Category Archives: fashion

Staying modern

An ever-changing, sometimes elusive, interpretative state of being.  Whether the topic is medical, engineering, fashion, government, technical, or scientific, the adjective modern receives its share of use.  This current attribute seems to be popping up all over the place lately, or maybe it’s just booming louder in my eardrums,…modern equipment, modern practices, modern way of life, our modern world.

Most of us like to think and describe ourselves as modern.  Unless we’ve hit that comfortable bar we don’t want to cross, we, as individuals and organizations, don’t want to be, nor can we afford to be, out-of-date or old-fashioned.

Modern is not quite an anachronism.  But it could be.  When we describe recent history as it’s taught in (Western) schools, the Modern Era started during or with the Renaissance.  Some say it started with clock time, during the 16th century.  The history books call our current age, post-1945 to the present, as the Contemporary phase of the Modern Era (the present, evidently, is whatever year the definition is being read.) What will our history books call the years surrounding 2017?  Will it be another version of modern?

A soon to be modern?

Most of what we know about the universe, both beyond our planet and within it, we’ve discovered in the last few decades.  Still, our knowledge outside our natural sight, in our current modern world, is not much.  Those who study what we can’t see, say that what lays outside our current modern comprehension is enormous.  It’s estimated, (as much as we can estimate a percent without a firm grasp of the whole), that we may know less than 3% of what this earth, and the universe, is about.  For now, though, we are as modern as it gets.  Just don’t blink too often, because modern has been gaining momentum and is moving faster than ever.

A few hundred years ago, not much changed between generations.  By comparison, the last few have been moving at warp speed.  In our modern day of just twenty-five years ago no one used the internet.  Apple’s first iPhone launched only 10 years ago in 2007, starting the smart-phone revolution.  Now, almost everyone on the globe spends precious time bowing to those devices.  A mere 10 years ago, our modern-day had no apps, Facebook and Twitter were just coming onto the scene.  Instagram and WhatsApp were born just seven years ago.  WeChat, introduced a mere six years ago, now dominates in China not only as a must-have social media app, but also as a platform for the majority of everyday purchases and currency transactions.

In the fashion world, so that we don’t overuse modern, we circulate other descriptives, like current, contemporary, up-to-date, in-trend, chic, fresh, fashionable, cool, hip.  In fact, modern gets a new definition every season.

What was modern yesterday, even ultra-modern, may not be tomorrow.

Every generation in history has lived in modern times. Current practices and knowledge will soon be dust, considered ancient and antiquated.  Future humans will look back to our present day, 2017, and say, wow, do you remember when people actually drove cars, sat in traffic, made cheap industrial food, and polluted the atmosphere without regard?  How crude and barbaric.

But hey, we can’t get hung up on modern.  It’s only an overworked adjective trying to be helpful.  So what that modern’s description has become fleeting.  The good news is, it won’t take much effort to stay relevant.  We are all on the modern fast train, and it’s just pulling out of the station.  We have little choice.

Modern Art. A move from tradition to experimentation. Country Road by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

We want it cheap

It’s natural for us to protect our hard earned cash by routinely searching for cheaper options — of anything.  Two product categories in which the competition has been overwhelming us with affordable (cheap) options enticing us to fork over our dough are food and clothes.

I was asked recently why apparel purchased in outlet shops tends to fall apart after a year or so.

We can make clothes so cheap we can almost give them away.

Clothing sold in outlet stores has become big business.  Once a place to unload liability inventory, most higher-end retailers have turned outlets into profitable retail chains, using lower cost (quality) products and stitching them in low-cost countries.  For all of us involved, the makers and consumers, it’s truly a race to the bottom, to the cheapest.

As in clothes, consumers have been demanding cheap food.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), industry is happy to oblige, thanks to capitalism and supply-side economics.

We’ve aggressively improved processes to make corn, meat, and tee shirts dirt cheap.  That means we look at each component in the production life-cycle and continually evaluate where/how more profit can be squeezed from less.  In almost all cases, we bastardize the original product.  You can safely bet that meat sold in a fast-food chain, whether beef, pork, chicken, or fish, is from animals who have suffered a miserable, production-controlled life.  Clothing made for outlet stores were designed to be sold, not to last a lifetime.  It’s a penny-pinching business. Good care and cheap don’t compliment each other in the race to the bottom.

