Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E Hoskins
Review: Karl Marx vs Karl Lagerfeld: who really pays for fashion?
Consumer culture: Karl Lagerfeld with model Cara Delevingne at this season’s Chanel Shopping Centre fashion show, in Paris. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images
Protesting at H&M. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images
A mother shows a photograph of her daughter, who died in the Rana Plaza collapse. Photograph: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers sew clothes at an unregulated factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photograph: Tomas Munita/The New York Times
STITCHED UP: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion
Tansy E Hoskins
What does Karl Marx have to do with Karl Lagerfeld? That’s the question posed by Tansy Hoskins in this assiduously researched and defiantly anti-capitalist polemic that charges the fashion industry with a plethora of crimes: sweatshops, child labour, environmental devastation, racism and alienation.
At the same time the author finds fashion “truly glorious and enthralling . . . and inspiring”, though these aspects are not nearly as forensically explored. This is a pity, as she does not adequately explain fashion’s popularity and creativity, its transformative and communicative power, its ability to reflect social change and its fascination for writers, philosophers and historians.
Hoskins is a young British writer and activist who has worked for the Stop the War coalition and CND, and is the founder of events in the UK that unite culture and politics. Her intention was to “unpick a bit of capitalism”, and fashion was a compelling target.
With Marx always at her side, along with heavyweight social critics such as Walter Benjamin, Terry Eagleton, Roland Barthes and John Berger, not to speak of a bibliography of some 300 books and 800 references, her arsenal of fire is formidable.
Awash with billionaires
The facts speak for themselves. The global fashion industry is worth €1.1 trillion a year. Thirty-five brands control 60 per cent of the luxury-goods market. Mass-market fashion is “awash with billionaires”, men such as Stefan Persson, who inherited H&M from his father and acquired an entire Hampshire village for €30 million in 2009; Bernard Arnault, Europe’s richest individual, who presides over the LVMH empire, with Dior, Celine and Marc Jacobs under his belt; the Andic brothers, Turkish billionaires who own Mango; and Amancio Ortega of Inditex, which owns Zara and Massimo, and who is the third-richest man in the world.
These conglomerates spend millions on their brands, with the biggest profits made on mass-market goods such as perfume, where margins of 30 to 40 per cent are typical. Luxury bags are sold for 10 to 12 times what it costs to produce them.
Hoskins quotes the creative director of Bottega Veneta on the It Bag phenomenon. “It’s totally marketed bulls**t crap. You make a bag, you send it to a couple of celebrities, you get the paparazzi to shoot just as they walk out of their house. You sell that to the tabloids and you say in a magazine that there is a waiting list.”
The fashion media, she points out, is also owned (with the exception of a few independent magazines) by a few companies, such as Condé Nast (Vogue, Glamour and GQ, among others) and IPC (Marie Claire, In Style). According to a former Vogue publisher, “the cold, hard facts of magazine publishing mean that those who advertise get editorial coverage”.
There are now millions of fashion blogs, but many successful bloggers such as The Sartorialist, she argues, can be seen as little more than corporate PR disguised as independent opinion.
Hoskins gives the notion of consumer as king short shrift, too, and explores Marxist theories of use versus exchange value, along with the notion of commodity fetishism, though she concentrates more on exchange than on use value.*
Kate Middleton’s dress
One of the strongest arguments for improvements in wages is that they could be doubled without a noticeable impact on the price of clothing. A dress worn by Kate Middleton to the White House was discovered to have been made in a Romanian sweatshop by female workers paid 99p an hour. The dress, from Reiss, retailed at £175. Had wages been doubled, the dress would have cost £178.15.
When the efforts of Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, to revitalise apparel manufacturing in Africa with the Edun label stalled, they sold a 49 per cent stake to LVMH. Currently 85 per cent of Edun's collection is produced in Africa.
There are horror stories of crocodiles “bludgeoned to death to meet demand from fashion houses”; the environmental cost of producing cotton; the use of toxic metals to stop fur rotting; and the fact that the UK dumps 1.4 million tonnes of textiles into landfill every year. Hoskins scuppers the notion of “buy less, spend more” and raises the much-debated questions of underage, undersize models and racism in modelling.
Where the book lessens its relentless fusillade is with her youthful, Utopian manifesto for a better fashion future involving collective ownership of the world’s resources, job diversification and an end to hierarchical societies and “oppression in dress”.
She doesn’t say how this revolution can begin, but she quotes an order given by one Irishwoman who fought to change the system, Constance Markievicz. “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”
* This article was edited on May 15th, 2014