Is the fashion runway at a crossroads?

September 3, 2013

Harsh reality is pounding more emphatically than ever at the gilded doors of the fashion industry.

Concerns about diversity, child labor and unsafe manufacturing practices have spiked in the past few months. And as New York’s fashion week begins Thursday, social responsibility — and the question of whether Seventh Avenue will accept it as an obligation rather than an option — threaten to overshadow happy trend stories about hemlines, color palettes and the buzziest young entrepreneur.

“I think it would be hard for the industry not to feel connected to the bigger world; after all, we want to sell in the bigger world,” says Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry’s pre-­
eminent trade organization.

“But anything we do comes from the bottom up. It has to come from the industry for us to take the lead on it,” Kolb says. “There’s always going to be a cross section of people who say we don’t do enough, but that’s life.”

For years, special interest groups have argued that the fashion industry is unwilling to recognize the sweeping power and influence it has. Bloggers and activists have expressed outrage over designer runways and glossy magazine editorials that have remained stubbornly, homogeneously white — even as the American population becomes more diverse.

There's a lot of excitement woven into Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York City, and we narrowed down five things to keep your eye on. (Nicki Demarco/The Washington Post)

In Michelle Obama, the country has an African American first lady over whom the fashion industry swoons. In 2009, the CFDA saluted her with a special Board of Directors’ Tribute during its annual awards gala. Yet despite having such a high-profile, African American fashion consumer living in the White House these past five years, Seventh Avenue has not moved on from its celebration of the individual to a broad acceptance of a group. The first lady has not inspired a surge in the use of black models.

Parents, consumers and health experts have lamented the risks of using preternaturally thin, adolescent girls to model clothes created for mature women and presented in adult environments. And activists have pushed, prodded and attempted to shame the industry into being more accountable for the continued existence of sweatshops that mass-produce garments at cut-rate prices in struggling communities around the globe.

Over the past year, those controversies all entered the cultural conversation in a sweeping wave, from the blogosphere to Washington’s non-governmental organizations to the New York legislature to Southeast Asia. “There’s something in the air right now,” says Susan Scafidi, a pioneer in the area of fashion law who fields questions from designers on topics ranging from contracts and labor practices to copyright protections.

For example, designers would be well advised to look closely at the lineup of models for their shows for spring 2014, says Bethann Hardison, a former agency owner who has been leading the charge for more racially diverse runways for more than five years. She is planning a public campaign asking members of the industry, from New York to Paris: “Regardless of your intent, are the results of your actions racist?” She will be keeping tallies on multiracial representation and will follow up with designers who are lacking. And she says she will not shy away from invoking the r-word — racist.

“The mistake I made was forgetting that activism has to remain active,” says Hardison, who is well-respected in the industry. “No doubt, things have improved since 2007.” But, she says, more factors have come into play. “The industry gets locked into one way of thinking.”

In April, the collapse of an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh killed more than 1,000 people. With the specter of that disaster lingering in the news, the industry is now more focused on ramping up New York production — taking advantage of the efficiencies of geography, the economics of local hiring and the goodwill stirred by a “Made in America” label.

To encourage more New York manufacturing, the CFDA — along with the New York City Economic Development Corporation and businessman Andrew Rosen — is launching a program aimed at promoting, supporting and investing in local factories. It is modeled after the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which identifies promising designers and provides them with grants, mentoring and publicity to help grow their businesses. The new program is a kind of Fashion Fund for factories.

This season, fashion has been redefined as cultural touchstone, social commentary, political action and patriotic economics. “Fashion is so mainstream and everyone is so tuned in,” says Marlene Hu Aldaba, owner of District-based Hu Shoes and Hu Wear. “The social issues are more on the surface now than ever.”

The Bangladesh catastrophe had industry watchdogs recalling the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that brought attention to sweatshop conditions in the garment trade in the United States. This summer, mass merchants, from Gap to Macy’s, signed onto a pact aimed at improving working conditions, though the agreement is not legally binding.

The vast majority of labels participating in New York Fashion Week — most of which are small, independently owned companies — are not producing hundreds of thousands of units in China, or anywhere else. Still, they do manufacture overseas. And most of them are left simply trusting the manufacturing chain, said Scafidi, who oversees the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. “They feel like they’re holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed.”

Designer John Bartlett tested his ability to go “off the grid” — avoiding the giant factories and adhering to a modest carbon footprint — around 2005. The New York designer relocated his production to New Delhi, where he used manually powered machines and steam heat. He relied on locally produced fabrics and artisans who were paid a living wage.

“The production is much slower. The pieces have a hand-wrought feel, which I like, but it may not be as perfect as something coming off a factory floor in China. And it can be more expensive,” Bartlett says. Now, he produces his collection between New York and New Delhi. And he continues to produce a small percentage of it off the grid.

“I don’t designate that on the sales floor, although I probably should,” he says. “I do talk to buyers about it. [Editors] writing about it see it as something exciting and interesting.

Bartlett thinks that a “Made in New York” or “Made in America” designation is much more important than it has been for a long time.

“People are really wanting to buy American again,” he says.

By relying on New York factories, Fashion Week designers will be able to keep closer watch over quality and fit. If necessary, they can make quick design changes. Some designers, such as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of the Row, have made New York manufacturing central to their brand’s identity. Nanette Lepore, Yeohlee Teng and Anna Sui have long been active campaigners in the Save the Garment District project, pushing back as the historic neighborhood is taken over by Internet companies. Juan Carlos Obando shifted his small-batch manufacturing from Los Angeles to New York. Marcus Wainwright and David Neville, the British designers behind the Rag & Bone label, have made New York manufacturing part of their creation story. Others, such as Prabal Gurung and Yigal Azrouel, use New York factories with little fanfare.