An old girlfriend of mine, in the fashion business, had a surprisingly stark closet, yet she always looked up-to-date and sophisticatedly fashionable.  Her philosophy was to purchase well-made, high-end, classic pieces in a tight color range, mostly black and white.  She was able to combine all her pieces to make her wardrobe look much more expansive that it was.  She spent less on clothes at the end of the year than the average discount shopper.

Cheap clothes and cheap food are not bad, as long as our expectations are in line with the purchase price.  Our yen to buy lots of cheap clothes has provided jobs and contributed to raising the living standard for millions of Asians.  Our desire for cheap food, on the other hand, may satisfy our immediate taste buds and budget, but we’ll pay for that later, and chalk up the expense to another category called health care.

notes to self for designing new seasonal collection

  1. Know the customer.  Describe in detail who the customer is.
  2. Establish the calendar.  Determine the collection presentation and work backwards — make/publish a seasonal calendar showing target presentation week and what needs to happen to get there.
  3. Research initial trend direction.  Spend time researching brand sights to determine initial style direction. Shop brick/mortar for merchandising ideas.
  4. Create Mood Board.  Highlight categories, colors, theme and direction to create seasonal feeling.
  5. Start fabric market research.  Visit shows, mills, collect fabrics.
  6. Understand retail price points.  Design into selling price levels.
  7. Determine collection breath.  Determine and define each category and sub-category.
  8. Set target sample quantities.  Given categories, determine ideal number of samples by sub-catetory.
  9. Set up conceptual silhouette line sheet by category/sub-cat with target quantity.
  10. Create tech packs.  On going process.
  11. Record fabric data.  Content, construction and price idea.  Establish a fabric ID.
  12. Design small groups/themes where possible/appropriate.  Design with targeted price levels in mind.
  13. Create signature pieces.  Make a couple of attention pieces to create wow factor, independent of price.
  14. Edit the line.  Take out pieces not completely compelling.
  15. Tag and ID each sample.
  16. Photo each sample.  For record keeping and line sheets.
  17. Capture live images through season.  Shopping retail, mills, factories, street, office — shoot and collect live images.
  18. Create line sheets complete with images and style numbers.
  19. Present collection making sure to articulate inspirations, overall stories, sub-stories, and customer attraction.
  20. Evaluate results.  After sales, absorb what worked and what didn’t for future consideration.

Première Vision

Or PV, as it’s referred to by those who attend, is a fashion textile show held in Paris twice a year.  As its name suggests, it’s an initial view into apparel and accessory collection ideas for next year’s seasons.  Held twice a year, this past week’s show was Autumn/Winter 16/17.

And now’s the time.  Styles for next Autumn will already be in stores next year at this time, soon followed by Winter.  It may seem like a long way off, but from now till then it’s a non-stop effort to pull collection designs together, merchandise and edit a line, place fabric, accessory, and garment orders, tweaking design, color and fit during the process, all the while considering production time and logistics, which usually involves raw material and finished product being developed, made, and shipped from halfway around the world.

one of the hundreds of mini-themes

one of the hundreds of mini-themes

The last time I attended PV was 20 years ago. Not much has changed since then in its format. The show is about new yarns, fabrics, designs, colors, textures, accessories, and prints — on all types of fabric, including leathers. There are hundreds of thousands of fabrics and tens of thousands of prints. If you are a clothing designer, getting the most out of the show means planning time wisely. There are hundreds of exhibitors, (dominated by Italians), each with 8,15, 20 or more tables inside their booths, which for many, remain full by appointment only.

a vantage point of a sliver of one hall

a vantage point of a sliver of one hall

The tens of thousands of fashion designers from all over the world who attend PV walk the show taking copious notes, evidence that this is a serious show.  Each of the six major exhibition halls has a nucleus area displaying groups of fabrics neatly arranged by dozens of themes — describing them with phrases like; inner dazzle, rigorously drawn, refined flexibility, rustic minimalism, extreme thrills, playful interweaving, noble undulations, silky performance,…and the list could fill a few pages.  The locution describing fashion stories is more intricately subtle than hearing sommeliers describing complex fine wines.  Since this is not a fashion blog, I’ll not go there.

