by Marion Hume
Sometimes an adventure beckons and you have to follow the lead. When an interview was relocated from New York to Prague, I was thrilled, given I haven’t been to the Czech Republic since it was Czechoslovakia. I looked forward to going again to the mighty Prague castle, to walking the span of the historic Charles Bridge.
But then a half-lost nugget of something began to niggle. When, recently, had there been mention of something Czech? I realized it was a few weeks before, in Kenya, when I was watching Maasai women working their magic on a range of bags for Myer, including designs by Karen Walker, Fleur Wood and Jayson Brunsdon.
Maasai beading is every bit as good as in the ateliers of the Paris haute couture. (How lucky am I, to have witnessed both, and often). This is due to a mix of traditional skill and sheer bloody-mindedness. The Maasai won’t even touch beads from India or China (whisper it, but the French will). Only the Czech ones are perfect.
Today, glass seed beads are still traded through second, third, fourth parties, so it has taken a degree of investigative skill to trace the source to where I am standing now, inside an old glass foundry, up a mountain, near a village I will never learn how to pronounce. Getting all the way here from Prague has taken guts and the navigational skills of a girl scout (Ok, that’s not true, but it has required the essential fashion skill of knowing how to hire a cheap driver with a GPS).
Inside, it is roasting hot, as you’d expect when five furnaces hit over 1,000 degrees. What looks like needle-thin vermicelli is being extruded (protuded? Who to ask for vocab when I can’t speak Czech?) along thin, raised contraptions that stretch as far as the eye can see. The secrets of glass reached Bohemia from the Venetian isle of Murano. But they will get no further today. How does this clear vermicelli become tiny beads of more colours than I can describe? Before I work that out, I am ushered outside into the icy cold. With every step I take there’s the crunch of glittering fragments of glass, sparkling under my feet.
Where I am welcomed, warmly and officially, is at the offices of Preciosa Ornela from whence all top-end traditional seed beads, known as rocailles, hail. (Preciosa Ornela, best know for glass figurines, bought out an ailing company called Jablonex which pioneered rocailles). These beads range from so teeny, they are given the measure 13/0 – a percentage of a millimetre – to 4/0, which is just about big enough for me to see without glasses.
Over eggs, ham and pickles, my hosts explain the reason Preciosa Ornela, and previously Jablonex and originally, the way more famous Swarovski, (a Czech company before moving to Austria) all hail from a cluster of tiny mountain villages. While glass is hard work, it doesn’t need many people. What it did need, traditionally, was wood, sand and water a-plenty. Given the Venetians soon ran out of wood, that this landlocked region of icy streams and forests always had to import sand (today a complex mix of chemicals) soon made the competition about even. But while the venetians lent more towards chandeliers, here it was beads and buttons. Thence, from the top of this mountain, traders ventured around the world, all the way to Mexico, China, India and East Africa.
“But the world we have never conquered is fashion,” my hosts lament, comparing to the spectacular style success of Swarovski. That’s when I reveal that Vivienne Westwood evening clutch bags and Sass & Bide tote bags are beaded by the Maasai through the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative in Kenya. My hosts are utterly delighted – although not as delighted as my Maasai mates will be when I hand over the new season’s disco beads in shimmering gold, bronze and silver.
Lou Stoppard, Frances Corner, Marion Hume, and Dilys Williams discuss the Fashion East show live as it happens.
Lou Stoppard, Roger Tredre, Marion Hume, Caryn Franklin and Michael Howells discuss the Vivienne Westwood Red Label show live as it happens.
The Business of Fashion | 8th June 2012
by Marion Hume
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Fashion is driven by desire. But ethical fashion has been driven by — well, what exactly? A wish to semaphore that one is a caring kind of person while walking through life in pleather shoes? There are, of course, style-setters so chic they can rock a hand-loomed yak hair poncho, being good while looking great. The writer is not one of those people.
The writer is, however, a veteran of more than 25 years on the front lines of fashion, possessed of a deep hatred of waste which jars, somewhat, with a love of glamour. Thus, when “green” fashion started to attract attention, I admired the effort but the results just didn’t chime. Ditto those “pity purchase” ranges, created by supermodels, to which I was often allergic because the products weren’t super enough.
This is not to suggest that all supermodel endeavours are empty. Lily Cole and Liya Kibede spring to mind as two whose deep commitment is tangible.
But overall, I am yet to meet the woman who opens her wardrobe in the morning and declares with glee, “Today I want to look ethical.” Most of us, let’s be honest, just want to look as good as we can, add accessories and get out of the house.
