The fashion industry tells us we should care about fashion. But do we care about the people in fashion?
This question has been on my mind for a long time. Thinking about how care – a soft, human emotion – can fit into the machinery of the fashion industry is difficult. Caring and profitable business don’t often go hand-in-hand. But incidents of care – and a lack of care – regularly occur in the fashion industry.
‘Care’ for me means the process of thinking about and looking after other people: something which is deeply emotional and highly cognitive (and difficult). Think about the ways in which you care for work colleagues: you observe their thoughts and behaviours, you keep track of their progress, provide advice when needed, and ‘review’ those behaviours and processes regularly.
You do this by asking ‘How are you?’ and listening to the answer.
- Vogue launching The Health Initiative to look after models across all its publications (June 2012)
- Vogue working with Equity on a code to protect models at work (April 2013)
- Retailers like New Look making their sustainability practices transparent
- The Rana Plaza factory collapse and the ensuing reaction to the tragedy
- CEO Mark Jeffries of Abercrombie & Fitch explaining that he only wants “cool, good-looking people” to wear the brand*
- CEO Richard Hayne describing Urban Outfitters’ customers as “upscale homeless”
It’s clear that caring about people in the fashion industry is on the agenda, whether that’s working to care more or letting slip that you don’t give a toss. But all this care/lack of care comes from big organisations and big names. Do consumers care about those in fashion? If so, who and how?
*I’m still unsure whether this is simple yet searingly-awkward brand protection and transparency, or the man genuinely doesn’t believe women over a size 10 should wear his gear. Either way: ouch.
I created two mindmaps to work through these ideas. Firstly, who is there in fashion to care about?
These groups are based on the points in fashion’s journey (or commodity chain) from design to production to consumption. Many sectors of the fashion industry are multi-faceted, like retail: this includes a brand’s identity and execution but also shop workers and retail environments.
From this I worked through key factors that I believe define our relationships with these sectors.
These relationship-defining concepts are flexible and this is just one way of approaching the issue of care; I’d like to see how other people think about it. This diagram boils down into seven care factors (an example for each is below):
- Availability: how soon can I get a garment?
- Ethics: how ethically sound is this process?
- Innovation: how new is this object?
- Price: how expensive is this item?
- Quality: is this item high or low quality?
- Uniqueness: how well-known is this item?
- Value: how much is something worth?
How do these factors work?
These factors can be applied to the examples of care/lack of care I noted earlier:
Vogue launching The Health Initiative – ethics and (maintaining) quality
The Rana Plaza factory collapse – quality, ethics and value (is it worth it?)
Urban Outfitter customers as “upscale homeless” – lack of value and comprehension of uniqueness
I used these factors and sectors to create a survey (sent out on social channels) where respondents rated the seven factors in order of importance when thinking about the care of each sector in the fashion industry (from one to seven, one being the most important).
Only a few people completed the survey (I’ll explain why shortly) but here are the top three results for each sector:
- Price only appears once, as the third most important factor of care for retail. I expected it to appear a lot more. The belief that consumers only care about price is simplistic but a consistent media story.
- Publishers and faces are recognised and cared for due to uniqueness. Is this because of a genuine desire for something new and different, or because we are pushed the new and the different by editors and agents?
- Quality was the most frequent factor of care and I’m pleased. We want things to be good, not just cheap or quick. Establishing processes of caring is all about ensuring better quality – whether that’s higher quality garments through caring about factories, or higher quality relationships through caring about colleagues.
These results were gleaned from a tiny, teensy set of data. Why?
Because the whole survey was too removed from most people’s experience of fashion.
Asking most people whether they care about a distribution business being good quality, or a publisher having ethical standards, is like asking a bumblebee if she cares about sales of Crunchy Nut. She might do. But there are so many other, more pressing issues when it comes to her current predicament, she can’t think about Crunchy Nut right now.
There’s the same reaction with fashion.
@ebsnare I get that, but my point is that I don’t have the luxury to pick on those bases. So little clothing fits that I can’t afford to…
— Alison Neale (@AlisonNeale) May 8, 2013
— Gallifrey (@gazpachodragon) May 8, 2013
— Ace (@avonwy) May 8, 2013
@ebsnare While I agree ethics, quality & price have an impact on me, am more bothered about ‘Are the trousers long enough?’ Fit matters more
— Stefanie Archivist (@stefarchivist) May 8, 2013
There are so many problems with everyday fashion that consumers simply don’t have the time, energy or finance to start caring about distant and seemingly-unconnected sectors of the fashion industry. The high street is plagued by poor quality, poorly-fitting fashion, and our reading space with editorial promoting body-shaming and the need to disguise oneself through fashion. Consumers’ everyday experiences with the fashion industry – retail, publishers, famous faces – is not necessarily a positive one, which makes caring after that even harder; just like that first encounter with a grouchy colleague makes giving a toss a lot trickier.
People care about fashion and what happens in the fashion industry. There is a difficult mix of emotion and cognition in how we (consumers and organisations) care about others in fashion, but care is there. We care what happens, and what’s going to be done about it: a great start.
Some things are too far away to care about. How can you care about factory conditions when you can’t find clothes that fit? This isn’t selfish or narrow-minded: it’s pragmatic and entirely human. Caring for everything would make us explode, so we care about the things that affect us directly first, then work out the other bits.
There’s a way to join up direct care and distant care.
We care about things that affect us directly, and that we can change directly – like where you buy clothes. We feel as though we have a choice and a voice in this direct care, so we make it louder and bigger. If we knew how much those distant elements in the fashion industry affect our direct care, I think we would make more noise about them. For organisations as well as consumers, conceiving the fashion industry not as a set of discrete cells, but rather a whole hive, is essential to understanding how care across the board can make our direct experience of fashion better.
This concept of ‘connected care’ is only just starting to form in my mind, so I’ll have to leave you to mull it over. But thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed working through the concept of care in the fashion industry with me. And I care about your views, so please do air them: comment below, tweet me or email firstname.lastname@example.org