Women of Style & Substance: Jessica Lee

Jessica Season Lee, a name as beautiful and unique as the girl herself. I would say what first bonded us was art. We’ve both always loved to paint and draw naked people (formally known as life-drawing) and although we went to the same school, we were in different forms throughout our time there. If it wasn’t for our love to create, we may never have bonded the way that we did. We are both a little whimsical, and away with the fairies at times (disclaimer: we may both still believe in fairies). Our artistic tendencies brought us on art department trips together to Paris and New York (which was a school trip for the history books on the scale of hilarity and sheer number of things that went wrong) and solidified our bond.

J Lee
Jess snapped by me in Jaipur, India. Candidly beautiful

She is one of my absolute favourite women in the world, my travel buddy (adventures include burns from bad boys on motorbikes in Langkawi and getting trapped in a bear-roaming National Park after-dark), confidante and someone I can be 100% myself with without fear of judgement. She is my go-to gal for matters of the heart; I remember after one particularly bad break-up I got a handwritten card in the post from Jess with a Seneca greeting on the front: ‘Thank you for being’ it read. So beautiful and so quintessentially Jess (I still have that card on my wall today, it will forever be the right word at the right time in the right place). One facet of her character which I don’t think she even fully realises is her inner resilience and quiet strength; she is living testimony to the reality that kindness isn’t weak and that living with whimsy isn’t congruous with not understanding pain, she inspires me with her unassuming tenacity in both personal and professional spheres more than she will ever know. Soul twin, oriental sister, partner in trying to make voice notes cool (seriously y’all should try it), without further ado here’s Jessica Season Lee and a little insight into her captivating and oh-so-beautiful mind…

A post shared by Jennifer McGeever (@j_wenghan) on Mar 26, 2015 at 8:20am PDT

 

SS: What did you last Google? 

JL: I last googled ‘Sustainable Fashion Academy’. I want to enrol in a Sustainability Fundamentals course which will give me more of an insight into the sustainability challenges and opportunities we face within the fashion industry, and identify how I can improve processes within my own job. Working at a company that promotes fast fashion has really highlighted the importance of being environmentally and ecologically mindful – I feel somewhat responsible to ensure I am doing all I can to help and educate myself.

SS: Name one app you love that we might not know about: 

JL: I share a food blog called Galstronomy with two of my best friends so I’m on the hunt for good editing apps. I’ve recently discovered Foodie which specialises in filters catered to photos of all my food snaps.

 

SS: What is your happy place?

JL: My ultimate happy place is enjoying good food with good company – for me, it’s definitely the case that the way to my heart is through my stomach.

SS: What book are you currently reading or did you most recently finish? 

JL: I’ve just finished reading The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett which follows two people and three different versions of their future – both together and apart – as their love story takes on different incarnations. I would highly recommend this book – I love how it illuminates themes of fate, relationships and how impactful the choices we make can affect our lives and the lives of those around us [Ed note: This has just gone on my reading list.]

Image result for the versions of us laura barnett

SS: Who embodies style with substance for you?

JL: It won’t be a surprise to many that I think my mother is the ultimate embodiment of style with substance [Yes! Yvonne is the epitome of chic and all of our woman crushes ❤ ). She is chic, elegant and artistic with a distinct sense of style – her love for fashion has definitely filtered down to me. She is generous, brave, strong, a dreamy mother and completely beautiful inside and out – I’m so lucky to know her.

Jess
Actual twins no? The Lee ladies ❤ #TheUltimate, blessed to know you both

 

SS: What is one lesson that you’ve learnt in the past year?

JL: You have to go for what you want unashamedly. I have never been good at shouting about my achievements, nor am I vocal enough about telling people what I feel I deserve. Being new to the working world has been a huge learning curve for me where I haven’t always backed myself with conviction when it comes to things like promotions. I think women in general need to be better at this, and being brave and bold is something I’m trying to focus on – let’s close this gender pay gap! [Floored by all the wisdom here, amen, amen, amen! We are both huge fans of Lean In, the recent ’20 Percent Counts’ campaign they ran has loads of practical insight and wisdom on negotiating pay and the bottom line benefits for businesses in closing the gap, see more here.]

SS: Do you have a favourite podcast?

JL: There are so many good podcasts out there, but my favourites would probably be Desert Island Discs and Strangers. I am known as someone who asks endless questions because I want to know all the little things about the people I meet [lol YES this is such a J Lee trait that we all know and love, the most eternally inquisitive girl I know]. These podcasts provide unique insights into individuals and their stories which I find so interesting.