Is the tote I’m slinging my laptop into made with fair labour? Is the black t-shirt I have on under my jacket organic cotton? Have all environmental concerns been checked? Nope, not going to happen at 8am. What about getting up to speed at point of purchase instead? No again. A bristling of swing tags, trumpeting good deeds, can be really annoying when they catch in your underwear in the fitting room.
It is my absolute belief that ethical goods have to appeal, even if you don’t know the back story, but, on the flip side, that the fashion goods we desire should be made in the most ethical way possible. Why not? Why shouldn’t sustainability be as central to style as silhouette? Why should it be hard to stride forth in the confidence that you are doing no harm to people or planet?
Maybe the answer lies in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, if only we could be bothered to read those documents companies typically post online. Actually, I do bother. But I find that despite all the moody images of spring leaves and footprints in the sand, CSR brochures tend to muddy the pure blue water — not with what is written, but what is left out. The “light industry” that is fashion can be far from transparent.
So here’s some good news: a rather unusual bunch of bright people are about to get together to grapple with making fashion better. At the end of next week, on June 17th, just before presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro to agree on a way forward for sustainable development, the United Nations Global Compact will host the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. Within more than 60 sessions focused on key sustainability issues, there is one that, perhaps, you would not normally expect: “Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” organized by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. Its focus? Clothes, bags, shoes.
Speakers at this fashion session will include an immaculately dressed Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff and a Fendi with an obsession for plastic carrier bags — or, more accurately, an obsession with how to reduce the mountains of them leaching carcinogenic dioxins into hotchpotch neighbourhoods of the world’s poorest people.
The session aims to demonstrate that it is, indeed, very possible to do good while making profits. Joining Boff and Ilaria Venturini Fendi will be Aminata Traore, who hails from Mali, dresses to turn heads and advocates for making the global use of cotton more fair, alongside Auret van Heerden, president of non-profit group Fair Labor Association, whose political consciousness was forged in opposition to apartheid in his native South Africa. Then there’s the American, Willa Shalit, who, by treading softly, continues to lead some of fashion’s biggest names through the complex challenges of working in Haiti.
But the purpose of all this goes beyond letting some people with good accessories vent for an afternoon. The stated aim of the session is to produce a “roadmap” — free to use — to help big global fashion business become more fair, more green, more inclusive yet never less chic. The panel will be led by Simone Cipriani, who helms the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a United Nations agency for which (disclosure) I have been a consultant since 2009.
How this growing force for ethical fashion differs from others is that Cipriani’s instruction was to conceive a major initiative that would contribute towards two key priorities of the UN: eradicating extreme poverty and empowering women.
He could have said, “let’s open a factory to make tractors.” Instead he said, “I must call Vivienne Westwood.”
We are in Kenya, mid afternoon. After a long drive, there is a longer march to a squatter village, as the community we are visiting have lost their ancestral home to a land grab. The singing of Maasai women acts as an aural navigator.
The matriarch appears first, having donned her finery, adding a towering beaded headdress to her usual daywear collars and cuffs. Vivienne Westwood also dresses for the occasion, ducking into a goat-pen to slip on sky-high rocking horse shoes. Thus do two stylish women utterly “get” one another, then get down to business.
The death of animals due to drought had both unsettled this community and increased domestic violence. While it is the first time Westwood has visited, two seasons worth of orders from her company have allowed the local women to restock the animals, restoring pride to their men and some tranquility to their own lives.
Though they belong to a deeply patriarchal society, these women now have economic power. The matriarch makes this clear. How big an increase is there to be on an order for leather cuffs beaded with the word “SEX?” she wants to know. The negotiations conclude with an additional order for beaded bag panels that read “ILOVE CRAP.” Pure Westwood. Crap, of course, is what this absolutely isn’t.
This is just one small community among many — some rural, some in slums — where lives are being improved by fashion businesses which respond to the real needs of marginalised people. While the fashion world typically thrives on last minute change, this system must be planned in recognition that overtime is not possible in places where, to be safe, women must be home before nightfall. There are also crops to tend, which means that workers might only work three months of the year.
But make no mistake. The impact is real.
Before the orders from Westwood, a key source of income in the village we visit came from the sale of charcoal, which, when burned as fuel, has a devastating consequence in terms of carbon emissions. Dame Vivienne is an ardent advocate against climate change, yet she is amazed; her designs for beaded adornments are having a direct effect of preserving our environment.