In Le Forum area the PV board exhibits what they’ve determined is the color direction for the next year, with 23 softly oscillating banners each one of the colors.  A small sampling can be purchased for a cool 150 Euros.  Photos are strictly prohibited.  In fact, throughout the show there is an army focused on camera security, demanding anyone caught catching a snap to immediately delete the image.

the 23 colors for 1617

the 23 colors for 1617

Inside the color area, surrounded by displays of multifaceted fabrics, are a couple of digital presentations on large screens, with a substantial sitting and viewing area, usually full, showing conceptual applications of color into fabric texture and design, giving attendees the chance to fully-absorb the essence and feeling for 16/17 Autumn/ Winter.

PV encapsulates the season’s idea with the following paragraph:

Autumn winter 1617 gives voice to creative forces.  It carries a strong-minded aesthetic message, and brings multiple cultures and genres face to face.  The season leaves nostalgia behind, without fantasizing over a too-distant future.  It draws on the present to create beauty, offer something new, go beyond the expected.  Reality isn’t enough?  Let’s transform it to make it more extraordinary, plug it into our imaginations, have a laugh with it, augment it to sketch out future fashions.  Let’s give it a ‘material’ dimension, to wear it right on our bodies.”

To make this more digestible and to add perspective, they outline three major fashion stories and 10 minor themes as follows:

  • Visionary
    • flawed beauty
    • cross-cultural connections
    • digital poetry
  • Sensitive
    • a furtive gleam
    • an unfolding suppleness
    • a puzzling blur
    • a natural fantasy
  • Strong Minded
    • a vaunted solidity
    • a foolproof technology
    • a decorative message

The stories are described in significantly more detail in the show brochures.

three fashion stories for next year

three fashion stories for next year

Bottom line, if you are involved in apparel fashion direction on any scale, this three-day event is a place for a valuable head start.  At the same time, you can also sink into inspiration overload if you are not careful.  It helps to go with your sensory receptors open yet with a focused efficiency.  And, to understand that this first view is not the only view.

Although I’m not a designer by trade, I constantly endeavor to satisfy those with whom I work, so the trip was a good re-insight to arguably the most important global show of its kind.

In all, several welcome work days out of the routine.  And, the pressure, and all the accompanying excitement for the 16/17 autumn/winter season has just started.

what made the trip even tastier was using the Paris bike share program, enabling me to ride with my carryon to the train, which I then took to the airport

what made the trip even tastier (than French food) was using the Paris bike share program, enabling me to ride with my carryon to the train, which I then took to the airport

two shirt guys

There are all types of button-down shirt guys, from dressy to messy, and (at least) two who fit into the casual bucket are mr downtown and mr uptown.

mr downtown is,….
doesn’t mind wrinkles
denim centric
seeks comfort
mr uptown is,….
tucked in
well groomed
doesn’t like wrinkles
centered on trousers
looks crisp

Of course there is crossover.  Both are interested in style and like to buy premium.  For the shirt, it’s in the details and how it’s worn. 

mr uptown in lightweight cotton with mother of pearl buttons

mr uptown in lightweight yarn/dye cotton with mother of pearl buttons

mr downtown in soft cotton/linen blend on indigo base, heavily laundered

mr downtown in soft cotton/linen blend on indigo base, heavily laundered

Let’s face it, both are cool dudes.

30 is the new 33

And skinny is the new slim.

For years, whether they were jeans, dressy trousers, or chino types, I bought waist size 32-33 pants.   Men’s pants, and clothes in general, measured true, or almost true.  A 32 inch waist measured up to 32 3/4 inches (to include a small tolerance).  Depending on the brand, or the pant itself, sometimes I’d buy 32, others a 33, but the size never varied beyond that range.

Then around 15 years ago, we decided to grow our sizes, or shrink them depending on how you look at it.  In an effort to feel better with our size, tolerances have increased.  A marked size 32 became an actual size 34 or 35.  The result is, retailers have helped convince us that we are smaller than we actually are.

I’m no smaller in height, weight or bone structure than I was when I was younger, yet I’ve gone from buying size large in both casual button-down shirts and tee shirts to size small.  Yes, the fits have changed and we tend to wear trimmer, less boxy clothes, but still, we’ve over compensated with smoke and mirror measurements.