Image result for strangers podcast
‘Each episode is an empathy shot in your arm, featuring true stories about the people we meet, the connections we make, the heartbreaks we suffer, the kindnesses we encounter, and those frightful moments when we discover that WE aren’t even who we thought we were.’


SS: The first thing I do when I wake up is:

JL: I’ll hit the snooze button about three times and then check Instagram before getting up. In my dreams I’m the ultimate morning person who does sun salutations when I wake, has time to eat my breakfast at the dining room table and goes to the gym before work – sadly I’m more of a night owl than a lark.

SS: What is your guilty pleasure?

JL: Word play, cheese jokes, emojis and memes – they’re things that brings me so much joy but annoy the people around me endlessly… [Jess has a meme for every situation and will send them accordingly – classic example below – it’s a talent].

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Buzz buzz bitch @mybestiesays

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SS: If you could travel the world in a day, what pitstops would make and why?

JL: I would start the day with breakfast in the company of giraffes at the Giraffe Manor in Kenya [Omg this looks insanely magical], pop over to Japan for my favourite sushi and ramen with friends for lunch, and then visit my family in Singapore for dinner. Time in between would be spent sunbathing in the Maldives. Dreamy times.  

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Giraffe Manor, Nairobi, image by Travel For Senses

SS: Any final words of wisdom?

JL: Roald Dahl once wrote ‘watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’. Where we live in a world of so much sadness and uncertainty, and where many of us end up stuck in the same old routine life, I think it’s really important to look out for the magic that surrounds us and take note of even the little things that bring joy.


Wow, couldn’t think of more perfect and adept words to end this interview with than the above. A lot of people don’t believe in miracles, but there is actually miraculous in the everyday, we are just too often distracted to see it. Thank you Jess, for reminding us to unravel the mysterious and the beautiful in the moments of each day.

Follow Jess @instagramjessica and Galstronomy @Galstronomy 

Be The Change

Feature image: By Sharime, taken at Bali’s Tegalalang rice terrace in Ubud.

 

When I started becoming more aware of the issues with the current fashion cycle and the humanitarian and environmental tragedies it encompasses, one of my biggest mistakes was being worried that there was very little I could do to make a change in such a global, systemic problem that is entrenched within the business models of some of the world’s largest apparel companies. It’s one thought that held me back from starting a discourse about this to begin with as without a solution, being aware without being able to take action is painfully paralysing. I thought (incorrectly) that there was not really a palpable solution to such a grossly mismanaged problem. What I’ve realised via the passage of time, research and self-education is that it’s about being creative and changing your posture towards the issues at hand.

 

To be honest this applies to everything we face in our lives, and funnily enough it has always been one of my life’s mantras: it’s not what you wear; it’s how you wear it. This saying has encouraged me through dark seasons and beautiful periods alike, we are all dealt difficulty at some stage and the impact it has on us is relative, but ultimately “the tempered steel of virtue” (Romans 5) is wrought in the pressure and we can reap “beauty from ashes” (Isaiah 61). Anyway, back-tracking from that side note (oops) these are the issues that immediately came to mind upon realising the depth and breadth of fast fashion-specific problems:

 

1. The vast majority of the world cannot exist on a wardrobe of Stella McCartney (an amazingly ethical, sustainable and desirable brand), Chanel and Monique Péan alone (again, an amazing designer who uses fossils and the like to make some of the most unique/eye-wateringly expensive jewellery you’ve ever seen), though trust me I wish I could.

2. High-low dressing is seen as ‘cool’; even the people who can afford to fill their wardrobe with labels purely from the luxe end of the market often choose to mix high-street or vintage with high-end as it’s better to be a little bit down-to-earth and accessible (I say this all very much tongue-in-cheek).

3. When I think of “ethical fashion” I won’t lie, I still think of hemp, hippies and something rather puritanical, it doesn’t really seem like a sexy concept. There is nothing inherently wrong with hemp or hippies at all, it’s just on a personal level and speaking from the point of view of someone who very much lives and breathes fashion as an art form and a consumer, I desire more and I desire variety.

4. What the fast-fashion market provides is convenience, ease, affordability and a lot of the time clothes that look pretty darn good (at least on Instagram) even if not when you touch and feel them up close.