Furthermore, Kenyan women typically earn between 150 and 300 Kenyan Shillings (KSH) per day, if they can find work at all. For a Westwood order, for which there is an expectation of high quality, the rate is an average of KSH 600 daily, a substantial increase that translates into quantifiable female empowerment. Indeed, over 70 percent of women working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative now understand banking and have accounts with the Cooperative Bank or the Kenya Women Finance Trust, a microfinance lending institution. And while the Masaai community we visit are squatters, others working for the Ethical Fashion Initiative have been able to use a steady income to rent better accommodation. In another, more settled rural community, the profits from Westwood are evident in a new water tank.
“In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer and in due proportion lodged in his hand.” So said John Ruskin (1819-1900). But while his words ring true today, a Victorian gent who behaved very oddly towards his wife perhaps isn’t the fashion model we seek. So let’s update and call this “Hermès economics” for not only is the craftsman who makes your Birkin getting a proper pay packet and a hot lunch, but the water downstream of the tannery must be cleaner than the water found upstream.
Transfer that challenge to a tannery in Uganda. When Simone Cipriani was a boy, growing up in Florence, tanneries still pumped unfiltered sludge into the Arno, which made standing on the Ponte Vecchio decidedly whiffy. We wouldn’t tolerate that today. So how to make sure a tannery in Uganda does not discharge water effluents into the mighty Nile at inestimable cost to those living on its banks in several countries? The actual cost of a filtering system is about $10,000 — not insurmountable when factored in as small increments onto the finished cost of a bag, or a shoe.
It’s a myth, in my experience, that fashion people are silly people. Many of us are bright and thoughtful but we’d appreciate some guidance. Hopefully next week’s think tank in Rio will provide that.
Marion Hume is a fashion journalist based in London. For more than two decades, she has written for newspapers and magazines in the US, the UK and Australia.
“Good Business Models for a Sustainable Future” by the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative will take place June 17th 2012 as part of the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, hosted by the United Nations Global Compact.
Catching the Moment
AFR | September 2011
Where is fashion marching now, asks international fashion editor Marion Hume. Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus with the oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides.
When fashion wants to look back, it is a sure sign of its unease at looking forward. Of course, fashion continually takes inspiration from ‘vintage’ but that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, it seems to me, people are looking in the rear view mirror as if wondering, “how on earth did we get here?”
‘Here’ is a world where luxury labels have us so addicted, you almost suspect there’s nicotine in the handbag leather. ‘Here’ is a world where, when it comes to basics, we seem to believe it is others who should take responsibility that the cotton in our clothes is not the same cotton that causes lakes to run dry. ‘Here’ is a place where a clutch bag in iridescent python is described as “so on trend!” despite grave concern elsewhere that the number of snakes slaughtered for style could lead to an explosion of the rat population and then a spread of human contagion.
It can be ugly, this business driven by desire for beautiful things. So thank heavens for Botox, injected into snakeskin to make that clutch bag feel scaly not flakey. I had no idea of that little detail until I read “To Die For. Is Fashion Wearing out the World?” by Lucy Siegle. I’ll hold back on her description of what happens in the slow process of snakes being slaughtered only because losing you too early hardly serves my purpose in writing the rest of this article.
But who’d want such a ludicrous display of wealth as a python purse anyway? Not you, of course; you prefer to dress down. So that cotton Tshirt? Did you check it hasn’t reached your back via the labour of schoolchildren – and their teachers – who are forced out of the classroom every summer to harvest the cotton crops of Uzbekistan? Those new jeans that already look old? We need other people – poorer people – to get the look for us by sandblasting, which is big in Bangladesh, where garment workers are dying of silicosis. Sandblasting is the new fur. You shouldn’t be seen dead in it. Donatella Versace is the latest designer to join the campaign to outlaw it. Expect the next trend in denim to be a direct reaction; dark indigo, except that’s turning vital rivers in India bright blue. It would be wrong to suggest that all the big fashion brands are up to no good. Most of them try quite hard not to be bad.
I can’t think of a single one that has ignored consumer pressure to get with the eco agenda. But now they have done the easy stuff (cutting down on packaging, changing the light bulbs, rerouting grey water to flush the loos), it’s a hard road ahead. For those just entering the business, that road must seem almost impassable. Even if a young designer does get a break, financial pressure now translates as shareholder demands front of mind. And if our young talent still believes in fashion as ‘art’, what chilling examples are to be found: Alexander McQueen dead by his own hand in London; John Galliano, who killed his career with antisemitic rantings in a Paris bar.