When I first started in the apparel business, I spent time in garment factories with quality engineers who showed me how to measure garments.  While women’s waist measures change according to rise, how men wear pants has not varied much over the years.  We still wear them on our hips (for the most part).

I first started noticing the change about 12 years ago when I tried on a couple of premium “made in Italy” jeans styles at Diesel’s exclusive Soho boutique and size 32 was too large.  Magically, 31 was evidently my new waist size.

Several years later I bought a couple of twill pants at Banana Republic and again, size 31 waist fit me perfectly.  I bought two again at the same store this week and presto, 30 is my new size.  I got no smaller in the meantime.

These size 32 pants measure the most true, just under 33

These size 32 pants measure the most true, just under 33

The measurement around my hips is just under 33 inches, if I exhale, maybe 32.  It’s impossible that I’d measure any smaller because the pelvis bones are the limiting factor.  There is no way I’m a size 30, but across the board, apparel brands have grown garment sizing and are telling me that I’m now a 30.

I tried on pants this past week from Scotch & Soda and from All Saints — two boutique chains.  In both, 30 was my size.  I therefore decided to do a random sampling at various other stores.  So armed with tape measure and note pad, here is what I found in men’s pants:

  • Sand (brand from Denmark) size 32 measured 34
  • Old Navy khaki trouser size 34 = 37
  • Old Navy slim jean, size 32 = 35
  • Old Navy jogger, size M = 35 (relaxed elastic waistband)
  • Banana Republic chino, 30 = 32 and 32 = 34
  • Banana Republic skinny jean, 30 = 33 and 31 = 34
  • Zara skinny jean,  30 = 33 and 34 = 38
  • J Crew chino, 32 = 35
  • Gap straight leg denim, 36 = 39
  • Gap skinny denim, 34 = 37
  • Scotch and Soda skinny, 30 = 33.5
  • All Saints skinny, 30 = 32.5

All samples were picked at random and measured the same and had the same rise (fit on hip).

One exception, although I bought them a few years ago, a pair of city riding pants from a brand of exceptional cycling clothes from the UK called Rapha.  Their size 32 fits me perfect and measures just under 33, as true to size as there is in the market.  And in all fairness, I picked up a 3/4 length short from Uniglo this week in size M and it too fits fine, although I need a belt even though it has a full elasticated waistband.

I have a jacket from a European brand in size Large, which fits like it should.  And another from Uniglo, a Japanese brand, in size XS which fits about the same.  L = XS??

I know a woman who I consider a size medium, but she swims in size S and must buy XS or petite.  J Crew offers size triple zero for women’s.  Triple zero?  We no longer measure like it is, rather we tell ourselves we are smaller than we actually are.

Put another way, in the face of an obesity epidemic brewing in the USA over the last couple of decades, our waist sizes have suddenly reduced two to three inches across the board.  That makes a lot of sense — in the land of milk and honey.

super skinny or toothpick, they are just damn skinny

super skinny or toothpick, they are just damn skinny

In addition to sizing, we’ve gone description crazy.  As we described gasoline for our cars from regular and premium grade to super and ultra-premium, in clothes we’ve gone from slim and slender to skinny and super-skinny, and even toothpick.  Some brands demurely call their extra slim fits “tailored slim” or “modern slim.”

Bottom line, even if your didn’t want to, or didn’t know you did, be happy you got smaller.  No matter your size, you’ll fit a skinny.

textile showdown

Chances are, the fabric from the shirt you are wearing was shown in a fabric show in some part of the world.  It may be that the yarns to make that shirt were shown in a yarn show.  And the shirt itself in an apparel show, and the machines to make all those processes in other shows.

The first important fabric show I attended was almost 20 years ago in Paris, where I was bedazzled by the variety and quality at Primer Vision, or PV as it is called.  After two days of walking the show I didn’t get close to seeing everything.  This is one of the shows that sets the stage for upcoming fashion.

our booth, almost all of it

our booth, almost all of it

Someone I’ve known for a long time started a denim show about a decade ago called Kingpins.  I attended his first show in New York where there were several dozen suppliers of high-end denim showing their new collections.  Since then, Kingpins has grown to be one of the most important denim shows, with venues in the US, Asia and Europe, attracting manufacturers, suppliers, and high-end indigo aficionados from all over.

