The Role of Fashion in Human Culture

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Claudia Schiffer (a globally renowned model, icon andbusinesswoman), Robin Givhan (Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer and former special correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast) and Dov Charney (CEO and Founder of American Apparel). We discuss the very fundamental questions of ‘what’ fashion is, and how it has become such an important part of human culture and identity. Digging deeper, we also look at issues ranging from brand, to sexuality and even the business of fashion itself.

There is an obvious and prominent fact about human beings…” wrote Bryan Turner …they have bodies and they are bodies…”.

In her essay ‘Addressing the Body’; Joanne Entwistle interprets this assertion to suggest that our bodies constitute our environment, making them inseparable from self. She also identifies Turner’s obvious and prominent omission: noting that human bodies are dressed bodies. “Nakedness…” she writes, “…is wholly inappropriate in almost all social situations and, even in situations where much naked flesh is exposed (on the beach, at the swimming-pool, even in the bedroom), the bodies that meet there are likely to be adorned, if only by jewellery, or indeed, even perfume: when asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe claimed that she wore only Chanel No. 5, illustrating how the body, even without garments, can still be adorned or embellished in some way. Dress is a basic fact of social life and this, according to anthropologists, is true of all known human cultures: all people ‘dress’ the body in some way, be it through clothing, tattooing, cosmetics or other forms of body painting. To put it another way, no culture leaves the body unadorned but adds to, embellishes, enhances or decorates the body… Dress is the way in which individuals learn to live in their bodies and feel at home in them.” As Roland Barthesonce stated, “…Clothing concerns all of the human person, all of the body, all of the relationships of man to body as well as the relationships of the body to society…

The cultural manifestation of this need to ‘dress’ is better known as fashion; which Lars Svendsen (in his book ‘Fashion as a Philosophy) describes as being “…one of the most influential phenomena in Western civilisation since the renaissance.” Svendsen notes that fashion has “…conquered an increasing number of modern man’s fields of activity and has become almost ‘second nature’…” The logic of fashion he states, “…also encroaches on the areas of art, politics and science, [making it] clear that we are talking about a phenomenon that lies near the centre of the modern world.

This profound role in human culture has created a giant. The global fashion industry is conservatively estimated to be worth over US$1.3 Trillion (around 2% of the value of the world economy). To put that in context, the global pharmaceutical industry (supplying all the medicines in the world) is just over half that in size (at US$880 billion). Fashion is therefore, “…one of the crowning achievements of western civilization or it is incontrovertible evidence of consumers culture’s witless obsession with the trivial and the unreal. It is either creative to the point of being an ‘art’, enabling individuals and cultures to express their inner feelings and personalities, or it is exploitative to the point of criminality, forcing people to work and spend more than is healthy for them or society…” (Kurt W. Back, ‘Modernism and Fashion’)

So what is the true impact of fashion in human culture?

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Claudia Schiffer (a globally renowned model, icon and businesswoman), Robin Givhan (Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer and special correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast) and Dov Charney (CEO and Founder of American Apparel). We discuss the very fundamental questions of ‘what’ fashion is, and how it has become such an important part of human culture and identity. Digging deeper, we also look at issues ranging from brand, to sexuality and even the business of fashion itself.

[bios]Arguably the most famous of the original ‘super’ models, Claudia Schiffer is universally renowned as a model, icon and businesswoman.