 

Addressing all of the above, I totally get what a lot of you might be thinking; though I don’t speak for everyone, the majority of my friends—girls and guys alike—think about what they wear, are interested in fashion and are also intelligent, empathetic and incredibly talented and driven individuals. Personally, whenever I get dressed for various occasions in life my mood and motivation varies, there are times when I want to feel sexy, occasions I want to feel empowered and in charge, others when I’m very happy to blend into the background and I value comfort over creative statements, times I embrace the uber-feminine and others where you wanna feel a bit badass (just me?). We are multi-faceted, complicated and creative people and these are the very reasons why fashion is such a powerful force of things. It is one of the most commodified forms of art and expression, a curious mixture of commerce and creativity. This psychology and power is why the action plan to tackle the aforementioned issues needs to be two-fold, both psychological and practical shifts are required.

 

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The Psychological Shift

Psychologically, we need to realise that to be honest, we don’t need so many things. We need to learn to treasure what we have if we don’t already, and one practical way of doing that is investing in our clothes, accessories et. al more. This can be literally, by saving up and buying lesser quantity but higher quality items which will last longer and be more likely to incite more usage, more maintenance and a lesser sense of disposability. For me, imbuing my clothes with stories to tell (more on that later) encourages me to shop less and remix more. Ultimately, the goal is to buy less at a much slower pace.

 

Even the more ethical luxury fashion industry has an extremely westernised (literally all the Big Four fashion weeks being based in the Western Hemisphere) business cycle which has shifted gears to a more frenetic pace. As recently as five years ago, most luxe brands only had biannual shows according to the seasons (Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer) whereas now, Cruise/Resort/Pre-Fall collections have made the cycle a four-show-seasons-per-year extravaganza. The funny thing is that people’s tastes and buying habits are what has informed that cycle (as well as the time needed for production) wealthy customers often went to resorts and on cruises/yachts during the period after the shows and when the clothes actually hit the shop floor and so were buying more during those ‘in-between’ periods for their holidays. Additionally, after living in the season-less heat and humidity of Southeast Asia for the last few years I can confirm the hilarity of a global industry still operating on these extremely Euro-centric principals; there is huge business opportunity for year-round summer wardrobes in SE Asia and most equatorial countries. The reason I provide this mini fashion history lesson is to prove that consumer tastes shape the industry, as ultimately it is a business that operates on the basic principle of supply and demand. As much as it requires creativity and beauty as the source, the Creative Director and CEO of a brand have a symbiotic relationship, one doesn’t eat without the other. Luxury fashion also always informs fast fashion, if you look at any high street store’s stock you will see questionably similar designs to Gucci, Céine and so on, and as luxury fashion has sped up its pace to accommodate consumer desire, fast-fashion has followed suit and become ever faster. Due to its high turnover rate from factory to shop floor, much lower quality of materials and workmanship, fast-fashion companies can replicate designs faster than designer brands can produce them (creating a lot of intellectual property issues, but that’s another blog in itself) and therefore the constant desire for new is ever-perpetuated.

 

Notably, ‘The Business of Fashion’ recently reported that many high street brands are already predicting profit losses during a usually bolstering festive period as mid-range brands that combine sustainability alongside profits as bottom lines for their business are taking market share from them. 18-35 year olds are some of the biggest spenders within and the target consumer in the fast-fashion market, due to income range and being the most engaged with a lot of social-media driven trends. We are also some of the most savvy and inquisitive consumers, having more access to information than ever before, so essentially we drive retail trends, rather than allowing them to drive us. Let’s never underestimate the power of influence, both personal and collective.

 

 

The Practical Shifts

I’m going to break this down into four main sections as personal style is by definition not one-size-fits-all, so here are some of the steps towards creating and investing in a new way of being in vogue that will hopefully work for a variety of people and tastes:

1. Maintenance and TLC
2. Rewear, reuse, recycle
3. Vintage, pre-loved and designer thrifting
4. Brands to believe in

 

Maintenance

I love what my good friend and former work-wife (sob) Cheng Jee Yan has to say on the matter: “Don’t let a price tag determine the worth of your clothing. It’s more about how these pieces can work for you in the long run.” She inspired me by telling me about the TLC she showers on her clothes no matter the price tag by hand-washing them; always looking for the slightly more expensive raw materials even when buying from a fast-fashion retailer (cotton percentage, silk, wool etc. as opposed to acrylic, polyester and viscose) and taking things to the local seamstress or tailor when they get a snag or hole rather than chucking them in the bin, recycling or sending them onto a charity shop. Maintenance is really the key, if you treasure that high street jumper as much as your designer coat, it can last as long. Going to your local tailor or cobbler and getting your shoes soled before they get worn down (especially if they’re leather soles, they will not last on the mean streets of any city as beautiful as they may look) and that snag repaired will cost you minimally but maximise the life span of your pieces. I know it can seem like a pain, but to be honest, there are many cheaper pieces in my wardrobe that I wish I maintained before they were beyond repair. Finding a replica piece that I like as much as that much-loved one can be pretty hard, and will cost more than it would have done to repair it, plus I have made good friends with my local seamstress and cobbler, so there’s an added relationship bonus too.

