Fashion saw dramatic shifts in 2018. From racist rants from designer Stefano Gabbana via social media to its own Me Too reckoning where photography giants Mario Testino and Bruce Weber were outed for chronic instances of sexual misconduct, the industry had moments of being rocked to its core.
While there is no way to predict which issues will rise to the surface in 2019, there are certainly ones that are festering, living as whispers, or existing blatantly, and all are ready and ripe to be addressed. Read ahead for some of the most pressing issues the fashion industry is facing today.
FORCED AND TRAFFICKED LABOR
Labor issues in the fashion supply chain have grown beyond that of poor working conditions and overworked, underpaid, and underage employees in developing economies. These are no doubt still issues, although what is coming to the surface is that a massive component in the fashion supply chain—mainly the tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers—consists of forced and trafficked labor.
New York Times critic’s pick documentary, Invisible Hands, directed by journalist Shraysi Tandon, shines a bright light on the trade of human beings in manufacturing industries and uncovers the role this sort of labor plays in fashion.
“When people think of trafficking they often associate it with the sex trade but about 50% of trafficked victims, including children, are sold into forced labor. It's taking place in developing countries and parts of Europe where markets and factories go unregulated. The fashion industry is unfortunately rife with trafficked workers and forced labor,” says Tandon. “In our film, we actually show companies such as ASOS and Gap on camera having child and forced labor in their supply chains.”
“And it’s not just taking place in fast fashion brands. Even the more luxury and exclusive brands have been known to have forced labor in their supply chains,” she adds. “Most brands focus on their tier 1 suppliers and manufacturers, but a lot of the work gets subcontracted out to tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers. So the people putting on the buttons or putting on the soles to your $500 shoes are often trafficked and invisible.”
RACE, CULTURE AND APPROPRIATION
Stefano Gabbana's racist social media rant towards the Chinese broke to the media by the popular fashion account, Diet Prada, is an indicator of how race plays in this industry at the highest levels. The tirade came in response to backlash surrounding a video campaign released by Dolce and Gabbana which offended Chinese consumers because of its blatant use of Chinese stereotypes.
From Chanel's use of Koranic verses on its clothes to Prada's recent keychains that bore a very strong resemblance to sambo dolls of the past, over and over, fashion bumbles blindly around issues of race and cultural sensitivity in a way that is awkwardly out of step with the times. It feels especially unacceptable as fashion has exploded so far beyond its European and New York City roots into a truly global industry with a truly global consumer.
The incident for Dolce and Gabbana had immediate repercussions for them. The scandal saw the brand cancel their highly-anticipated first Chinese fashion show just days after the story broke, while videos of Chinese influencers and customers destroying their clothes by the designers lit up the internet. Major e-commerce sites and luxury department store, Lane Crawford, dropped the label.
However, in the most democratized media landscape we've probably ever seen, established publications, social media and independent websites allow for a multitude of avenues to call out offenders and give voice to the topic. The fact that Diet Prada was able to, through the uncovering of DMs between Gabanna and an Instagram follower, break the news is a compelling example of the level of opportunity to bring incidents and ideas into the public awareness.
New York Magazine's highly-trafficked and respected The Cut fashion blog published Everywhere and Nowhere, What It's Really Like To Be Black and in Fashion, an in-depth picture into the black experience within the fashion industry, tackling the subject of race head-on. The piece went viral and gave a powerful voice to the topic via an intimate look through the eyes of the industry's black players, at all levels, direct and indirect. From actor Tracy Ellis Ross, to Pulitzer-Prize winning fashion critic Robin Givhan, to the Creative Director of Louis Vuitton men, Virgil Abloh, the article weaves together a story that paints a picture of experiences so vast, its complexity is eye-opening and only emphasizes the continued necessity to push this topic forward.
Fashion has fallen behind when it comes to technology because, very simply, it’s an industry that is slow to move. For a long time now, everything from publishing to retail has seen the impact in their bottom lines and relevancy due to poor technological strategy and execution. Just yesterday, Scott Emmons left his 13-year post as the founder and head of the retail giant, Neiman Marcus's, innovation leg, iLab, citing a strong lack of confidence in retail and fashion's ability to innovate through technology with strategy, focus and meaning.
