Fashion is, often literally, a world of smoke and mirrors. It is an industry that presents its wares with a glamour that belies the often unsavoury way they’re made, as though Shell were to launch its latest offshore oil rig by building a glitzy model of it in Paris’s Grand Palais then inviting press and influencers to come take a look.
But unlike oil, clothes are a luxury. They’re sold not through logic, but emotion: you don’t need that new Dior jacket, but my god you want it. To gin up that yearning, brands use all kinds of techniques, from your typical glossy ad campaign, to the more murky world of influencers, and entirely opaque array of manufacturing tricks. These are just a handful of the ways in which you, and every other consumer, are being played.
1. Your Clothes Aren’t Made Where They Say They Are
You might think that you could use the Made in Switzerland stamp on your watch, the Made in Italy tag on your shoes, or even the Made in Britain label in your suit, to know where your clothes were made. Well, not quite. Country of origin regulations can be hazy, particularly since they’ve been set by governments that want to protect domestic industries and allow them to compete on price.
In the EU, the country of origin label generally means that “the last substantial, economically justified processing” has been made in the nation on the label. That mealy-mouthed definition is easily circumvented. In the case of Louis Vuitton, it means Italians sewing the soles onto shoes that had been manufactured in Romania, according to a report by the Guardian. The same is true for ‘British’ sneaker companies, who have the uppers made in China then stitch the soles in UK factories.
Leather goods are especially unlikely to have been made entirely in the country of origin, largely because the production of leather is so unpleasant that most of it is done in the developing world. “There’s nothing worse than leather production and a lot of the luxury leather production comes from very unsavoury sources,” says Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution. Much easier to import the parts for your weekend bag, sew it together in the hills of Tuscany, then stick a Made in Italy label on the handle.
Until 2017, even ‘Swiss made’, that mark of watchmaking excellence, could be easily circumvented; so long as the movement was Swiss, everything else in the watch could be made outside the country, from non-Swiss parts. You just needed someone Swiss give it its final quality inspection. Today, the rules are slightly tighter – 60 per cent of the cost of the components has to be spent in Switzerland – but it’s still possible to bung an off-the-shelf movement into a case made in India and claim your watch is Swiss Made. According to Credit Suisse, that can add up to 112 per cent to the price tag.
2. Unethical Production Is Hidden From View
Fashion’s supply chains are global and almost impossibly convoluted. Especially in fast fashion, which relies on short turnarounds to get new products to consumers as rapidly as possible, it can be difficult to know exactly where certain products are being made.
In low-wage countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, the margins that factories earn on each item are so small that they feel unable to turn down orders, even when the deadlines aren’t feasible. The solution has long been sub-contracting, where the factory commissioned by a western fashion brand will outsource a portion of the work to another factory.
The first factory will generally have been vetted by the fashion brand to ensure it meets the ethical standards they claim in their marketing. But the second factory, which has to have cheaper labour costs to make the outsourcing economically viable, often won’t. Which could be how Benetton and Mango labels ended up in the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza factory in 2013, even though the brand claims it wasn’t a supplier.
Even when products are made entirely in the claimed country of origin, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re of higher quality than those produced in the East. The Financial Times found that, in some factories in Leicester in the UK, workers were paid significantly less than the minimum wage to make clothes for brands like Missguided.
And according to a New Yorker investigation, many designer brands now use Chinese-run, Chinese-staffed factories that have displaced artisanal makers in Italy’s traditional manufacturing hubs. “Even in Made in Italy [brands], there are sub-contractors working for £1 a day, there were sweatshops linked to Bangladesh, there were sweatshops discovered in London’s East End,” says de Castro.
The fix, she says, is for customers to demand that brands reveal every stage of the manufacturing process. “How can we be sure unless citizens demand more visibility? Then the brands will change it.”
3. Luxury Prices Don’t Always Mean Luxury Construction
We’ve written about why luxury fashion is so expensive this before, but luxury is not the synonym for quality that it once was. Yet we’re conditioned to assume that high prices are linked with some artisanality in the way that product was manufactured. For de Castro, it goes hand-in-hand with the offshoring of fashion manufacturing.