As in apparel, there is a lot of competition in the textile show world.  In China, a behemoth of fabric production (supplying fabric for a majority of apparel production around the world), someone looking for fabric trends can find shows in many important cities at key times of the year. Shows tend to be grouped together, in the same general area at about the same time.  For example, if you are showcasing an apparel brand in New York or Las Vegas, there are about five different shows during the same week to choose from.

some of the women's florals, looking down the hall to our neighbors

some of our women’s florals, looking down the hall to our neighbors

The show last week where a team of us exhibited was Intertextile, in Shanghai.  They say it’s the largest in this part of the world.  In prior seasons the venue was the Pudong section of Shanghai, but this time was moved to the other end of town, Hongqiao convention center.  The place is massive enough to use gps to get around.

In this show you can find just about any type of apparel or accessory fabric imaginable.  Our focus was on men’s and women’s shirting fabrics.  We were one of hundreds.

Because we were a supplier among multitudes, the booths were all open to the tens of thousands who attended the three-day show.  Interestingly, even though there were suppliers from all over the world, the Italians kept a lid on who they let see their fabric. Besides needing a pass to get into the show itself, to get to the Italian section, you needed an additional pass by special invitation only.  Once inside, the Italian booths had doors, providing a double layer of security for the designers showing their new innovations in a country that excels at knockoff.

double layer security to the Italian section

double layer security to the Italian section

tens of thousands attended the 3-day fair

tens of thousands attended the 3-day fair

In textile shows like Intertextile, there is always a large mix of exhibitors, from fabric mills, to printers, to trading companies like ours.  It was a fabulous experience.  With luck, we’ll be back doing it again in October.

the rest of the team, minus one

the rest of the team, minus one


Recently we received a request to develop a premium men’s shirt line for someone we are already making nice shirts for.  Because we already make high-value shirts, the request instigated a discussion about the meaning of premium shirts.

Most of us intuitively understand that premium is a relative concept, at least when it comes to purchasing something other than an insurance policy.  The concept of premium evokes a feeling of above par, or above normal.

However we all have different normals.  What may be premium to one may not be to another.  When we shop for clothes, the concept of premium is usually brand related.  A J Crew shirt may be premium to the buyer who shops at JC Penny, but would not be to someone who frequents a store like Barney’s.

In the world of J Crew shirts, as an example, there are a few premium levels.  But what makes them premium?  It may be a combination of factors, tangible and intangible, like attention to detail, an arousal of indulgence, the feeling of something more uncommon, which all lead to the category of a higher quality.  Their basic and seasonal fashion shirts retail between the $60-70 range and premium goes up from there, in levels, from $80, 90, $150, up to a cool $380.  Fortunately, we have not taken clothes the way of the gasoline industry, which at one point had just regular and premium gasoline, but now have super and extra premium.

shuttle notes indigo flannel $200

shuttle notes indigo flannel $200

The term premium denim was born well over a decade ago as jeans evolved in exclusivity.  We think of premium denim as jeans that approach $100 and up.  Before my last trip, I tried on (market research, didn’t buy) a couple different styles of Ralph Lauren’s black label denim jeans that retail for better than $500 usd a pair.  The denim was superior, the finish and wash luxurious, the fit perfect, the styling exclusive.  The overall attention to detail and depth of quality far different than jeans in the lower end of the premium category.

In general, premium is considered something that is better made, something we’d pay extra for.  In the retail world, premium is a range between mass-market and luxury.

chimala japanese denim at J Crew, $380

chimala japanese denim at J Crew, $380

Most brands want to be considered premium, or if they are not, they need certain items that are, which makes sense because most of us look for a premium advantage when we shop.  We don’t want run-of-the-mill, at least not always.  On the flip side, if we always buy premium, then we develop a new normal, and an occasional and subtle craving for something even better, more premium.

I think I’ll stop here, having been hit by a craving to indulge in premium ice cream, which may help me think about the new premium shirt line.

where are your clothes made?

Ever since the building collapse in Bangladesh a couple of months ago that killed over 1,100 garment workers, the New York Times has run almost weekly front-page articles covering the story.  Each piece names retailers and brands, US and European, who make substantial garment purchases in Bangladesh.  The WSJ has also had their share of B’desh articles recently.  These periodicals are bringing garment sourcing front and center.

