I graduated with a degree related to the fashion industry, and at one point dreamed of becoming a designer. I wanted to be part of the world that dictated what looked good and what didn’t, and what girls should aspire to be to fit the new season’s definition of beautiful.
I was already trying my best to look the part; heels and a face full of make up regardless of where I was going or what I had to do. I even started losing weight because this was around the time that the ideal was a size zero (the full story of this is for another time). I was obsessed with fashion blogs and I wanted to make sure whatever I wore could never be called passé.
I spent more than I could afford on imported magazines and dreamt about one day having my designs grace the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. I wanted to be a fashion authority that produced 10 different looks for all four seasons (six, if you include the holiday and pre-fall seasons), and be the name celebrities mentioned when asked who they were wearing.
I applied for a spot for further education in my dream school, and got accepted, but then plans fell through and then I was left wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with myself. I decided to try going freelance, and made a lot of customised dresses, but I kept struggling with two things: making ends meet and explaining to people that I wasn’t a seamstress who copied others’ designs.
I decided to get a legitimate job (read: withholds my taxes) to augment the paltry income I was getting from dressmaking, and that’s when I saw the industry I wanted so badly to be part of with new eyes.
My day job threw me amidst people who were incredibly intelligent and cared about more than what designers were sending down the runway. Actually, most of them couldn’t really care less about the fashion world. They inadvertently made me start asking questions that challenged the status quo.
The job itself required me to keep abreast of the latest news, so I found myself frequently in discussions about certain events and how they could affect society as a whole.
Suddenly I was perusing the sites of news outlets, reading op-eds, and discussing real life issues. It was as if I’d just noticed that there was an entire world out there with real people getting affected by things that were happening.
You see, we didn’t really discuss this – caring about the world around us – at any point while I was doing my undergrad (well, there was one teacher for one class who tried really, really hard to get us to care. But mostly..). We were just taught to watch the fashion trends, figure out how to translate them into designs for mass production, and manage the factories that spewed out said production.
We weren’t trained to think about the ethics that went into the acquisition of certain materials like fur. We weren’t trained to care how much waste the fashion industry was creating, much less how to address it. We were also never told to give a damn about factory employees’ wages or work conditions.
We were basically never taught to think about the social and environmental repercussions of retail.
The sad thing is, I doubt many other fashion students are taught this either. I went through the advertised curriculums of the top 10 fashion schools in the world, and none really explicitly mention the incorporation of sustainability or labor laws in their curriculum.
Most of the curriculums centre around aesthetics and design, maybe even how to run a business, but the lack of priority given to making sure fashion students give a damn about the world around them is a reason why those who are active members of today’s fashion industry are stereotyped as shallow.
Now I will be the first to say that the industry is fast-paced and is fiercely competitive and the people who thrive in it are incredibly hard working, but this is where I point out that the shallowness that the industry is accused of is not that of stupidity, but that of ignorance.
The fashion world is a world of its own and its members are supposed to move within its confines, not paying much mind to what’s going on around them. Let’s be honest, the priority of the industry has always been more about perpetuating beauty standards than it’s been changing the world for the better.
This is a big reason why well-known brands gets caught in the middle of online riots because of things like cultural appropriation.
This disregard for the surroundings, coupled with the goal to increase profits, also explains why time and time again, major retailers make headlines for using sweatshop factories (Of course, that isn’t limited to the fashion industry, but if I got into that, this blog post would be a lot longer than it already is).
Unless there’s a complete overhaul in the training of the people poised to take over the management of the industry, I doubt that these issues will entirely disappear in this generation or the next.
But, if I were to be optimistic about things, there is reason to have hope; several schools have already begun offering programmes in fashion and sustainability, although most only offer it at the post graduate level.
Being honest though, at this point, the industry can end up swinging either way. It can end up churning out batches of individuals whose design principles include making sure everything is ethically sourced and produced, or it can just not change.
Only time can tell, really.