Discovered at 17, Claudia shot to success almost immediately as the face of the highly publicised Guess? Jeanscampaigns while making the label a globally recognised name. Very early into her career Claudia also became ‘the face’ of Chanel and muse of Karl Lagerfeld. Working with the worlds leading photographers, designers, beauty and fragrance houses Claudia established herself as one of the first iconic supermodels to front major multi-million dollar brand campaigns for global corporations. Having graced the cover of over a 1000 magazines and setting a world record, Claudia pioneered the ‘super’ model status as the first model ever to make the covers of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and People. Claudia has appeared numerous times on the covers of Vogue,Harpers Bazaar, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Time including appearances on the catwalk for leading fashion houses including Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce and Gabbana, Chanel and Valentino. Named as one of the most beautiful women in the world, her ability to appeal to a global audience has assured an internationally successful career spanning over 24 years and global recognition as a fashion and beauty icon. The demand for her endorsement and representation is as strong today as it has ever been. The importance and longevity of her association with brands was once again proven in 2012 when she featured as the face of Guess’ 30th Anniversary campaign and over recent years has appeared in campaigns for brands whom she has worked with her whole career – Chanel, Ferragamo, Dolce and Gabbana, YSL and Alberta Ferretti. Claudia continues to hold a contract withL’Oreal and is one of their longest standing Ambassadors.

Claudia is currently developing her ‘brand business’. The autumn / winter 2011 season saw her fashion design debut with the launch of her eponymous capsule cashmere line. The collection is sold globally in key department stores and top end boutiques. Claudia is the Creative Director of the brand and the driving force behind its design. Fluent in 3 languages, Claudia began her involvement with UNICEF by becoming a member of the Arts & Entertainment Support Committee, and is currently a UK Good Will Ambassador for the organisation. Claudia was also a spokesperson for Make Poverty History where she appeared in the powerful, ‘Click‘ advertisement.

Robin Givhan received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Princeton University and a Masters of Science in journalism from the University of Michigan. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of the Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She also wrote a weekly culture column. In 2009, she began covering Michelle Obama and the cultural and social shifts stirred by the first African American family in the White House. In 2011, she joined Newsweek Daily Beast as special correspondent, style and culture.

Her work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Vogue Italia, British Vogue, Essence and the New Yorker. She has contributed to several books including “Runway Madness,” “No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers,” and “Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers.” She is the author, along with the Washington Post photo staff, of “Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady.” She’s currently at work on a cultural history of the 1973 catwalk show at Versailles that transformed the American fashion industry.

In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives in Washington, DC.

American Apparel founder and Chief Executive Officer Dov Charney is one of fashion’s leading innovators. His vision of a vertically integrated, sweatshop-free company was realized in downtown Los Angeles in 1997. Today, the company stands as the America’s largest domestic clothing manufacturer, a remarkable feat considering Charney is an immigrant himself.

Offering garment workers the highest wages, health care and benefits in the industry, Charney presided over the fastest retail roll out in American history, buoyed by a workforce that produces over 1.4 million garments a week. It was a long journey for the boy who began smuggling Hanes t-shirts across the Canadian border in 1989, dropped out of college in 1990 and borrowed $10,000 from his father to start an apparel company. With over 9,000 employees across the world, he remains integrally related to the daily direction of the company, designing, photographing and even testing many of the clothes himself. Since taking the company public in late 2007, he has continued to be passionately interested in knowing the faces of all his employees. As part of the special acquisition, Charney allotted 2.7 million shares of the company to his workers and employees.

Ernst & Young named Charney Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004 and Apparel Magazine, the Fashion Industry Guild and the Ad Specialty Industry all separately deemed him “Man of the Year“. Charney was included in the Los Angeles Times100 Most Powerful People of Southern California” list and Details Magazine inducted him to their “Power 50“. In the first annual Los Angeles Fashion Awards, Charney was recognized for Excellence in Marketing and in 2008 an independent research report placed American Apparel as the Top Trendsetting Brand, second only to Nike. Following in the footsteps of fashion legends Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, and Oscar de la Renta, among others, Charney was also named Retailer of the Year at the 15th Annual Michael Awards for the Fashion Industry.[/bios]

Q: What is fashion?

[Claudia Schiffer] It’s become synonymous with clothing but ultimately fashion is anything popular in a culture at any given time.

[Robin Givhan] For me, fashion is the way we choose to present ourselves in the public square. It captures whether or not we choose to be on trend, but also addresses those people who have a belligerence towards fashion and are very stern in the announcing of their lack of interest in the subject.