The articles point to Bangladesh as one of the cheapest places on earth to make apparel.  The writers of these articles seem to point a finger at the brands and retailers for exploiting a cheap source.  But what they don’t point to is why.  The answer is simple.  We, the mass market in the US and Europe, demand cheap clothes.

How many times have we complemented someone on what they were wearing only to have that person proudly quote how cheap they bought the item?  We love bargains, the cheaper the better.  When we find deals, we share our find with whoever will listen.  We can’t get enough of them.  We are mass market in constant search of bargains.  And an endless number of retailers are fighting for our attention by scouring the earth to bring us the cheapest garments possible.

We are affected by huge volumes of media showing us what it means to be fashionable.  The cheaper the garments are, the more we can buy.  Many mass market retailers have done creative work making garments available to the masses for incredibly inexpensive prices.  Principally, because we are a good audience.  We consume, throw away, recycle, and consume some more.

It used to be that people had a few key clothing items in their closets.  We didn’t used to collect clothes just to have more clothes.  That was then.  Today is a different story.

Part of the time I lived in San Francisco it was with a girlfriend who had relatively few clothes (in comparison to most).  She could afford more, but chose not to.  She always looked elegantly fashionable yet her closet was small.  She was in the fashion business.  She invested in quality pieces that were fashionably classic, mostly black or white, and combined them in ways that made it appear she had more outfits they she did.  Her philosophy was to have fewer higher quality pieces rather than many cheaper ones.  She was not mass market.  Most of us are.

Years ago, I worked for a large speciality retailer.  When I started with them, 60-70% of their clothes were made in the USA.  Today that number is somewhere under 2%.  That transition took place for main two reasons: 1) people got better jobs and 2) competition demanded we find cheaper labor.

Sewing garments is a low skill job.  One doesn’t think “one day I’m going to grow up to be a sewing machine operator.”  Unless you order a custom, fully-constructed blazer or a couture piece, you likely don’t need a craftsperson stitching your garments.  In all likelihood, your clothes were stitched by a production line of sewing operators each performing a single operation over-and-over, hour-after-hour, day-after-day, making minimum wage in a foreign country.  The larger the buyer’s order, the more efficient the sewers become at that one operation, and the cheaper the clothes become.  It’s simple economies-of-scale.

About two months ago, there was an article in the WSJ: The Economics of a $6.75 shirt.

made with the lowest wages on the globe

made with the lowest wages on the globe

The article talked specifically to Bangladesh.  The author broke down the costs of a $6.75 button-down woven shirt (several x’s that price by the time we buy it).  Using a fine 50s thread count cotton yarn, the fabric cost for the shirt is $4.75.  Accessories like labels, buttons and other items the retailer requires cost another $1.  The remaining $1 gets allocated to cut fabric, sew the garment, light washing, factory & office overhead, marketing, and bank interest.  The Bangladeshi wage of about $80/month comes out of a small portion of that last dollar.  There is not much room to give that worker a raise.  It’s not that the factory would not want to pay the workers more.  If they do, the buyers will go to another low cost country.

Savvy retailers know down to the fraction of a yard or gram of fabric used in each garment.  They measure the efficiency of each sewing operation, called SAM’s (standard allowed minutes), and pay the factory accordingly. Others less detailed will simply not pay more than that last dollar to cut & sew a woven shirt.  The result? Corners get cut.  They are not always evident, but they get cut.

Garments made in cheap labor countries is not a bad thing.  Transiting to low wage countries has helped provide jobs, pulling millions out of lower levels of poverty.  It’s provided fuel for part of that country’s economic engine.  As the engine gains speed, more people are lifted out of poverty.  Those people eventually, after years of production line sewing, want better jobs.  It’s why large garment production factories left the U.S.  It’s now why buyers are leaving China and flooding into countries like Bangladesh.

For designers and buyers in the mass market, price is their guide.  They think fashion, but are hamstrung and limited by price.  The further you get off the bottom of the barrel, the garment quality starts usurping price as the ultimate guide.  But the audience starts to thin the further off the bottom you swim.

Looking at the “made in” label of the garment we purchase is more likely an afterthought, if a thought at all.  Who cares where it was made, it was a deal.  We are a consumption society.