 

Rewear, reuse, recycle

Firstly, let’s lay down some hard truths, buying mindlessly and thinking it’s okay as you can just pass it on to your local charity shop when you’re bored with it/don’t have enough room in your closet for all your new things is a lie we’ve all been fed a little too long. In the UK alone—which is but a speck on the world map—the equivalent of 29,000 worth of London buses of good, wearable clothing goes to landfill each year. This is because the amount we donate to charity shops cannot often be moved on the shop floor, and can also end up being shipped en masse to LEDCs (less-economically developed countries) and negatively impact their internal tailoring and manufacturing industries and economic infrastructure.

 

Whilst shopping in charity shops is great and something I do enjoy (you’ve got to find the good ones) it isn’t the golden solution to the bigger problem and that’s something we should be aware of when we’re shopping. Stop and think to yourself, will I wear this enough to justify me buying it? For more expensive items, cost-per-wear calculation is useful to consider and will help you to invest wisely in more versatile pieces.

 

I’m not entirely sure if this is just my family, but we pass things down and around between us. I am in possession of all manner of good quality pieces that have found their new home from Canada, Malaysia and round the corner with my brothers and I. I inherited a whole host of amazing coats, bags and clothes from my mum that are timeless and due to the circular nature of trends, now somehow fresh again. You can apply this principle of re-wearing and re-gifting amongst your friends if your family are potentially (in your opinion) sartorially challenged, or participate in reselling on eBay and other higher end resale sites such as Vestiaire Collective.

 

 

Vintage and pre-loved

For me, buying vintage clothing is something I advocate and is almost second nature. I fell in love at 15, when a much cooler than me friend brought me along with him to the now well-known haunts of Spitalfields, Brick Lane etc. Beyond Retro on Cheshire Street remains a firm favourite, I remember thinking I must go there after hearing that my teen girl crush Rachel Bilson (these were The O.C days, the best) frequented there when she was in London. Now they’ve developed a second branch on Great Marlborough Street (much smaller and not as great but more central) and an e-commerce store. The online boutique is great, as to be honest one my major qualms with vintage shopping is that it requires time investment. Though that can be the funnest part of it when you’re in the mood with time to spare, if you need to find a unique outfit ASAP trekking and rummaging is not a plausible solution. Believe me I have been there, when you just need an outfit for a special occasion and you don’t have time to extensively source, hence why I am super happy about the outcrop of online vintage stores that have become more accessible (eBay, ASOS Marketplace, Peekaboo Vintage also have some good finds). Uniqueness is one of my favourite things about vintage, as particularly for special occasions, I hate the thought of turning up wearing the same thing as someone else, it actually strikes a little fear into my gut as melodramatic as that may seem, so this possibility is MUCH lessened by buying something which was first seen 25 or more years ago. Funnily enough a lot of my most memorable and special outfits have been from vintage stores, my 18th and 25th birthday outfits respectively, and I love the idea of giving something a new lease of life and imbuing it with a story to tell. Plus, when it fits just right, you feel like it was meant to be and the piece found you (yeah, I’m a romantic like that).

 

Another big plus of my fave, Beyond Retro, is that they have started their own line making really cool velvet backpacks, denim dungarees and more using scrap material from items that weren’t in sellable condition in their original form. I’d much rather spend my money on something I know has been sustainably sourced (and is just as affordable) than the newly made high street version of the same thing.

 

I am fully aware of what some people may be thinking, as I’ve had conversations with a few friends about this, vintage or pre-loved/second-hand or whatever you would like to call it, is just such a turn-off for some. Being Chinese, I completely get that cultural concerns can exist, as the thought of wearing someone else’s clothes can be a big hell-no due to superstition and stigma: “who knows what kind of life they lived/how they died?” and so on and so forth, so it’s a personal choice to know and decide what you’re comfortable with.