It says something about the power and reach of fashion that someone would respond to it in such a negative way. If it didn’t matter, you would express a disinterest… not a dislike!
As soon as man emerged from the cave, clothes took on a social significance. I don’t think there’s ever been a period where a shirt was just a shirt! There’s always been a desire to differentiate ourselves through association with a social tribe, announce our ranking in society… or even show off our status and accomplishments. Those things have always been wrapped up in fashion whether we consider the era of the French courts or even the emergence of hip-hop. I remember one of the most striking things about the period hip-hop emerged was the appropriation of so many of the garments of the WASPY class– turning them upside down and making them monuments to hip-hop. This group pushed its way into mainstream culture! That’s one of the most interesting things about fashion… the fact that depending on your audience or circumstances- there’s all kinds of interesting meaning and conversation wrapped up in it.

I’m also fascinated by the way that politicians use clothes. One of my favourite campaign gestures is when the male candidate takes off his suit jacket, unbuttons his shirt-cuff and pushes up his sleeve. It’s a universal sign to say, “… I’m now going to speak earnestly to the blue collar workers…

[Dov Charney] Fashion is thematic and superficial, it’s intended to be. It’s also an expression of a number of things.

One is an expression of the human need to protect one’s self from the elements. Another is an expression of how one wishes to be perceived in terms of non-sexual sense. They may want to be seen as a knight, a worker, an angry person, a carefree person, a serious person and so on. Within this, there’s also the consideration of status. Some people want to reduce their status for whatever reason- a wealthy person may want to look like a hunter or a fisherman for example. There’s a little bit of costume involved in all of this, we’re decorating ourselves. A third dynamic of fashion is sexual perception. A person may want to be perceived as available or unavailable, they may wish to be perceived as mysteriously sexual…. a strong man… and so on. You’re sexuality always comes through in how you dress. These three things synthesise together – shelter, status and expression.

Q: How does fashion relate to our sense of identity?

[Claudia Schiffer] It’s different for everyone – often in our teens and early 20’s you want to be part of a group and are influenced by what your friends wear, the style of the bands you like, the films you are into, your cultural background. As you mature this tends to fall away – you dress more for yourself, your style evolves and you understand what suits you. We are complex as individuals and fashion caters for all our needs so differently. This is what’s so great about fashion – ultimately it’s whatever you want it to be.

Q: How does fashion relate to wider culture?

[Robin Givhan] In modern fashion, it’s interesting to see how designers are inspired by the visual arts and music. Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by the world of art… Mondrian… ballet and all those things. It was considered a wildly inventive and interesting way of expressing style and design. I think it’s virtually impossible for any designer to not be influenced by wider culture, everything is so entwined.

In some ways I think this is great, as it makes for a more interesting view of fashion. It’s always entertaining to see the vaguely-sheltered, upper-middle-class designer customer wearing something that has its origins in the world of gay nightclubs, strip clubs or something insane like that. It’s their way of dabbling in what they might perceive as an underworld. It also creates a bridge to having a conversation about things which ordinarily people wouldn’t talk about or experience.

Eight or nine years ago, Gaultier did a beautiful show that was inspired by the African diasporas. He drew inspiration from the African immigrants that he saw in Paris, but also picked up ideas from the women he saw walking around in Harlem… the Black Church, Caribbean and more. All these things got churned around in his head and came out in a really beautiful, noble way.

It bothers me sometimes when people talk about who owns a culture and whether it’s OK for a designer to use something. I don’t think anyone owns culture, it’s out there… it’s up for grabs! The question is whether you are being respectful of it.

I also wish more people would learn about fashion. I interviewed Miuccia Prada and she made a very good point saying, “If you don’t understand something you should study it…” People take that approach with most every topic, but when it comes to fashion- there’s a deeply held belief that you’re either born with a sense of style or you’re not… and that you can’t learn or study it. Fashion can be so valuable- particularly to women- as it affords them so many choices to construct the public persona they wish to have. It really can allow them to determine how people respond to them in that first 15 seconds. If you understand that? it’s incredibly powerful.

