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Made In … close to home: Yet Another Fashion Paradox

Made Locally - The new Black

Source: Adapted from Asheville Grown Business Alliance)

There is this funny paradox in fashion – sustainable as well as otherwise.
On the hand, hardly any consumer is willing to pay the price for ‘Made in (your country)’. Yet every single consumer on the high street is convinced that local (national) is better. As long as it is equally cheap as all the stuff that comes from 6000 miles away, of course.
Plying through a few thoughts gives the following picture: No production locally, no salaries paid locally, no money to spend (locally or otherwise), lots of imported goods lining the shelves … many unsold, lots of garbage.
To some extent, indeed producing locally may seem as the ultimate panacea for solving our (local) economic woes.

If there were not the fact that:
a) the local industry on their behalf assumes exports in order to sustain growth and continue to be able to pay (local) salaries.
b) in many industries there is no such thing as ‘local production’ any more (or little to speak of) simply because we’re missing the necessary expertise and craftsmanship. The fashion and textile industry all across Europe – with a few exceptions of rarity value – is a point in case, and international fashion houses have even gone to considerable lengths in order to maintain what is left – buying, for instance, the few remaining European high-end workshops, just to make sure that their Haut Couture works of art can continue to be produced (Example: Chanel is for this precise reason the owner and patron of ‘House of Lesage’ a couture lace maker; Massaro, a traditional shoe maker; Lemarié, a designer of flowers and feathers; Michel, a milliner; Desrues, a button- and costume jewellery maker; and Goosens, a gold- and silversmith)

But let’s look at the skill vs. price paradox a little bit in more detail.
For starters: In London – and the same certainly applies to at least France, Germany, Spain and Italy if not across the whole of Europe – well trained and highly skilled dress makers are paid London Living Wage (LLW) if they’re lucky, but more likely only National Minimum Wage (NMW). For any one questioning this statement, I’m happy to provide to contacts for this claim to be verified.
This said though, even if we consider NMW only, the calculations give a sad picture of the state of craftsmanship, or rather, for its future in Europe. A simple example in this context: a hand-dyed, hand-woven scarf takes at least 3 full days to make. In terms of NMW working time this is equivalent to £145 (3 days à 8 hours), plus material. If a craftsperson hence sells such a product at around £200 it is, actually, too cheap for them to survive on.

To put it more bluntly: The European main stream consumer is by no means ready – or willing – to pay a craftsperson what her or his work is really worth. ‘Buy British’ (or European) looks more like a complete illusion in this context than indeed a reality with future.
Unless, that is, we revise our valuation of quality, individuality, and skill that goes into the ‘making of stuff’.

And then there is the lack of a reliable skill base. Need proof: How many dress makers do you know within a 10 mile (16km) radius who you’d be confidently trusting to alter your custom-made wedding dress (morning coat) so it can be worn by your daughter (son) for her (his) own wedding?
My sweeping guess is that the answer would be a plain ’0′. Such names are valued trading commodities among stylists after all.

But the issue goes of course far beyond dress making (or mending) skills. The wool industry in Bradford has hard times getting their hands on, or bringing up, wool engineers who specialise in any one area, be it classification of wool or the set up of spinning units. Weaving mills that produce quality cloth are going out of business by the day, partially for the lack of business, but partially also because there is no one to take them over. Sewing units, shoe factories, are in a similar situation as the mills… and the list could go on and on and on.

But just as we assume that skill and cost is the primary problem, the next hurdle turns up: Infrastructure. Most units across Europe (with a few exceptions in the South), including the UK, are low volume units. In many cases, an order of a few 10’000 units of a shoe, a bag, of a jacket, would be beyond their production capacity – solutions necessarily, whether by choice or not, will be sought abroad.
Example: Dr. Martens produces a estimated total of 3.8Mio pairs annually, of which a mere 2% (~70’000 pairs / year) are actually produced in the UK (called the ‘Made in England’ collection) in their Wollaston factory.
And a key factor in this: the lack of sufficiently skilled craftsman in the UK.

Indeed a bit of a vicious circle, and there is much more that needs to be discussed of ‘Made Locally’ is indeed to become one of the puzzle stones for future sustainable production and consumption.

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One comment for “Made In … close to home: Yet Another Fashion Paradox”

  1. very thoughtful post. Very interested to hear that the big houses are buying the crafts houses just so they know the skills are available!

    I do think that we need to revise what we pay for things (and buy less to compensate for that). And mend more (one is very inclined to mend something expensive!).

    I guess as wages gradually go up in the producing countries, things will gradually get more expensive anyway, but that of course is a long-term thing. I have no issue with items being produced elsewhere myself, but it should be the ‘icing on the cake’ rather than the ‘cake itself’.

    And of course the dependence for the workers overseas on the vagaries of our fashion market is deplorable.

    Posted by Londonlime | April 14, 2012, 5:34 pm

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