveys luxury, are paid by the planet.
Dana Thomas takes fast fashion—high-turnover clothes cut to look like the season’s expensive designer offerings that usually sell for under $100—as the subject of her new book, Fashionopolis. She begins with a description of the ersatz army jacket Melania Trump wore on the way to a migrant children’s detention center in 2018, which had scrawled on the back in faux-graffiti: “I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?” “The jacket,” Thomas writes, “was, in effect, the most existential garment ever designed, made, sold, and worn.” The most offensive thing about it, for Thomas, wasn’t the model–cum–First Lady’s cruel and tone-deaf sentiment so much as the fact that the jacket was produced by Zara, the world’s largest fast-fashion brand and runway-silhouette-knockoff Death Star.
Thomas is a longtime style writer, formerly of Newsweek and The Washington Post. In 2007 she published Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, and more recently Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. She writes not only about fashion qua fashion, the shape and trends of clothing, but about the industry, the textiles, the manufacturing of the physical clothes themselves. For Thomas, Melania’s jacket was a perfect articulation of the casual savagery of the world’s fast-fashion appetite. The garment would presumably be worn once, as a defiant insult seemingly aimed at incarcerated children, or the media, before being, Marie Antoinette–like, thrown away with the same lack of care. (Most Zara garments, she reports, are worn an average of seven times and then discarded.)
Thomas writes with fact-heavy authority, in a series of travelogue-style reports, about the ecological calamity of the fashion industry. Global consumers buy 80 billion articles of clothing each year, but far more is produced; up to 20 percent of mass-produced clothing does not sell, even after big price knockdowns. These unsold goods end up being buried, shredded, burned, or carted off to landfills by the producers. Fashion production consumes a staggering 25 percent of all of the chemicals made on earth and is responsible for nearly 20 percent of worldwide water pollution; almost 90 percent of fresh and seawater samples contain microfibers, which have even been found in Antarctica.
America’s fast-fashion habits have grown with the industry that supports them. We throw away twice as many clothes as we did twenty years ago—the equivalent of each American discarding eighty pounds of clothing per year. “Worldwide,” Thomas writes, each year “we jettison 2.1 billion pounds of fashion.” (The italics are hers.)
Since the dawn of its industrialization, the fashion business has been responsible for egregious human rights abuses, from hazardous work environments to the virtual enslavement of refugees, children, and undocumented workers in sweatshops. Displaced and otherwise vulnerable persons are ideal victims for everything from the dreadfully common practice of “wage theft” (wherein bosses pay workers significantly less than minimum wage) to industrial maiming.
This has all long been enabled by the “firewalls” that corporations employ to create plausible deniability and evade direct responsibility for labor abuses—in a nutshell, corporate industries allow their contractors to hire shady subcontractors, which shields executives by obscuring any direct connection between the human rights and ecological violations committed by the operation and the owners that cause them. To wit: My client had no idea, Your Honor, that his contractors were organized criminals, so incredibly unscrupulous as to hire subcontractors who hired underage workers and kept them Sanforizing denim thirteen hours a day while standing in eight inches of industrial runoff. We are shocked and horrified that they all turned dark blue and were afflicted by the same bone disease. But really, what does this tragedy have to do with my esteemed client?
Executives twist their midi-skirts in mock despair and confusion when these abuses come to light, but actual reforms in the industry are rare. Adjustments to business-as-usual practices are too often ceremonial Band-Aids on dead bodies, usually reserved as public relations corrections to globally publicized industrial disasters, such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of 1,134 workers and injured another 2,500. The collapse deeply inconvenienced such retailers as Walmart and J.C. Penney, which were under no obligation to compensate the (extremely poor and powerless) victims’ families. Concessions were finally made—due to international shaming—to provide them monetary aid and medical care through “the Rana Plaza Arrangement,” which was an absurdly stingy gesture by clothing companies whose subcontractors did business in Rana Plaza or its Indian equivalent. The corporations responsible ponied up a slim $30 million for the many thousands affected, and Bangladeshi factory employees, under the agreement, are nominally allowed to have collective bargaining and “freedom of association” (although peer pressure and fear of rocking the boat probably make this a moot point). The agreement was minor recompense. As Thomas regularly notes in her book, however, some improvement is better than none at all.
Thomas calls out many of the environmental reforms in the garment industry as “greenwashing”: superficial, PR-based sustainability theater—mere virtue-signaling that makes claims to environmental consciousness but in practice extends mainly to unbleached cardboard labels on green, organic “capsule collections” that major garment producers occasionally churn out to display how earth-sensitive they wish to seem. Thomas knocks luxury-juggernaut LVMH for such performative greenness; in 2008 it ran print ads featuring Catherine Deneuve and Keith Richards, lauding their support for Al Gore’s Climate Project. The ads distinctly made it seem like LVMH was supporting the Climate Project, when actually only Deneuve and Richards were. Looking “woke,” as it were, is arguably as far from actual “wokeness” as Gucci loafers are from actual yacht ownership. Just as rainbow soda cans for Pride month or pink ribbons for women’s health on cereal boxes are mere Christmas ornaments on a burning tree, fashion brands confound the point of eco-friendly capsule collections by making them special and rare consumer one-offs at higher prices, instead of adopting green practices as a modus operandi.