 

Some people also wonder about hygiene, which I do get, there are some vintage markets where you wander in and you can smell the must which is instantly off-putting. There are some plausible solutions, the designer vintage and pre-loved markets are sizable and definitely offer a more comfortable shopping experience. Having spoken to one of the founders of such a space in Singapore, she told me everything is stringently cleaned and certified, and that actually one of her biggest donors often dropped off completely unworn items (crazy) like Vuitton bags, de la Renta dresses and more that she had been given but didn’t like (another life truly) so they were essentially brand new. There are also some great mid-range spaces in the pre-loved market. Globally there will be different options, but a few I know are listed below.

 

Paris: Vestiaire Collective is an excellent reselling and and buying site, kind of like a high class eBay, they ship all over. Paris is also famous for its Marché aux Puces (flea markets), if they’re good enough for Iris Apfel they’re good enough for us all! A great one for fashion is in the 18th arrondissement at the base of the Sacre-Coeur, Marché Saint Pierre.

Singapore: The physical store vintage concept is largely undeveloped (partially due to how young the city is) but New2U near Bugis MRT is a great charity shop initiative to give back whilst you shop (they donate proceeds to the Star Shelter and other women’s initiatives), other good online spaces are ‘The Fifth Collection’ and Style Tribute (currently some amazing Armani and Givenchy jackets) who ship worldwide.

 

 

London: Recent discoveries include William Vintage (this is super luxe though, we’re talking Chanel evening dresses), The Dresser just off Connaught Street (near Marble Arch) for second hand designer and mid-range (so good, check out their website here). Also, if you’re looking for higher end options and want to give back simultaneously, head to an affluent area e.g. Kensington High Street, Fulham Broadway or even Parson’s Green (I’ve spotted some amazing pieces near there en route to visit my grandad) and take a look inside their charity shops, you can find some amazing and luxe treasures at Oxfam, Barnados and Farah!

One final issue with shopping vintage can be sizing, not that I really go looking for vintage shoes, but the average shoe size they sell is UK4 and sometimes pieces can be on the smaller side. In this case it’s better to scour higher end shops which for some reason, tend to have a better range of sizing. Side note: I did once buy a pair of never-before-worn boots that I LOVE from a mid-range, pre-loved store in Paris that were exactly my size—it was a serendipitous moment—I’ve been trying to remember/Google the name of this great place but so far it has eluded me! I’ll update when I remember as there were a lot of seriously beautiful things in there.

 

Brands to believe in

Rather than naming and shaming brands to avoid, I’ve decided to focus on the positive brands that are built on the foundation of transparent supply chains, ethical working conditions and environmentally sustainable principles. I’ll leave the luxe and contemporary labels for another day, for now here are good mid-range brands to invest in:

 

 

Reformation: They have really cool, very on-trend pieces that have a celebrity following, if you like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Rihanna (on a more demure day) etc’s style, you’ll find something to shop here. I love the story of the founder, Yael Aflalo as well, she actually founded her first business and used a completely fast-fashion structure, outsourcing labour to factories in China. It was only when she went in person to visit the factories where her clothes were being made that she shuttered the brand and decided that there must be a better way to do business, that has manifested in the incredible Reformation. They even have a RefScale that tracks the impact each garment has on the environment in terms of water, carbon dioxide and fabric savings that can be reused. They currently have a pop-up store in London if you’re in town (the company is based in LA but ships internationally)! It’s really gorgeous and well worth a visit: 61 Monmouth Street in Covent Garden, open until the end of December 2016.

Shop and read more here.

 

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I'm a camel, duh. 🐫 – Link in bio.

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Everlane: For excellent, high quality basics in all colours see Everlane. They are transparent with their supply chain, profiling the companies they use all over the world to produce their clothes and challenging their customers to know their factories, know the costs that go into making and marketing clothes and to always ask why.

 

 

Zady: I love tailoring and pieces which are versatile for work and play, Zady provides this! They champion conscious consumerism and are part of the #30wears movement founded by Livia Firth, which challenges you to wear pieces of clothing that you buy and already own at least 30 times. Apparently the average piece of clothing bought these days is only worn 7 times (!) before being discarded or given away.

 

 

PeopleTree: It’s not the most cutting edge design wise, but PeopleTree is a stalwart British brand for ethical and sustainable pieces. They have really good quality knitwear and pretty handmade jewellery which is great for gifting. The founder, Safia Minney is one of the pioneers of the sustainable fashion movement and an all round inspirational woman.