“There’s been an overall removing of the industry from our doorsteps to developing countries,” she says, which means that we no longer have any real sense of how our clothes are made or whether they’ve been made well. “The fashion industry has made us like things that we shouldn’t, like glossy bags – which we buy in their millions – where you can’t see the human mistakes. It’s a very cynical way to remove us from the process. In Hong Kong, the Gucci and Marc Jacobs stores, Prada, in the window they have products that are badly made. You can point out a badly made hem because you can see it in the window.”
Over the last few decades, as the fashion industry has expanded, its biggest brands have sought to cut costs while increasing prices, in order to boost their margins. This means that the cost of goods has increased, sometimes by three or four times, while the quality has collapsed. This trend began with diffusion lines (think Prada’s Miu Miu, or Versace Versus) which were originally a way for brands to create more accessible products to expand their market. “They quickly became just as expensive as the mainlines,” says de Castro, “but still with cheap manufacturing.”
4. They’re Not As Sustainable As They Say
As the world wakes up to just how environmentally destructive the fashion industry can be, its giants have laboured to rebrand as ethical and sustainably minded. But these attention-grabbing moves often mask business-as-usual everywhere else. They produce conscious collections, made from recycled ocean plastic, while still using millions of gallons of water to create clothes from cheap cotton. They encourage customers to return their clothes to stores to be recycled, then give them vouchers, which only encourages them to buy yet more new clothes.
This ‘greenwashing’ works because it’s still incredibly difficult to tell exactly how brands are making their clothes, what they’re making them from, and where they’re doing it. “The reality is that you can’t tell,” says de Costra. Young people especially, though more engaged with fashion than ever, have less idea about the quality or provenance of their clothes than their parents did. “We need to invest in a generation that is capable of making these decisions.”
De Costra likens this moment to when consumers first started to question their food – how was it made and what effect would it have on their health? “We check for ingredients or provenance. But we’ve lost the whole concept of citizens treating their clothes as something that needs further information.”
That’s largely because, unlike the list of ingredients and production methods listed on your organic granola, a fast fashion T-shirt only says, “100% cotton.” And you don’t know if it’s above-board, or comes from seeds that have been genetically engineered not to reproduce (so the rights-owner can sell them again next season), grown by Bangladeshi farmers who are poisoned by the pesticides they’re forced to spray on their crops.
Odds are, if you knew it was the latter, you might think twice before buying. “Transparency, a lot of people confuse it with traceability, but it’s about public disclosure,” says de Costra. “It’s not a solution, but it is a step to finding a solution.
5. Some Labels Aren’t Even Clothes Brands At All
Some fashion brands aren’t clothing brands – they’re merch brands. For the giant luxury houses especially, the biggest revenue-raisers aren’t the shirts and suits that they send down runways, but the fragrances, bags and even phone cases that those collections help sell.
As Demna Gvasalia, creative director at Balenciaga and co-founder of Vetements put it, “Most of the looks are not even produced and therefore never get to the shop floor. Shows are there merely to sell a dream that at the end of the day will sell a perfume or a wallet in a duty-free store.”
Research from BNP Paribas and the consultancy VR Fashion Luxury Expertise found that ready-to-wear collections are basically a marketing expense – the brands lose money on the clothes, but make it back on everything else that a punchy collection helps to sell. “We consider high exposure to ready-to-wear a structural weakness,” the report says. For Prada and Hermès, clothes make up only about 10 per cent of sales. The LVMH group is “significantly below this mark”.
This makes those buying the clothes an extension of the brand’s marketing, especially in this logo-soaked world of high-impact design. When you wear that ostentatious Virgil Abloh-designed Louis Vuitton hoodie, or a Balenciaga coat, you’re a walking billboard that the brand’s bosses hope will help sell bags and perfume to the customers who do actually make them money.