Most of the fashion industry is built on an illusion of glamour. Even those of us who love the sequined, sartorial facade (And we do most of the time!) have to admit that that there are certain uncomfortable truths about the industry that are anything but beautiful. Here’s a small peek at what’s behind the couture curtain.
They Crave Young Models—but Not Just For Their Looks
The reason runway shows are full of Slovenian teenagers isn’t only because clothes look inherently better on younger women. Designers and modeling agencies depend on a steady flow of extremely young girls because they’re the only ones who will work for free, live in crowded apartments, and have their occasional wages docked by their agencies to pay for things like travel expenses and comp cards. As a recent editorial in The New York Times illustrated, average models (not the superstars) often get paid in clothes, work very long hours, and have no workplace protections—an arrangement some former models have compared to indentured servitude. Agencies are eager to recruit teenagers because they don’t know enough to stand up for themselves and negotiate for better.
They’d Rather Waste Than Damage Their “Brands”
Ever wonder what happens to garments that go unsold? They don’t all go to outlet malls—they get destroyed. Every once in a while, a big retailer gets caught destroying garments, or “damaging out” unsold merchandise, leaving people to wonder why they don’t donate the garments to the poor. Well, if the homeless lady at the bus station was wearing Victoria’s Secret sweatpants that she got for free at the shelter, who would pay $50 for them? Maintaining a brand’s image is all about pricing them and marketing them so that the “right” people wear them, projecting the image the brand wants to create. Retailers would rather see clothes burned than given to people who wouldn’t project the right image.
Design Theft is Rampant—and It’s Okay
Fast-fashion retailers knock off designs they see at runway shows, and even designers themselves appropriate design elements from each other. Not to mention all those purses on the sidewalks in Chinatown. But although the industry talks a big line about how knock-offs and counterfeiting hurt their sales and hinder creativity, the truth is that in some ways, designers may actually benefit from both. Knock-offs are marketed to a very different segment of the market than true designer fashions, and they serve to bring appreciation for high fashion to a larger group of consumers, who eventually get tired of owning the knock-off and start wanting the real thing. Counterfeit bags heighten the perceived value of the real ones, suggesting that the reason they were counterfeited in the first place was that they were so desirable and so in-demand.
They Still Rely on Sweatshops
Even if it wasn’t made in China or Bangladesh or Indonesia, there’s a good chance that a garment was still produced under sweatshop conditions. A tag that reads, “Made in Italy” is the gold standard in fashion, suggesting quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. However, the reality is far from the fantasy of an elderly cobbler making shoes by hand. The luxury goods factories in the Italian garment districts are now staffed with tens of thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers, who are paid far less than the Italian minimum wage. Even in the United States, designer Donna Karan was sued by garment workers who labored under sweatshop conditions right in New York City.