[Dov Charney] In film for example, costume is very important- it provides a story to the viewer. We see how the characters dress, it allows the director to express something about the other person… about the protagonist.

The manner in which politicians dress is very important. Just take Margaret Thatcher, the Queen or John F. Kennedy. Fashion plays a role in politics! If a politician doesn’t wear a tie, it’s a remark. It may be a positive remark if they’re a member of the labour party… They may be trying to bring themselves closer to the working class voter. I’ve seen Mitt Romney walking around in jeans with a white shirt and no-tie. He’s trying to say, “…I’m a man of the people, you can talk to me… I’m just a man trying to make a good opportunity for you… I wear jeans like you…… I’m trying to reduce taxes for you boys!….“. You could also have Obama dressed in a perfect suit addressing men on Wall Street saying, “…I understand what you need, I understand the needs of business even though my focus has been as a democrat… Look at how beautiful my tie is!

Fashion is critically important in music. I was in one of my stores last night and there was a band getting ready. They needed an outfit for a show, and wanted to wear something different- they said everyone wears the same black t-shirt, and they wanted to make a statement. The music industry loves fashion. Musicians need to look good and express themselves, fashion allows them to achieve that.

Even the manner in which professors dress is important. I remember my English professor wore a particular kind of shirt called a “Brooks Brothers Oxford“. It inspired me to make my own as the manner in which he wore his was so interesting. He actually gave them to me last week! It was a symbolic gift. I was very touched and keep them in a safe place.

Fashion is everywhere as everyone wears clothes. Osama bin Laden wore clothes and a first born baby wears clothes. How long does it take before we dress the young? I don’t think a baby even lasts 10 days before he gets his first hat! In every culture we have clothing, there’s not one culture that overtly walks around in the nude. Even in the most primitive cultures of Africa, they manage to cloth themselves. Not one culture I know of, even historically, was there no clothing. There is a nudist movement, but it’s here and there- they participate for a few hours here and there- but at night, they probably put clothes on.

Fashion is the interplay of the necessary versus unnecessary, the need to protect ourselves versus the need to decorate ourselves.

Q: What is the relationship between aesthetics and beauty to fashion?

[Claudia Schiffer] They are intrinsically linked, as beauty and fashion are totally subjective.

[Robin Givhan] I don’t think fashion has to be beautiful at all. In fact, the most interesting kinds of fashion are those ideas that really stray from our notions of classical beauty.
Classical beauty is classic for a reason! We’ve seen it, we understand it and we’re familiar with it. When designers like Rick Owens express an interest in those aesthetics that make us uncomfortable, confuse us or surprise us- I think the questions they raise are provocative. They force us to really think about our culture, what we value and why. They even force us to think of who we’re devaluing because of those choices.

We all respond to beauty and what we understand to be beautiful. That’s why it’s important for fashion to explore all types of beauty. Without this exploration, some people will be inherently devalued- seeming not to count as beautiful- and not being afforded the advantages which may be given to someone perceived as ‘classically‘ beautiful.

[Dov Charney] Of course there’s a relationship between beauty and fashion, that can be positive or negative.

Sometimes people want to be perceived in the reverse of beauty, for example- Hasidic Jews are trying to wear a certain type of clothing that’s perceived as ‘common‘ for them. A male Hasidic Jew just wants to be perceived as wearing a black suit, very simple. Some people may want to dress in extremely sloppy fashion, almost un-beautiful. They are trying to make a statement by doing that. Some people just want to celebrate their personal beauty, the beauty of a textile or form. They may dress-up in silk or luxurious textiles, or even very common things. Even a simple t-shirt can be very beautiful at times. Garments can be beautiful in and of themselves, or how they lay on the human form.

Q: What is the role of brand in fashion?