Thomas provides an excruciatingly detailed history of two of the most problematic fashion staples: denim and the cotton it is made of. She kicks this off with a quote from Karl Marx. “Without slavery, there would be no cotton,” he wrote. “Without cotton, there would be no modern industry.”
The production of cotton, Thomas explains, has always been a nasty business, even without factoring in the history of slavery. It is a notoriously filthy and difficult crop. More than 10 percent of the world’s total pesticides are reserved for the production of “conventional” (read: nonorganic) cotton. Cotton consumes enormous amounts of water: over seven hundred gallons of water are needed to grow the cotton for one mass-produced T-shirt.
Which brings us to the horror of denim. “Blue jeans are the most popular garment ever,” Thomas writes. “They are hyper-polluting—in their creation, and in their afterlife.” The global jeans market, which began its rise in the Seventies with designer jeans manufacturers, is presently worth between $68 and $70 billion annually, and is forecasted to rise to $85.4 billion by 2025.
The industrial dyes that replaced indigo early in denim production invariably end up as toxic runoff and wastewater. The practice of “finishing” blue jeans—distressing the fabric by sanding it and running it through acid baths in industrial washhouses, all to make your jeans look like they have already survived several rodeos—in itself eats a world-damaging amount of water, particularly in Xintang, China, the soi-disant jeans capital of the world, where 3,000 factories produce a staggering 800,000 pairs of jeans a day (and where run-off of blue dye killed all life in a tributary of the Pearl River).
Unions were briefly able to improve conditions for garment industry workers in the United States in the Sixties and Seventies, but these reforms were dismantled when the North American Free Trade Agreement was established in the 1990s. “By 2006,” Thomas writes, “NAFTA was responsible for the loss of at least a million jobs…and had gutted scores of once-virile domestic industries, most notably textile and apparel.” Manufacturing moved overseas to places like Honduras, where girls as young as thirteen make forty cents an hour sewing garments behind locked factory doors—conditions uncannily like those of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Thomas makes an effort to keep the reader from grabbing a set of pinking shears and attacking her book by focusing, in the second half, on fashion players trying to make improvements. She spotlights a number of attempts to promote “slow fashion”—a callback to Carlo Patrini’s 1989 “Slow Food Manifesto”—which “champions localization and regionalism rather than massification [and] honors craftsmanship and respects tradition while embracing modern technology to make production cleaner and more efficient.”
Natalie Chanin is one of the notable good people. Chanin is a former corporate garmento who fled Seventh Avenue and the line of junior sportswear that employed her to found a clothing company called Alabama Chanin. Chanin, who is fifty-eight, was born and raised in Florence, Alabama (pop. 39,000), a garment manufacturing town that employed 5,000 people and, in the 1990s, had a payroll of $50 million. After NAFTA, it was a virtual ghost town.
Alabama Chanin is a signature example of the practice of “rightshoring”—Chanin’s company took over the abandoned hubs and factory buildings, and brought in new technologies to replace the old. Chanin was able to revivify her hometown and create new jobs. In the process of making her production less contaminating, however, it also became mostly robotic. There is no MAGA miracle that replaces five thousand jobs; Alabama Chanin now employs a team of thirty. Which is better, it’s true, than no jobs.
Thomas also showcases a number of companies that use sustainable business practices, such as Nina Marenzi’s The Sustainable Angle, a platform promoting sustainable textiles; the San Francisco–based Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which has created a metric, called the Higg Index, to measure a company’s environmental and labor practices (it is named for the Higgs boson particle, the chief executive told Thomas, because that particle “describes the origins of the universe, and we saw this tool to describe the origins of your clothes”); and Suzanne Lee’s BioCouture research project, which promotes the production of material from organisms. “A growing movement of makers, designers, merchants, and manufacturers worldwide…in response to fast-fashion and globalization, have significantly dialed back their pace and financial ambition,” Thomas writes, “freeing themselves to focus more on creating items with inherent value, curating the customer experience, and reducing environmental impact.”
The problem is that green, sustainable products are inevitably more expensive; Chanin has reinvigorated her rural area, but she has done so by selling $400 T-shirts. Responsible businesses do not grow at the rate that most corporate boards demand.
Praise is a hard swap for profit, and one most apparel makers feel no need to make. The good guys, with their intact values, low carbon footprints, and higher prices, remain a marginal market force compared to monstrous conglomerates like Zara or H&M.