The pressures of producing endless fantastical collections generating those endless dollars can prove unbearable. Which leads me to looking back. About a year ago, I started getting random requests for a six part BBC fashion documentary called The Look which I worked on from 1990 to 1992. In the past six months, interest has increased from England, Australia, Korea . . . and unsolicited emails arrive from those just born when it was first broadcast. They are reacting to the six episodes posted on vimeo (videosharing website used by creatives) with the wonder of archeologists stumbling into Tutankhamun’s tomb. (OK, that’s a gigantic exaggeration, but one thing that will never go out of fashion is the industry’s ease with hyperbole).
Anyway, the other day, I too found The Look online. I understood instantly why the clothes appeal now; they are so utterly out of fashion, they are on the way back in. I suppose watching the late Gianni Versace, Moschino and Yves Saint Laurent appeals to this constituency the way The History Channel does to guys obsessed with WWII.
In The Look, names now thought of as brands still belong to people; in the program Donna Karan admits in it she has only recently stopped opened all the mail with her name on it. The supermodels are in their prime. “I don’t know what a supermodel is. Does it mean I’m super?” squeaks Linda Evangelista, her voice surely as shocking as when silent stars switched to talkies. And there’s Carla Bruni, with the face she was born with, wisely saying nothing, missing nothing; good training for the future First Lady of France.
The doco seems to capture a golden age; a moment in time before things went absolutely crazy. Not that all was calm. In 1992, the series was aired around the world, perhaps to the chagrin of marie claire editor, Jackie Frank, then a New York based stylist, whose feisty reaction to a scrum scene outside a Jean-Paul Gaultier show was viewed by the folks back in Melbourne. Crowd control has much improved, but otherwise, that lack of organization had advantages. PRs were posh women in pearls. Today’s media managers would never let anyone get the equivalent of a shot that goes on and on as Yves Saint Laurent ‘Elnetts’ his bouffant backstage.
Lurking about was a guy in a tie we never bothered to interview. Bernard Arnault was in his early 40s when The Look was being filmed and looks vulpine, stealthy, as he circles his prey. The rhetoric the chairman and chief executive of LVMH pushes today is that fashion stars don’t matter as much as they did. Now it’s all about the product. (This from the man who – at time of writing – has no viable designer for Dior).
But in 1990, he was the star maker to Christian Lacroix, an experiment that would fail to the tune of €150 million in losses over the years. That Arnault’s other instincts were more sound is evidenced by his current status as the wealthiest man in France, with a Forbes-estimated worth of US$41 billion.
Today, the money is on the quiet ones, specifically Phoebe Philo, who heads up Celine and is independent of spirit (though not in business, Celine is part of LVMH). She creates uncluttered clothes for busy women and references her own needs as the stylish mother of two young children. Yet her sartorial statements echo those of the leading minimalist we talked to back in the early ‘90s. Giorgio Armani’s muted palate and unadorned silhouettes were exactly what sophisticated women yearned for back then, although this being TV, we cut away from frocks to shots of his home, complete with five colour-coordinated Persian cats.
The landscape of fashion was expanding, literally; it was the beginning of the identikit designer superstore in London, New York, LA (although we would have to wait until the millennium for most brands to open in Australia). That territorial land grab goes on. Twenty years ago, China was the place that made the cheap stuff. Now 20% of goods labelled Prada are, legitimately, made in China.
Where else is fashion marching? Forget Borat jokes; Kazakhstan is a new luxury nexus and its oil-rich city of Almaty the No.1 seller of shoemaker, Christian Louboutin’s crocodile stilettos. Where there’s muck, there’s frocks and fashion mags; Cosmo Mongolia launched in the wake of Rio Tinto mining the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposits. Yes, luxury labels have reached Ulan Bator. And all other corners of the earth besides, thanks to e-commerce.
Asked in 1990 what her life’s ambition was, New Yorker, Donna Karan shot back, “A Broadway Show!” Today, her response would be more holistic; her company is, for example, among pioneers trying to source product out of Haiti to aid its reconstruction. Vivienne Westwood played the pantomime dame in The Look; her fault and ours, given she was the one cavorting around in a nude body suit with a gold fig leaf. But we didn’t listen when she went on about global responsibility. We just thought she was bonkers. And great TV.
Recently I’ve been working closely with Dame Vivienne and know her to be wise. I consult for the UN-World-Trade Organization agency, the International Trade Centre, on the Ethical Fashion Program which links top designers to some of the world’s poorest people. A growing percentage of Vivienne Westwood accessories is produced in the slums and drought-stricken regions of East Africa. Driving across Northern Kenya, seeing hardly a tree because those farmers whose animals had died had felled them to burn and sell for charcoal in order to feed their families, the designer’s ardent advocacy that climate change cannot be ignored makes poignant, sound sense.