The push for social responsibility does not stop at the gritty backrooms and the factory floor. It is also focused on the front of the house — and the runways. The ongoing concern over the health and welfare of models boiled over when, despite promises from the industry to cease hiring girls under age16, model Ondria Hardin, 15, swanned down the runway for Marc Jacobs last year. The designer was unapologetic, noting that filmmakers and musicians regularly work with child performers. Indeed, Brooke Shields was 15 when she posed for the provocative Calvin Klein jeans advertisements that had her whispering about nothing coming between her and her Calvins.

Hiring adolescent models has always been an easy and uncomplicated affair for designers. Models have never been governed by the work rules to which other young professionals must adhere. But this summer, New York passed legislation limiting the work hours of models under age 18. It requires that they have chaperones, tutors and various protections for their wages. The bill awaits Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature.

The earliest major test of the law would be in February. But already, designers are prepping to tackle the paperwork the legislation would require. The CFDA has met with designers, bookers and lawyers to dissect the bill. And CFDA’s Kolb plans to meet with representatives from the Labor Department in the coming days to sort through some of the fine details. For example, does a 17-year-old model require a tutor if she works fashion week? And who pays for that tutor if six designers employ her over that time period?

“The law is 18 and under, but we still don’t think girls are emotionally ready under the age of 16,” Kolb says. “I’ve talked to the designers themselves, and I think we’re making progress.”

In addition, the CFDA continues to send reminders to its members regarding its Health Initiative, a voluntary commitment to create a more healthful backstage environment and to avoid booking emaciated models or those who exhibit signs of an eating disorder. This ­self-regulation has mostly stopped the use of skeletal models, but it has not resulted in models who are closer in size to the average American woman, who wears a 14.

Size-ism continues to haunt the industry. This year, Abercrombie & Fitch had to dig itself out of a public relations debacle after the media circulated years-old comments by its president, Mike Jeffries, in which he off-handedly dismissed large-size customers as not fitting into the store’s preferred demographic of cool, beautiful people. Jeffries took heat and apologized. In fact, he’d only had the misfortune of publicly articulating the general thinking within the world of aspirational fashion, where the largest size is typically a 12.

While industry insiders are advocating for healthier models, almost no one is advocating for models who reflect the reality of Main Street. There are no BMI minimums. But this season, there is a tiny sign of progress. In a first, a plus-size designer, Eden Miller of Cabiria, will present a collection at Lincoln Center — the official venue for fashion week. She was invited to participate in a group show sponsored by the Fashion Law Institute.

No social issue has been more actively debated and discussed within fashion than the question of racial diversity, however. It is a complicated stew of aesthetic choices, cultural callousness, ignorance, prejudice and mixed mes­sages.

The whitewashing of the runways began more than a decade ago, after a period during which black models were ascendant. The past few years have seen a celebration for an all-black issue of Italian Vogue and applause for a story in American Vogue that bluntly asked “Is Fashion Racist?” (The article’s answer, in case you were wondering, was no.) Hardison, the former agency owner who has been advocating for model diversity, organized town-hall meetings that encouraged self-analysis but sometimes defaulted into circular logic. Who is responsible for the dearth of black models? The scouts? The agents? The casting director? The designer? The consumer? French Vogue appalled some readers when it featured a white model styled in blackface. A hew and cry went up when Essence, a magazine marketed to black women, hired a white fashion editor. (She has since quietly departed.)

Even a recent instance of success for a black model became, in the broader context, a cause of disbelief and frustration that such achievements are so rare rather than a time for congratulations. Malaika Firth won a coveted spot in Prada’s fall advertising campaign. It marked the first time a black model had starred in one of the influential Italian brand’s glossy spreads since Naomi Campbell posed for one in 1994.

Race is complicated. But as activists see it, diversity is pretty straightforward. Just scout and hire more black models. Support black designers with the same enthusiasm as their white or Asian counterparts.

“The fashion industry will have to do something or it will lose the millennial generation,” says Brandice Henderson, founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, a runway presentation featuring black designers.

After some soul-searching about whether she should open the show, now in its sixth year and located at Jazz at Lincoln Center, to a wider variety of designers, Henderson has stopped fretting.

“Harlem’s Fashion Row is a platform for designers of color. For a while, I teetered with that. Am I limiting myself? And people challenged us on that,” Henderson says. “But I’m taking a stand for designers of color. I’m standing very firm on that.”

She is working on a Web site that would serve as a commercial platform for featured designers. Visitors would be able to pre-order pieces from the various collections, giving designers cash up front to help produce their work.

It may seem odd that an industry that has long had a reputation for fearless creativity and provocative images can be so timid when it comes to the moral universe. But fashion is also about playing with the cool kids, and every decision validates a designer’s place in the hierarchy, his or her place in the food chain.

As Hardison noted, fashion “is a tiny island that has been invaded by pop culture.” As a group, the natives are not interested in being “the leaders of a pack” in terms of social issues, she says. “They’re just doing their thing.”

Ultimately, Kolb says, the CFDA — and the fashion industry that it represents — are about the business of selling clothes. The causes they get involved in are by choice. And while the CFDA encourages a multiracial runway, it does not enforce it. Still, Kolb says, “I’m encouraged that we’ll see more diversity. I just feel that. People are paying attention to it.”

Spring 2014 is shaping up to be — perhaps — the season in which the fashion industry no longer has the luxury of choosing its issues. The rough places, the dark corners are being laid bare. And it would take willful, ornery inaction to ignore the insistent reality.

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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