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Global 'fast-fashion' industry harming economy, environment, souls

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In this lively indictment of the corporate clothing industry, a New York journalist explores how low-priced "fast fashion" -- the kind of "dirt cheap chic" clothes churned out for retailers like Forever 21 and H&M -- is wrecking the economy, the environment "and our souls."

Author Elizabeth L. Cline takes a broad look at "a powerful, trillion-dollar global industry that has too much influence over our pocketbooks, self-image and storage spaces."

Overdressed is the result of a three-year investigation that took Cline to factories in China, where she passed herself of as an American manufacturer, sewed with Dominican labourers and visited what is left of New York's garment district, a skeleton of its storied past.

It's true that fast fashion is one of the most radical things to happen to the fashion industry since, well, French king Louis XIV and his sidekicks created a fashion industry.

Until about 20 years ago, fashion was largely about aspiration, seasons and a "real relationship" with the clothing we owned.

Today, however, fashion is one consumer area in which prices are actually coming down. Thanks to this "shopping free-for-all," Cline writes, "chasing trends is now a mass activity, available to anyone with a few bucks to spare."

Fast-fashion retailers tacitly encourage us to see our wardrobe as disposable. Our relationship with clothes, she argues, has become as meaningful as a one-night stand.

The phenomenon started roughly in the mid-1990s, not coincidentally the same time as the loosening of trade restrictions and import quotas. With new technology, chains found a way to design, manufacture, ship and put clothes that sell on racks in a matter of weeks.

Stores like Zara, generally credited with masterminding fast fashion, rarely restock items, even if they're bestsellers. They prefer luring shoppers in to see what's new.

The trend cycle is so revved up that what's hot this morning won't be by this afternoon. Why spend a lot on a piece of clothing in that case?

Vogue and other haute fashion magazines helped turned the tide in favour of fast fashion when (during the recession) they ran ads by the decidedly un-couture houses of Gap and Walmart, Cline explains. Cheap became a new status symbol.

There is a lot to pick up on in this book and a little bit to pick on, too. Cline writes Undressed as a mea culpa, with an undertone of nascent self-awareness by a now-reformed fast-fashion addict.

Cline is at times overwrought in her indictment of fast fashion: "We are completely in the dark," she writes, "about what fashion has cost the environment and American jobs."

No we aren't. And neither presumably is she, given that Cline explains how she was a student radical, regularly participating in the influential campus demonstrations of the 1990s against sweatshop labour.

When Target offers a cute knit skirt for US$6 and puts it in thousands of stores around the world, it's naive not to think they are going to use cheap foreign labour and rely on production methods that tax the environment.

Cline's discussion of the sheer quantity of clothes being produced today and her chapter on the afterlife of cheap fashion are especially thought provoking.

We donate our castoffs to charities, satisfying ourselves that this will offset our consumption. Cline calls this the "clothing deficiency myth" and says the Goodwills and Value Villages "long ago passed the point of being able to sell all our wearable used clothes."

Overdressed is well researched and thoughtfully laid out. Cline backs up her statistics and statements with credible sources. And while she sometimes appears to be stating the obvious, many of her solutions are appealing.

Her formula for change is the same as the one proposed by the anti-fast-food brigade. Cline's "slow fashion" manifesto includes advocating DIY, which is rather unrealistic today.

Upcycling fabric, giving it new life and diminishing potential waste is realistic for but a few -- like single women in hipster Brooklyn who don't have kids to carpool. The last time women sewed their own and their family's clothes they didn't also have full-time jobs. Tailors weren't so expensive then, either.

Still, she insists that a reversal of the fast fashion is in the hands of the consumer. Buying sustainably and locally is another idea, a solution though, again, fraught with hiccups, not the least being that the equipment and specialists hardly exist in North America anymore.

It couldn't hurt our own diminished manufacturing industry too, which, disappointingly, doesn't get a mention, although Winnipeg's stalwart garment workers have produced clothes for major American retailers like the Gap and Calvin Klein jeans over the years.

Cline reports that China makes 41 per cent of the clothes America imports. As China develops, its labour costs will rise. That will certainly up the cost of that $8 wrap dress from Forever 21 and start us thinking that it's time to bring things home.

Cline's idea of going back to a time when we bought fewer and better clothes is the best. Quality: For a whole generation this would be an entirely new concept.


Winnipegger Karen Burshtein was a fashion writer for many years until she ran out of synonyms for the colour beige.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J10

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