 

 

Grana: I discovered this brand in Singapore, where they had just started shipping to at the time (the company was strategically founded in Hong Kong as they have one of the most accessible ports for shipping and fabric trade). They make really beautiful silk shirts, cashmere pieces and other essentials, really good for work wear! They’re super picky about fabric and quality but still manage to keep the prices affordable, a lot of the time, having an online-only business model is key for this, as brick-and-mortar retail space is what raises margins dramatically.

In weeks to come, I’ll be expanding into more specific verticals for ethical jewellery brands, shoe companies and maybe even a little gift guide. I would really love to hear of any other ethically-propelled, mid-range labels you know of though! So please do share any you know and love!

In great news, I discovered that after ‘The True Cost’ came out last year, so many were affected by Shima Aktar’s story that the director initiated an appeal to raise enough money to put her daughter through school. Beautifully, they managed to (otherwise I would have put the link to donate here) and now her daughter has a chance she may never have had without collective help. Proof once again that we can affect change, even if it may seem like a small drop in the ocean.

Recently I donated to ‘The Fashion Revolution’ which I mentioned in my last piece, it advocates for workers’ rights, greater supply chain transparency and for brands to tell consumers where and who made their clothes. They have just launched their first ever magazine of which the proceeds go back into their work, for more information and to purchase, see here.

Till next time,

Jenn x

Our Chosen Skin

Feature image: Bill Brandt photography, 1959

Something has been weighing heavy on my heart of late.

It’s been brewing for a few years now, though to honest, it shames me to say that it’s something I’ve only become more actively conscious about recently. However, it is most definitely a case of better late than never. Before I begin to elucidate, I want to frame this in reality, what I’m about to highlight is a grave humanitarian issue. The issue is within the framework of the fashion industry, or more specifically the garment-making industry. Yet please don’t be turned off or fooled into thinking this is only a problem “fashion folk” should be aware of and actively trying to change. Unfortunately, most of us who have purchasing power and agency in deciding what clothes we put on our back, whether it be in a physical store or in the comfort of our sweats whilst on our laptops, have bought into a dangerous facade that “fast fashion” companies in particular are taking advantage of.

 

Those of you with access to a Netflix subscription, I strongly urge you to watch ‘The True Cost’ which is a wide-spanning, docu-film about much of what this post touches upon. The issues are vast and encompass so many areas, communities and aspects of the supply chain, so in order to not depress and overwhelm you entirely, I am going to try and distill some the major issues into key points.

 

If we go back to basics, clothing is really—as Orsola de Castro so aptly puts it—“our chosen skin”. I love that phrase, as it highlights how incredibly intimate our relationship with the fabric we drape over our bodies really is. Let’s rewind to the 1960s, when in the US alone (which is one of the most vastly consumer-led nations in the world) 95% of clothes bought in the USA were also made in the USA. Fast forward to 2016 and whilst inflation continues to raise the retail price of clothing, the vast majority of production and manufacturing for high street brands has been more cheaply outsourced to countries such as Bangladesh and China where wages are not enough for local citizens to live on, working conditions are inhumane and the overall quality of clothing has decreased rapidly as a result of larger and larger orders being required within increasingly shorter deadlines. I only have to look at clothes from my mum’s wardrobe to realise the vast discrepancy between quality and price from the high street equivalent brands of her day (which are still in impeccable condition and were made locally) to my Zara turtleneck which began to unravel at the neckline within a few months of purchase. This is in no way a reflection of the countries in which these clothes are made in and of themselves – I know firsthand that workmanship in India and Indonesia can be as impeccable as leatherwork from the tanneries of Italy – the issue lies in the speed, vastly widened profit margins and interests of big businesses maligning production costs (synthetic materials are significantly cheaper than natural fibres), high volume of production and paying minimal regard to safety measures in the factories in which said clothes are being produced. The evidence and resources supporting these claims are so vast and alas this is not a thesis, but if you are interested in seeing my sources please see more at the end of this post.

 

What is the true cost of that T-shirt, even if it’s not cheap; where are those tremendous profit margins being reaped and what are they sowing?