I’d expound in more detail, but right now I’ve got to run to the corner as there is a sale on tee shirts, five for $20.  One can never have enough tee shirts in the closet.  I’m not sure where they are made.  It won’t matter because it’s a bargain to hard to pass up.

dress nice

A couple of weeks ago, GV and I walked uptown to take a look at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.  Along the way we moseyed into a Banana Republic store.  As we meandered through the women’s section, we saw a beautiful skirt.

walking to see the tree at rocefeller center

walking to see the tree at rocefeller center

At first I thought it was washed leather.  But it was a spray coated twill skirt which had a washed, antique leather-like appearance.  Whoever designed and made it did an excellent job.

As I was looking for the price tag, I estimated the retail price to be upwards of $200, or more.  It looked (relatively) expensive.  To my surprise it was only $89.00.  How did they do that?  Then I looked at the “made in” label.  Oh, Bangladesh.  No wonder.

Bangladesh has been a huge and important source for apparel brands over the of years.  B’desh has been pumping out apparel for decades, but only recently since the prices in China have been rising have brands large and small from the U.S. and Europe been migrating significant (increasing) amounts of production to Bangladesh.  It’s one of the cheapest places in the world to make garments.

Two weeks ago there was a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory that made world news because of the number of people who died–120.  The initial reports tell us that the factory didn’t have proper exits, extinguishers didn’t work, exits were locked and it was overcrowded.  No need to name names, but a couple of well-known brands made clothes in that factory.

As consumers, we demand the prices from the cheapest countries in the world.  We espouse “made in the USA” but we don’t open our wallets to pay homemade prices.

It wasn’t long ago that the brand I worked for had an extremely difficult time policing the factories right here in our own country.  Some sweat shops mirrored the worst in foreign countries.  They were very deft at fooling inspectors.  The sweat shops existed only because we demand the cheapest products we can find.  Manufacturing shops here that complied with treating fellow humans fairly couldn’t compete.  Production had to move.  It’s recently been moving in a big way to Bangladesh.  In a country where the monthly labor rate is barely $50/month, it’s hard to find a hotel room for $200/day.

Migrating apparel production simply follows the path of least resistance.  The resistance being how much we’ll pay for a dress.  Or to dress.

The brands who manufactured in that B’desh factory probably did (some) cursory compliance inspections.  Obviously not enough.  Having been in that world, I often wondered why buyers from one country must also be in the business of monitoring compliance of factories in foreign countries.

Shouldn’t governments be in the business of policing their own states, of protecting their own citizens?  But I guess state police can’t be everywhere.  So there is a responsibility of the foreign buyer to be ” in the know.”  But governments could help by making more visible examples of those who cheat systems that harm fellow humans.   That goes for the owners of garment factories where workers are harmed (and any executive of a company who bends laws so out of proportion that they are unrecognizable — think large US corporate/bank executives who got away with committing severe negligence at the expense of many others).  Jail for life seems appropriate.

The apparel production in China, India, Bangladesh and others is highly subsidized by their governments.  Subsidies of any kind end up creating an imbalance.  Apparel production has flooded into Bangladesh in part because of these internal subsidies.  Garment factories doing business with large brands rely on their consistent production.  The large brands have become particularly good at squeezing pennies out of the product.  It then becomes tempting for some factory owners take further subsidies into their own hands by negligently treating their workers.  The foreign buyer then bears the burden of constantly policing against this negligence, which requires a small army of people.

That’s not to say there aren’t excellent, well-run, state-of-the-art garment factories in Bangladesh.  There are many.  And they’ve become experts at making garments which are not only tailored for mass market “cheap” brands, but now also for many higher-end brands.

a large, state-of-the-art factory in Bangladesh playing by the rules we recognize as fair.

photo sent to me yesterday of a state-of-the-art factory in Bangladesh playing by the rules we recognize as fair.

If we design and bring a brand to market, we have an obligation to make sure it wasn’t made at the expense of fellow humans.  In our globalized world, it would sure be a lot easier if governments policed susceptible industries a little better, or at least make more vivid examples of offenders.

In the meantime, we’ll keep buying lots of dresses, jeans, shirts, and other apparel from Bangladesh and other low-cost countries.  So get that nice dress. Look and know where it’s made.  And dress nice.  Because you can.