Between the Lines: From NYFW to the Garment Factories of Pakistan

ColumnConscious life, hear me roar.

I have just returned back home from running around Manhattan and New York Fashion Week. As you might imagine, an intense week full of long legged runway models, moody designer presentations, and the deep bass beats of stylish music gives New York City the air of theater, sex, and retail desire. It’s also a week-long voyeuristic sneak peak at what we all hope to be wearing next spring and summer when emerging from our winter cocoons.

Fashion is sexy. It serves as both a transformative power pill and a retreat for the world-weary. It’s a place we can go to to become stronger by the very clothes we wear and in lieu of the fact that our inner strength isn’t enough. Power is sexy. If you think I am wrong, point me to the runway show you’ve been to recently that shows women hunched over in house dresses looking down at the ground from nerves.

Fashion is all about power and I couldn’t help thinking about it this past week. There were even times when photographing shows I put the camera down a little in order to see the model walking at me with my own eyes instead of through a lens. Some of them reeked of this confidence so much that I laughed out loud. It’s their job to trick us into believing that a certain look is all we need to get by in this world. It is their job to act as a visual representation of a designer’s ideal, a paper doll with folded tabs that takes off and puts on outfits that when our own, will help in terms of better jobs, business deals, romance and getting the job done.

While I am lucky to be covering sustainable fashion 99% of the time, where designer’s “About Us” pages tout social responsibility, closed loop technologies and organically grown fabrics, most of the fashion industry is just not there. Nor does it really care to be.

Case in point, waking to a story this morning on the Pakistan garment factory fire that has left (as of the writing of this column) 289 dead. In this, the biggest industrial accident in the country’s history, we are left to scratch our heads and wonder how this could be or maybe we don’t want to look at it too closely at the risk that it will tell us something about ourselves.

The “Inspection of industrial units by the provincial labor department was mandatory under the rules until 1997 when it was banned after demands by influential industrialists in the Sindh and Punjab provinces,” Shujah-ud-Din, a senior research associate at the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research, told Bloomberg by phone from Karachi. Factory accidents also claimed 419 lives in 2008.

The Karachi garment factory itself had locked fire exits, barred windows and there wasn’t a sprinkler in site. A single staircase connecting four floors became kindling for a boiler in the factory that burst into flames, engulfing all floors that were connected to it. Workers chopped away at the bars with tools to jump from 4th story windows – pregnant women, old men, nephews, aunts. People trying to make a living so that society could wear something new.

I recently interviewed Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Cline told me, “To our credit, it took consumers several decades to be convinced that they no longer wanted to own beautifully made clothing and to make them forget that $20 does not in any way buy a well-crafted garment.”

In a fast fashion crazed society, where we want more, faster, cheaper, we will always have stories like this in the headlines. Hard-working people who will accept being modern day slaves to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

You will read all the headlines on this factory fire story and it will stay with you for a bit, until you need a new shirt, a pair of boots or a party dress. You might even consider the tragedy when you walk through the front doors of your favorite fast fashion chain. But you probably won’t be able to stop yourself once you hear the deep bass beat from the well-positioned speakers, the beads and bold colors merchandised like candy, the other women around you, arms laden with pretty dresses at $19.99, and how could you?

You were conditioned to shop this way. But let me tell you something, I think you can start walking past these stores, in fact, I think you can stay out of the mall entirely. I think you can plan ahead and look for the right designers who don’t have factories like this – who pay their workers fairly, who let them work from home who don’t treat them like animals.

People often tell me I can shop responsibly because I know so many designers, I just “know how to do it.”

But knowing how to “do it,” and realizing one has a responsibility to “do it,” are two completely different things. One requires making a call to the eco-boutique or hitting the local consignment shop and the other? Well, that requires lowering the camera and looking at life with a real-life lens.

It requires considering not just yourself, but the lives of many others.

Between the Lines is a weekly column by EcoSalon’s Editor-in-Chief on navigating the sometimes-sharp, sometimes-blurred lines of conscious life and culture between city and country, between inner worlds and outer.

 

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