One of the most shocking and sickening manifestations of the result of this toxic supply chain that many household names are unfortunately a part of was the disaster that occurred at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh back in 2013. An 8-storey building housing garment factories collapsed, crushing and killing 1,130 people in all of 90 seconds. The most depressing aspect of this senseless tragedy is that the cracks in the building were obvious to all months prior, including the factory owners (38 of whom have been formally charged with murder) and yet no executive decision had been made to close the factory as the consensus was that they couldn’t afford to be out of business for the duration of repair work or whilst sourcing a new space to work. This pressure came from the executives placing mass orders for clothing at an increasingly breakneck speed from well known international conglomerates (Inditex owner of Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti etc., Primark, Benneton, J.C Penney to name but a few) and the threat that if the chosen factory doesn’t produce the work, they are dispensable and the brand will find a cheaper manufacturer, willing to do the work for less either in another country, or a direct internal competitor. As someone who works in the fashion industry, and knows full well the amount of excess and commercial viability the industry possesses, these realities are heartbreaking and the reasoning behind them unconvincing. There is a better way of doing business and I am optimistic that the majority of my friends and family would not feel comfortable purchasing clothing which has been made with literal blood, sweat and generational tears behind it. As much as I like scoring a bargain as much as the next person, the human cost behind that £20 dress more than justifies me not buying into such a toxic business model anymore.

 

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Image via Reformation: a mid-range and pretty chic clothing brand founded upon principles of environmental, ethical and aesthetic goodness

For some commercial perspective, the fashion industry is currently worth 3 trillion dollars globally. Marketing is a very powerful thing, especially in fashion where aesthetics are at the forefront of everything no matter the price point. It is fantasy in many ways but at no juncture should fantasy come at the cost of human dignity, life and basic rights. The entire industry thrives on fantasy and beauty from high street to haute couture yet the vast difference between the two ends of the spectrum is that one pays fair wages to employees in their ateliers and has a much more transparent supply chain (though the environmental cost is still an issue) whilst the other thrives on consumer ignorance, murky practices in countries where they treat workers as sub-human and relies upon each buyer to keep voting with their wallet to maintain these practices and uphold them as acceptable. Here are some facts to put things in perspective on a global scale and proving that this is far from an esoteric issue:

 

– 1 in 6 people in the world currently work within the fashion industry
– 85% of people working in the garment-making sector of the industry are women and a vast majority of them have experienced physical and verbal abuse when trying to lobby for fairer working conditions or form unions
– There are 36 million garment factory workers in the world
– The fashion industry is the most labour-dependent industry in the world, essentially, if these workers were not producing clothes en masse for us to buy in H&M, Topshop and so on, those employed in more developed countries would be out of jobs, the boardroom would be making a lot less and overall profits would slump
– Just behind the oil industry, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world (this one floored me in particular)

 

We all have agency when it comes to our chosen skin. The vast majority of those reading this will actively choose and decide what we clothe our bodies in. This isn’t in any way a lecture, we are all to varying extents unaware and uneducated regarding these issues. There are arguments and sources which try to push forward the idea that ultimately these jobs within sweatshops are better than no jobs at all and that big companies are providing an economic boost to developing countries. These points have elements of truth, but the whole story is that a fairer, living standard wage can and should be given to employees of any company, no matter the economic climate of the country in question and that human rights should never be compromised. Said companies that are making humongous profit margins are squeezing pennies and cents from the wages and making health and safety compromises which negatively impact those in the most vulnerable position in the supply chain.

 

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Shima and her daughter Nadia on ‘The True Cost’

 

One story featured on ‘The True Cost’ which really affected me was that of a 23 year old Bangladeshi woman named Shima Aktar. The film came out in 2015, so at the time there was but a year between us in age which made her story particularly poignant for me, she was a mother who only got to see her daughter twice a year as she worked in one of Dhaka’s garment factories (an unsafe place to be with a child due to the crazy heat and chemicals inside and she also had no one to look after her child when she was working in the city). She made the difficult choice to leave her daughter with her family back in her home village for the majority of the year, only getting to see her when she can afford to. She spoke about how she hoped for a better life for her daughter, one where her blood was not used for the profit of others and where she would be able to be educated in order to break out of the life cycle of poverty which she was born into; she had been so dignified and eloquent throughout the entirety of the documentary but at this point her voice broke and she was crying for her daughter’s destiny. Unfortunately without being paid a decent living wage, saving enough to give her daughter what she needs for a better life is almost an impossibility. Her story was not an anomaly but a norm for the women who make up the majority of the garment-making workforce. As a human, as a woman, as a feminist—these realities deeply depress me.

 

We cannot justify pure economic gain at the expense of human life and being complicit in modern day slavery.