It is advisable, then, if you wish to be the figurehead of a globally recognized sustainable design house, to start by being rich enough not to be hung up on profits. Take Stella McCartney, a pivotal player in the future of sustainable garment production, who had the capital, as the daughter of Sir Paul and militant vegan Linda, to build her brand while saying no to quicker-profit schemes and adhering doggedly to her family’s astringent ecological values by overseeing the production of fur-free fur, feather-free feathers, and shoes built without animal-based glues. McCartney devoted extensive funds to the R&D and invention of what aimed to be a non-horrible “vegan” leather, to combat the severe global damage done by livestock production for the sake of handbags. Her reach, happily for the planet, is extending. She has recently become sustainability adviser for LVMH; she will be heading up the conglomerate’s LIFE (LVMH Initiatives for the Environment) project, which began in 2012 as an effort to reduce the carbon footprint and increase the energy efficiency of brands in the LMVH stable, including Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Fendi.
Fashionopolis is primarily a Marley’s Ghost–style warning of the irrevocable destructions to come. One imagines that a more attentive editor might have caught a few of the book’s redundancies. In the moments when she relaxes and allows her own voice to come through, Thomas is engaging and vital, sort of a more taciturn Joan Rivers. But she prefers to quote others pointing fingers and pontificating about the dangers of greed rather than point a steely finger herself. I wished she had allowed herself a little more style and subjective latitude.
And I found myself wanting her to stop dancing around the ring, and whop out a set of possible policies and declare that there ought to be laws against this type of earth pillage. With her focus primarily on changing the behavior of the reader, Thomas lets some of the more flagrantly abusive garment industrialists off too easily. That her book doesn’t rabidly name and shame more polluters and human rights violators feels like self-censorship and an overabundance of caution. Dana Thomas is no Ralph Nader. (It must be acknowledged, however, that not alienating major brands is essential to the survival of a mainstream fashion journalist, as I know all too well.)
Thomas hopes her readers will adopt more of McCartney’s planetary devotion, and reevaluate their own clothes-buying behavior. She rhapsodizes about the Salvation Army and consignment shops (buying secondhand apparel has been rebranded as “upcycling”), and devotes many pages to newish operations like Rent the Runway, the online business started by two female Harvard graduates that enables women to rent otherwise unaffordable designer clothing and return it before getting bored of it. While Rent the Runway was conceived as the equivalent of tuxedo rentals for women, the business has rapidly evolved and expanded by pioneering a subscription-based model that has been so successful it received $210 million in capital investment by 2018. It is inspiring imitation from companies like Urban Outfitters, which has introduced its own apparel rental operations.
Here, Thomas’s argument falls prey to a certain middle-class myopia. Renting clothes instead of owning them, however promising a step on the road to toxic fashion-addiction recovery, is unsatisfying in the same way that “rightshoring” shortchanges the number of jobs it actually returns to NAFTA-ravaged areas. Renting a wardrobe only makes sense if you are living somewhere comfortably above the poverty line. If you’re less fortunate, stores like H&M and Zara are the places that allow you to look stylish on a budget that matches forty years of wage suppression—the only other recourse is the potluck of the Salvation Army. (And the Salvation Army, for all its godliness, does not sell the kind of ephemeral job-interview confidence that a new jacket does.) The sartorial problems of the working poor are not addressed.
The new behavior Thomas prescribes as a way for consumers to be a part of the solution—boycotting major transgressors, renting clothing and/or buying it secondhand—are relatively ceremonial acts. Most people shop on Amazon even though we know it is destroying other businesses; ethical buyers may feel less complicit by avoiding Zara, but consumers are driving the fast-fashion market. Zara exists because cost trumps ethics, for most people.
Whatever the unemployment numbers say, the yawning chasm between America’s rich and poor continues to drastically widen. According to the Census Bureau, in 2018 the median income of American consumers was $63,000. Fashion, strangely enough, has become freakishly affordable. “Between 2000 and 2014, US consumer prices in real terms shot up 50 percent, but clothing prices actually dropped,” Thomas writes. “The number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent.” Most people buy fast clothing for the same reasons they buy fast food: the budget, not the quality.
Zara grossed $19 billion in sales in 2017. It remains the choice for working people who want to look au courant, for the simple reason that it is providing something nobody else is: a desirable product that knocks off luxury brands at the speed of thought, whose price is compatible with the wages consumers are actually earning. None of the fashion journalists and editors I knew when I lived in New York could afford anything they were writing about, but they had to look current; they would always shove away any compliment on their Balenciaga-esque jackets. “Oh,” they’d say, looking down, “it’s only Zara.” (Their accessories and jewelry? Forever 21, may she rest.)
What’s there to do? So long as there are severe divisions between the haves and have nots, so long as this corporate world is driven by the elimination of competition, fashion’s priorities will continue to sacrifice the planet to the altar of low-cost high-waisted capris.
Mark Anner, director of Penn State’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights, puts it succinctly. “The industry is obsessed with quarterly returns,” he says. “How do you develop a long-term vision if every three months shareholders demand more profits or threaten to pull out?” Thomas never quite lays down the gauntlet and says that multinational conglomerates should be regulated by state and federal agencies in such a way that they are not incentivized to pollute or commit human rights abuses. (Today, the fines and penalties are “trifling” compared to the costs of reforming their modes of production.) Until the plutocrats who own the fashion industry volunteer to earn less money, the environment will continue to suffer egregious and irreversible damage.