The Post-Recession Fashion Industry: An Interview With Lucy Siegle

SeriesThe fashion industry is emerging from its cocoon post-recession, a changed sector where consumers are more cautious, manufacturers are on their toes and designers are struggling to stay afloat doing business as usual. In this five-part series, we take a hard look at the fashion world, speaking with industry leaders, luminaries and experts.

Journalist and author Lucy Siegle is an avid proponent for ethical lifestyle issues. In addition to writing a weekly ethical column in The Observer, she is a member of the Noi Collective, formed in 2009. Siegle, along with Livia Firth, Orsola de Castro, and Jocelyn Whipple, have combined their collective experiences to influence sustainable practices in the fashion industry, which include The Green Carpet Challenge and the Observer Ethical Awards.

Siegle’s recent expose: To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? is a look at the inhumane and environmentally devastating story behind the clothes we so casually buy and wear. We caught up with Siegle to talk about her new book as well as what she thought about the state of the fashion industry.

Here’s what she had to say.

You mentioned in your recent Observer column that women now buy four times the amount of clothes they did back in 1980. Why do you think that is?

Well the first point to make is that fast fashion hasn’t always existed and hasn’t always dominated the UK’s fashion landscape. That is the main driving force that has seen our wardrobes bulking up since 1980. In my book I actually begin by showing how fast fashion brought a sort of welcome injection of life (and to some degree pace), into the UK high street scene. Unfortunately it kept speeding up and became conflated with discount or value fashion.

As well as these factors, the following are to some extent intertwined and enable bulk buying: the dominance of celebrity culture over other forms of culture (we no longer want to know what A-listers wear in Cannes or on the Red Carpet but what they wear in their cars when going to a drive thru and this has spawned new categories of fashion apparel i.e. luxe loungewear), the speeding up of mainstream fashion media (the change from a monthly style bible such as Vogue to a weekly such as Grazia or Closer), the more explicit retail role of the fashion media – increasingly selling directly from the page, we’re starting to see the sponsorship of TV fashion shows by mainstream retailers, the emergence of the multiples (supermarkets), as fashion retailers and the consolidation of luxury houses into conglomerates. The emphasis across the industry is on multinationals flogging units of product. This has all had an effect on how we buy (in bulk and at speed).

We are so conditioned to shop and consume and buy more than we ever will need. What are some ways we can disconnect from our addiction?

As consumers I would argue that the first thing to do is to understand a little more about the model. So in To Die For, I try to reveal elements of these prevailing models that aren’t working. This includes the Global Assembly Line – a bit of a misnomer because it suggests that there is a more coherent structure behind mass produced fashion than is always the case! Millions of garment workers are set up to fail on this line and cannot meet their targets however hard they work. This leads to enforced overtime and workers being locked into factories and then there are horrific deaths in factory fires and on it continues.

Once you understand some of the flash points, I’m hoping people will be persuaded to look for some alternatives or search out better practices and want to shorten the distance between the producer and their wardrobe (this is how the Fairtrade model operates). People will understand that you may have to pay a little more in some circumstances but the trade off will be that you will ‘re-skill’ understanding how to assess quality and longevity. I also want to open the mainstream fashion consumer up to more creative ways of breathing life into a wardrobe – swapping, loaning, customising, refashioning and to a certain extent making your own.

In your book, you talk about “Wow Prices,” “Tantalizing Exclusivity,” and “Cheapskating,” all terms that reflect back to fast fashion and our incorrigible desire not to miss out on a bargain. Has fast fashion made us cheapskates?

When I use the term ‘Cheapskating’ I’m referring to a specific trend: spending in the region of £1000 on a handbag or single ‘it’ or ‘status’ accessory and bulking out the rest of the wardrobe with discount wardrobe fodder. This is something that the fashion media has really encouraged. I think it represents bad value on a number of levels and I would argue it leads to the degradation of the consumer. It is a commercially beneficial idea of how we should interpret trend that encourages us to embrace extremes but not to utilize any of our skills or intuitive understanding of style. So we shove the luxury handbag on a credit card (fast fashion’s rise has coincided with unprecedented levels of female debt even though it claims to save us money), and scratch around for the rest of our wardrobe. We diminish our own spending power.

You work often with Livia Firth, such as for the Green Carpet Challenge. Is it important for celebrity figures to wear sustainable clothing to further the message?

It’s the other way around, really. It’s important for designers who prioritize sustainability and ethics to get the chance to be seen on the big platforms and to get the press attention. You may or may not agree with celebrity culture, but the fact remains that the big red carpet events open doors for designers and design ideas. Interestingly that’s become more homogenized too. I was reading a piece by a celebrity stylist from LA who charted the real commercialization of the red carpet to Uma Thurman’s wearing of Prada in about 1995. Since then it tends to be big labels (luxury conglomerates) to the big stars. If anything it can be a little safe. Livia and I got the opportunity as her husband was nominated for a clutch of awards in 2010 and 2011 to try something different. ran the blog for us and we just tried to raise the profile of sustainable style and throw some other designers into the mix. We found that a number of other actresses wanted to join in – they felt ethical fashion was really important and they loved some of the pieces. So we’ve been able to work with Elizabeth McGovern (Downtown Abbey) who loves Henrietta Ludgate and Amanda Seyfried, who worked with Karen Caldwell. Fashion is a big place, and the Green Carpet Challenge is a tiny corner, we’re not suggesting we’re solving the whole problem with this but many people connected with it. But it was also interesting (and heartening) that a lot of journalists picked the stories up and ran pieces on the dresses. I think they were pleased to find a new angle and they were surprised by the quality of some of the designers. The best kept secret about a lot of ‘sustainable brands’ is that they use designers and makers who are enormously skilled and can turn out pretty impressive pieces.

If you were to weed out only five retailers we could sustainably shop from, who would they be and why?

I am happier with retailers who are upfront. If they genuinely acknowledge there are problems in the overall supply chain over all but are committed to changing them I’m much more amenable, but I do like to see some evidence that this is the case!  In the book I single out Whistles for Jane Shepherdson’s approach and Ted Baker who are working with the Made supply chain inventory and metrics as two brands I feel have the capacity to change things on the high street and reinstate the middle market (which I think important).

But I want to make the point that it’s not just about a tick list for the high street or me providing a directory. Ask questions of stores (we’re beginning to), and make them work a bit harder for your fashion pound. Personal tolerances vary. I might not get upset about mulesling for example, another consumer might find it inconceivable that I would buy mulesed wool or that a retailer would stock it. I would like people to save up for a Pachacuti hat, put their fashion pound towards little known Veja sneakers (at similar price points to the major brands), wear a Traid remade jumper, go to a clothes swap, do one of those empowering and realistic sewing courses – you know they have titles like, “Trousers You Actually Want to Wear” or similar. But it’s not just about substituting one brand for another. It’s about reclaiming personal style before it’s too late and allowing your aesthetic to match your ethics. Right now, I don’t trust multinationals to do it. They are beholden to shareholders and therefore they just want to flog large units of product often irrespective of who made it and in what conditions and they want us to discard the product as quickly as possible. If they could persuade us all it was a lovely thing to wear single-use boiler suits, they probably would.

Image: Jason Hargrove for Nicole Bridger, Lucy Siegle photos

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.