Another devastating account was that of a local doctor in Kanpur in north India where the demand for cheap leather production has polluted the river Ganges to a fatal extent. The chemicals used to make leather were not being disposed of properly (cleaning water can be expensive and the equipment needed to do so had not been invested in by the companies commissioning the production of the leather) so they were running into the river that the surrounding community uses for agricultural purposes, to bathe and even to drink from. The doctor noted that the amount of skin diseases and illnesses related to the polluted water had risen dramatically and that many people were using their savings on medicine to treat diseases that were a direct result of the pollution. The question to ask is at what cost do we buy things cheaply? Ultimately, human economy is linked to that of the earth, especially in an industry that relies on physical resources. The A21 campaign, an anti-human trafficking charity founded by the amazing Christine Caine fights against modern day slavery (which is more prevalent now than any other time in human history, a shocking fact in itself); the fast-fashion sector of the industry is also a purveyor of modern day slavery and it is up to us whether we participate in its growth or revolution.

 

Disconcertingly, sometimes governments of the countries where cheap apparel production is prevalent are involved with maintaining low wages for the factory workers as they are desperate for the business of MNCs. One incident in Cambodia involving a peaceful protest for a monthly living wage equivalent to $160 USD (a standard set by the Cambodian government themselves) resulted in authorities inflicting violent treatment on the protestors and the loss of five lives. The reason governments sometimes actively work against the interests of their own citizens is that the threat of MNCs moving their business elsewhere is breathing down their necks and therefore in the toss up between overall economic growth and the livelihoods of female labourers, capital wins out over humanity. This is not a criticism of aforementioned governments but more a reflection on taking note of what we are governed by; let’s all reflect a little bit more, know the alternatives and question our own motives before buying into a system and companies that do not uphold or work for the good of what we value.

 

Think twice, be more curious, be more conscious.

On a personal level, I have made a decision not to invest my money or lend support to companies that make profit off the back of cheap female labour. I will not pretend that it will be without challenge, but I equally cannot be a proud part of a global sisterhood and call myself a feminist without following through with my actions. I may now live in London, but Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and China are not geographically far from Malaysia and Singapore where I just spent the last few years of my life. We are all neighbours and it’s a realisation that these issues are not far removed or an impossibility to combat that fuels the battle for change. The problem is great and the field is vast, however I do believe that we can all be the change we hope for. I love what Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age and The Green Carpet Challenge (and yes, wife of Colin Firth) has to say about the matter: that we must be the architecture of the change we dream about. Change in reality begins with a psychological shift, being motivated by guilt is nowhere near as powerful or productive as being motivated by awareness and the realisation that we are empowered to vote with our wallets. Fashion is an art form and involves creative work, it should not incite life-threatening labour or desensitise us to human life being lost in the course of a working day (a recent fatal fire in an Indian garment factory reiterates the reality that these tragedies are not unusual). We can all be involved in asking questions of the brands we have bought into and ultimately as consumers we are the fuel the industry needs to continue to flourish, the power is very much in our hands. Myself and some good girlfriends have been thinking about what it means to be found in our field of life, our sphere of influence recently, and it has made me mediate more deeply on what we as individuals are sowing into literally with the money we spend, and in turn who/which companies and at what cost are those inordinate profit margins being reaped? On that note, the next chapter shall be about the positive steps and alternative companies, business models and psychology of consumption that we can be invested in.

 

For now, I’ll leave you with resources and companies that inspire and educate me on a daily basis! Let’s think twice, be more conscious and stay curious about where we invest ourselves, our time and so on.

All love, always

Jenn xxx

 

I love the Instagram account @fash_rev for illuminating the human face behind the brands that make our clothes. They get followers to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes? To make companies be more accountable and spotlight the hands behind your wardrobe.

The Fashion Revolution’s white paper is key (though lengthy) for those interested in the mechanics and factual evidence behind this post: http://fashionrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/FashRev_Whitepaper_Dec2015_screen.pdf

The True Cost documentary site (available to watch on Netflix): http://truecostmovie.com/

“The True Cost” on Netflix
https://www.netflix.com/title/80045667?s=i

Reporting on the Rana Plaza disaster: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/23/rana-plaza-factory-collapse-history-cities-50-buildings

Forbes piece highlighting the companies involved in the Rana Plaza case: https://goo.gl/ZOs1JS and follow-up on companies that donated compensation to the affected families: https://cleanclothes.org/safety/ranaplaza/who-needs-to-pay-up

South China Morning Post report on the state of garment factory wages: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1970431/true-cost-your-cheap-clothes-slave-wages-bangladesh-factory

Reporting on the Cambodian factory workers strike: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/11/cambodian-garment-workers-rise-up-and-face-a-crackdown.html

Global fashion industry stats: https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics