These Thursday blog posts are flying by. Summer is on a speedboat. Anyway:
The other day, I happened to visit The Hairpin, a favorite site of mine on which I like to waste lots and lots of time wandering endlessly in Linkback Land. However, I saw an article titled Why Buying From Emerging Fashion Designers Cost More Money, and Why That’s Okay by Of A Kind co-founder Erica Cerulo. The next day, I came across an article titled The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion in the New York Post, by Elizabeth L. Cline, author of “Overdressed.” And then, while getting lost in Tumblr, I came across a reaction to the Hairpin article from independent designer Anja of Clever Nettle.
Of A Kind is a fashion/e-commerce startup I’ve followed since its launch in 2010 where members can shop pieces from on-the-cusp and new designers. Each piece is part of a limited number of that item (hence the name, “of a kind”), and the designer and his/her/their stories are a part of every purchase. (Full disclosure: I also have partiality to women from the Midwest – I’m from St. Louis – and Cerulo hails from Peoria, Illinois, a city not too far from my own).
For all the coverage of women in tech and the future of fashion, some of which can get a little frothy, this article definitely stirred the online pot of porridge. Reactions leaned towards positive and supportive, but interestingly enough, the negative feedback wasn’t a pushback against the idea of helping fuel local economies, but was about the lack of access to local/emerging designers and/or the lack of funds to splurge to help support these designers. Fast fashion, many commenters argued, wasn’t a choice for them. The H&Ms of the world are more practical not only because of cost, but because of their close proximity at the local mall.
However, in the NYPost article, Alan Ng, who runs a Brooklyn-based garment factory, describes this choice as “wasteful”, and blames fast fashion chains like Forever21 for shortening a trend’s life cycle so much so that any one trend really can’t gain enough traction to last in our closets or memories. But is fast fashion a choice for all? For New Yorkers with access to everything from thrift to luxury, the answer is yes. For those in small towns across America, the answer may be a very realistic no.
Cerulo breaks down for Hairpin readers why emerging designers’ products are more expensive than, say, that neon Zara top you swiped last weekend, while the article in the Post also points out that “polyester is now the world’s most dominant fiber.” Cerulo mentions, of course, that nicer materials cost more, especially if you’re printing patterns and screen printing here in the U.S., and also writes about the benefits of buying in bulk, which emerging designers cannot do, and that U.S. manufacturing costs more, but that these factories “treat people like people.” (On the flip side: Hundreds of workers collapse at Cambodian H&M factory, Zara accused in Brazil sweatshop inquiry, etc.)
As Cerulo points out, independent, local and emerging designers face a disadvantage when it comes to the economies of scale. For those who don’t give a lot of shits about business jargon, this refers to “the reductions in unit cost as the size of a facility and the usage levels of other inputs increase.” In other words, if you can buy boatloads of a fabric from a manufacturer, you’ll get it for a lot cheaper. So cheap, in fact, that you can then turn around and sell your garments and at a ridiculously low price. This carries over into buying 87 rolls of toilet paper from Costco for a fraction of the price that those 87 rolls would cost over the course of several purchases. As an example, Cerulo cites Uniqlo, which can purchase gobs of denim from manufacturers at a cheaper price than an independent designer, who likely only has the clientele for yards in the double digits.
Here’s the thing: I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve purchased a “Saturday night dress” made from cheap materials, and I treated it like the garment version of a one night stand. I know when buying it that, if lucky, I’ll get a few wears before it falls apart and turns into a dust rag. Of course, now that I’m trying to adhere to a strict budget, I have two choices: I can either treat this cheap dress with extra care in hopes of extending its life, OR, as Cerulo encourages, I can purchase less frivolously and treat my closet as an investment, not just investing in the garments themselves, but in the designers who make a living creating quality, (she argues) socially responsible pretty things for me to wear.
This is where the commenters begin to disagree.
“I’d love to think that we should all be able to live in cities like New York if we want and produce and consume our goods locally and with care. But I find this article a bit condescending to suggest that the reason we’re still buying cheap is that we don’t understand that it costs a lot to produce things ethically,” writes commenter Mary McKenna.
“Buying clothes from independent designers more like buying art, in my opinion—a great thing to do if you have the money and interest but not something you should try to put on others as a moral obligation,” writes another commenter, KatieWK.
And a great point, on the kinds of items created by emerging designers, is made by commenter datalass: “I need black trousers, white shirts, gray suits, nude pumps, brown handbags, tan skirts, gray sweaters. It’s all so workaday and commonplace that I can entirely understand why emerging designers don’t or can’t spend their careers designing and creating these things.”
What does this all mean for me and PARCELD? Well, that’s what I’m trying to sort through. I’m working with two women on brand/retailer outreach who have a really healthy number of relationships with emerging brands and designers, and the more I begin to survey my closet and see that the items I truly cherish and wear often are either vintage or are unique pieces from boutiques, the more I realize that there is a market need and real hunger for access to these unique brands and retailers. Not just for New Yorkers, but for women around the country who hunger for these special pieces, but either don’t have access to them or cannot afford them.
I’ve always said that one of PARCELD’s biggest missions is to make discovery more authentic and personal, that if I know I want a pair of floral denim, *this* is the point at which I should discover new designers and retailers I didn’t know existed. Now, I need to help work with women like the commenters in the Hairpin article to ensure they have a direct path to these designers and retailers when their budget allows for it, when they’re ready to invest, or, that I can simply help them feel comfortable knowing there are other options without pressuring them into buying at that moment.
I constantly think about the ethical footprint of entering the ecommerce space, and this only makes this adventure that much more challenging and exciting.