Brands release new concepts which they think will shift the way we shop, but often fail to take off, or make grand gestures like 3D projections of fashion shows that drop a lot of jaws but lack true and lasting technological substance. Beyond the consumer level, there are deeper issues, even at the transactional level.
“Fashion discovered technology as a partner in 2012, when collaborations became an important conversation. At first, it all revolved around social media, then e-commerce. Today, it is quite clear that all brands and retailers need a digital mindset to cater to their consumers,” says Liz Bacelar. Bacelar is one of the pioneers in forging the gap between fashion and tech, first as the founder of the Decoded Fashion in 2011 and now as the founder of The Current, both platforms designed to bring technology and innovation to fashion and retail. Incidentally, it was just announced yesterday that Emmons would join The Current as their CTO.
“Even at the luxury level, the experience is subpar, with shoppers waiting several minutes to pay for a transaction due to antiquated systems. Retailers still struggle with their CRMs and seem to be unable to provide a personalized experience, which is so important for today's consumer,” adds Bacelar.
“Brands and retailers should focus on real innovation in 2019. Identifying pain points and creating partnerships to implement solutions that solves their unique issues, always keeping KPIs in mind. This year is all about brand story and experience. Data, AR, clienteling and sustainability seem to be the main focus of our retail projects in fashion and beauty.”
It’s hardly a secret fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Toxic chemicals are the bedrock of textile dyeing while the simple act of washing polyester fabric sheds plastic into water systems with every cleaning. The sheer amount of water and pesticides used in cotton production have been known to cause drought and have been linked to cancer in India. That’s only on the manufacturing end of things. There's also the rampant textile waste that comes from the public consumption of fast fashion—the buying, wearing and disposing of a garment only after only a few wears.
While many brands are trying to incorporate more sustainable practices into their already existing businesses, it’s hardly proving to be enough to combat the massive amount of waste and pollution that fashion creates.
A light at the end of the tunnel is that millennials and the generations after are demanding imminent change regarding sustainability and it shows in their spending habits. According to a Nielsen study, 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable brands.
This demand has resulted in a marked rise in new and emerging fashion brands that are fully sustainable, like Maggie Marilyn and Reformation, while online vintage retailers like ThredUp are committed to significantly reducing clothing consumption by attempting to shift values towards shopping secondhand, positioning it as the ultimate sustainable solution.
This demand is slow to affect change among the global behemoths, who lack the agility to incorporate sustainable production efforts in a widespread way. Which means pollution, waste and water wastage is still rampant and without broad-reaching solutions in sight.
SKILLED LABOR EXPLOITATION
Fashion is fueled by another kind of free labor but one that lives on the other end of the spectrum to what is seen in developing and unregulated economies—the exploitation of educated or skilled creatives.
This sort of labor issue exists in our own economies, within the halls of couture houses and glossy publications, taking advantage of individuals looking to make, or sustain, a career in an industry known for its iron-clad exclusivity and a strict you're-in-or-you're-out mentality.
The most famous issue is that of unpaid interns, but the reality is that it happens at all levels of experience and jobs—from stylists to photographers to makeup artists to journalists—where people are expected to work for free or for exchange of goods, or even simply for the exposure.
It's only now that the voices of creatives at all levels are being raised, sharing their stories through social media and asking for unions, fair wages, and appropriate payment schedules.
Giulia Mensitieri studied this form of labor exploitation and published her findings as part of her PhD dissertation, titled, The Most Beautiful Job In the World. In it, Mensitieri uncovers the cycle of exploitation where experienced and educated people in fashion are being paid in vouchers, trips or simply conferred the social status that fashion brings, but ultimately nothing that puts actual food on the table.
“Sometimes Mia had no money for her phone bill. She was eating McDonald’s every day. She never knew when she would be paid for a job and how much she would get. For example, for a week’s work, a very big luxury brand gave her a voucher for €5,000 ($5,700) to spend in their boutique,” Mensitieri told The Guardian about one of her subjects.
“This situation is nothing exceptional. Mia is just a paradigm of what is going on. When we think of exploitation in fashion we think of sweatshops abroad or sexual harassment of models. But that’s not what I was interested in. I was looking at the creative side. Stylists, makeup artists, young designers, interns, assistants. What I really want to make clear is that exploitation exists at the very heart of the powerfully symbolic and economic center of the maisons de couture, the big luxury brands.”