[Robin Givhan] Brands have helped people to navigate an increasingly enormous industry. Brands register in your consciousness and give you an immediate understanding of what they [the brand] represent. It’s a form of shorthand! When you have so much information coming at you, it’s very easy and soothing to gravitate towards the brands you know. Increasingly companies understand the importance of protecting their brand, preventing dilution and really defending what they have. Why? …It’s the only thing they have which allows them to immediately stand out.

Q: What makes a great fashion brand?

[Claudia Schiffer] A unique selling point that the world wants.

Q: What is the relationship between sex, sexuality and fashion?

[Robin Givhan] For a lot of women, there is this concern that by simply participating in fashion- they are allowing someone else to turn them into sexual objects. Another school of thought states that fashion is a way of taking hold of your sexuality and presenting it in the manner of your choosing. To me that’s the beauty of fashion and its relationship to sexuality. You can go to a city like Milan, one day view a Dolce & Gabbana show and the next view Miuccia Prada. Both of them are designing in 2012, and both have such different ideas about women and the way that they want to be seen in terms of gender.

It’s also possible to desexualise clothing. You see this when you start talking about uniforms and even some of the things that Miuccia Prada has done. She has been very influenced by uniforms, and has a very complex relationship with fashion as someone with a long history in feminism.

What’s troubling is when you come across a rogue expression of sexuality or one that is disrespectful or dismissive of women’s power. If you express sexuality without a sense of power and control, fashion enters very troubling waters.

[Dov Charney] I think it’s contrarian thinking! The status quo or existing dogma must be challenged to do something new… it’s risk taking! We decided to manufacture in the USA when everyone was going offshore. We decided to manufacture basics with no logos even though everyone was doing the opposite. One of the elements of our business was that it must be brand-free, that it shouldn’t have branding on clothing. We decided to use passenger airlines instead of ocean freight. It’s more expensive, but we can distribute to store more precisely, and hopefully bring better value, choice and availability to the customer.

Think differently…” was a motto used by Apple in some of their advertising. It’s an important concept. You always have to think of ways of doing things that are new, or accept that you are doing things the best way.

Companies also must maintain a long-view. I see it as a big problem that businesses nowadays want to see immediate profits. Amazon and Apple- just to cite two examples- were unprofitable for many years. The board of Apple even removed its founder Steve Jobs for that reason. If you want to manufacture in England, Ireland, France or so on- it’s going to take 5-10years to fill the factory and make it profitable. That’s why it was so sad that a lot of factories were closed in Europe and elsewhere in the world… so much manufacturing was aborted because it’s not easy to establish systems in a factory- establishing supply chain, training mechanics, training machine operators and so on….

You can’t get swallowed up by this culture of immediacy, sometimes great things take time.

Q: Is fashion an art form?

[Robin Givhan] There are many aspects of fashion that are artful but I tend to believe that fashion is not an art in the sense that music, painting or sculpture might be considered as such. For me the distinction is that none of those things have to serve a practical purpose. The sole purpose of a beautiful sculpture may be to inspire. There are designer who certainly work in that realm where you could argue their work is inspirational and it’s ok if nobody really wears it…. but to me the exceptional designer is the one who creates something that is inspiring and wearable… and that’s much more difficult.

Q: What is the role of the ‘icon’ in fashion?

[Claudia Schiffer] An icon is a constant beacon in the ever changing face of fashion.

[Robin Givhan] This word ‘icon’ has been thrown around a little too much and the meaning has been drained a bit, somewhat like the word ‘hero’. An icon stands for something immutable and very few people, particularly in fashion, are that… Fashion is about change.

That said, there are certainly people who have built pillars in the history of fashion, who have left a mark and helped to write the vocabulary that everyone uses. These are people like Chanel, Armani and Miuccia Prada. Designers need a vocabulary to start with, those initial rules and basics… after that, you have to say something original.

Q: How does the political and economic zeitgeist influence fashion?