Fashion as a vehicle out of poverty? Who would have thought that in 1990 when we were getting excited by who had a mansion, who had a yacht? Yet you can create lovely beads from the carcasses of cows dumped in a slum, you can make handbag hardware from brass salvaged from abandoned cars. Artisan skills, from screen printing to embroidery, can be done by those displaced by conflict, quickly earning them a living wage.
Not that the Mighty UN is the only body to have identified fashion’s unique power. There are scores of smaller initiatives: from Ecuador (The Andean Collection, which offers natty felt hats to Manhattan urbanites) to Ethiopia (Sammy Ethiopia, whose featherlight scarves, wrapped over bikinis, are a summer hit among the Med set). Spurred by its success in Uganda and Cambodia, the Spotlight Stitch in Time program operates in Australia’s Top End where, it is hoped, the provision of sewing machines and support could mean that indigenous women, among the world’s most marginalised, may earn a place in a lucrative value chain.
While small companies can react to changing needs and, designers such as Vivienne Westwood can be nimble because she retains control of a business (with estimated annual sales in excess of £120 million ($189 million), plus ownership of all key retail real estate. Who’s bonkers now?), the fast fashion juggernauts require a longer turning curve. It is encouraging that Pablo Isla, the new man at the top of Inditex (owner of Zara) has pledged to make sustainability a cornerstone of all of activities and has announced that his company has signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative and The CEO Water Mandate.
At the dawn of the ‘90s, it was the Ladies-who-lunch who fascinated. I’d certainly never met anyone like couture-clad Texan, Lynn Wyatt, a damn good sport who agreed to wear a wire so we could listen in to the front row set. Now, those I record (entirely legally) might be scientists, hardly a profession known as best dressed. Fashion professional Helen Storey works with boffin, Tony Ryan, to create dresses which disappear, thereby demonstrating that detergent bottles of the same material (polyvinyl alcohol) can “knowingly” reduce to a compostable gel once empty. There’s Dr. Helen Crowley of the Wildlife Conservation Society whose biodiversity objectives include sustainable cashmere, this to stop over-grazing of goats and so save the rare Przewalski’s horse from extinction.
Fashion really is everywhere, (Benin Fashion Week followed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, by the way), its glitter sprinkled even on Magnum ice-creams (Karl Lagerfeld just shot the TV commercial). Yet the given is, it always reacts to what has gone before, hence Tom Ford, – he of Gucci runways vast enough to land an A380 – now favours salon presentations, no cameras allowed. While Vuitton-checkered flags flutter over all points of the compass, upcomers want just a handful of stores, or only one, in Paris. When you can get everything everywhere, a thrill lies in something you can only find somewhere.
In the days of The Look, we never spoke about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); now those in power recognise fashion must become more fair to respond to consumer demand. While eco is a trend with staying power, claims for eco cred must become more intelligent. Pack purchases in paper in a world short on trees yet littered in plastic bags? Let’s rethink that. Marginalized women across Africa are cleaning and crocheting waste that would otherwise be burned releasing dangerous dioxins. A plastic-bag crocheted tote from Zambia, with no designer label, has replaced the Birkin as the schlepp bag of choice for a New York tastemaker I know.
Last year, Naomi Campbell was called to testify at the international court of justice at the Hague. Her memories of 1997 when she was given those “dirty looking stones” reminded us what a filthy business the diamond trade used to be. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), formally adopted in November 2002, has done much to clean up things, to the point that if you splash out on something sparkly from a reputable jeweller, you can be confident there’s no blood on your hands.
Fashion is much more diverse than the international gem trade (itself still grappling with the transit of illicit precious stones from Burma, Zimbabwe, etcetera and it should be noted, the KPCS does not cover environmental concerns nor guarantee fair trade). It will take wisdom, time, effort for a clear international system of ethical labeling to become as useful as the one inside your jacket that directs you to cool iron or dry clean. While the 21st century journey of that jacket to your back is way too complex to fit on an actual label, there are positive developments.
Just as e-commerce has made it possible for the consumer to voice concerns (much easier via pressing “contact us” than trying to get answers from a harried shop assistant), so might m-commerce on smartphones allow us to receive the life story of clothes just as we are deciding whether of not to buy them.
There are no plans I’m aware of to make a sequel to The Look but if there were, what moment might it capture now? I think this is the time where those of us who love fashion face up to responsibilities that include saying “no” if something seems too cheap, in the awareness that it may carry other costs we can’t countenance. The Look captured a moment of style. If a sequel could capture the moment of style equaling substance, wouldn’t that be good?