[Robin Givhan] Years ago, I recall talking to people including Gianni Versace and the heads of some major retailers about how fashions differ around the world. I was really struck by thought that some of the most exuberant and embellished clothing found its greatest audience in places like the middle-east. You have these stories of women who have dinner parties and lunches with their female friends…. They arrive and underneath their burqa or hijab is this rainbow of colour! It does seem to suggest that when circumstances require you to be subdued, there is a natural human tendency to express a sense of adventure, pleasure and joy in some way.

What retailers have been saying through the recession is that what people want is not more basics that they can rely on and get lots of wear from. They want something that transports them, that is irresistible. There are stories dating back to World War II of the importance of little things like lipstick and perfume- and this idea that in the midst of war, sorrow and sadness- that fashion in many ways was this tiny little pleasure- as was music, art and so on. These were hints of the battle, manifestations of the question of what people were struggling for in the end. People may say that a dress is not an expression of joy, being just a material object- but for certainly a large number of people, there is something very energising, wonderful and delightful about a pretty dress- in the same way that someone may get an incredible amount of joy from being able to go and watch a baseball game.

[Dov Charney] Things have been very tough in our industry since 2008. People say we’re in and out of recession but I think we’ve been in one-big recession! There’s always one or two companies that are doing fantastically well, but for every Facebook there’s 5 million people unemployed.

One of the things that makes American Apparel successful is the entrepreneurial spirit in California. Some of the labour laws in Europe make it difficult for people to start something, even if they want to. You can start a business tomorrow in the United States and be ready to go.

Q: Does fashion have the capacity to influence our mood and emotions?

[Robin Givhan] Absolutely! If you ask a woman what she might do if she needed a little pick-me-up? chances are they will say, “a new pair of shoes!” or “a new lipstick!“. It’s a manifestation of the fact that people feel better about themselves if they feel they look good. There are all sorts of programmes that support women who are dealing with cancer treatments where the sole purpose is to give them a makeover or- for example- produce wigs. Fashion even in these extreme circumstances has the powerful ability to make people feel better about themselves.

I also think about fashion shows in this sense. There are terrible images of some over-wrought fashion editors getting all weepy about fashion show’s they’ve seen… and while I’ve never wept at a fashion show, there are certainly occasions where a designer has been extraordinarily skilled at presenting their work through music, setting, choice of models and the progression of their collection- evoking a kind of poetry and makes the audience feel what it would be like to wear those clothes on their most wonderful day. That’s what people mean when they say they found a show to be emotional…. The designer has been able to use the clothes and the elements of the show to tell a story.

Q: Does fashion need to have ethics?

[Robin Givhan] Corporations and their customers are in it together. Customers who have grown accustomed to getting a $10 t-shirt can sign all the petitions they want demanding better labour practices, but if they’re not willing to pay $20 for the t-shirt? all you’re going to do is put a company out of business. You are yelling into the wilderness. Some of the onus is therefore on the customer- they have to be willing to spend more and look harder for the products which they feel are made in a politically correct way.

Companies are not charitable organisations or NGOs, they are commercial endeavours. Their goal is to make a profit. I do think they have a responsibility to be respectful of whatever community they’re in, respectful of their employees and to be good corporate citizens. There are people who argue however, that they should be acting like caretakers. They are asking corporations to do something they were never meant to do and frankly, don’t have the responsibility to do.

[Dov Charney] Fashion brands of any stature, once they reach a certain size, tend to say, “we want to support this cause…“, “we want to support a certain charity….“, “buy this product and we’ll make a donation to this or that…“. The problem is that the fashion industry is so competitive. Clothing is less expensive than it was a few hundred years ago in terms of clothing’s relationship to wages. As we mechanised production, there has been a relentless pursuit of cheaper-cost in order to make fashion cheaper, more accessible and so on. With that, the fashion industry has found itself taking advantage of international inequality and labour costs. Fashion has found itself manufacturing in one country, and selling in another. That kind of dynamic always bothered me as a younger person when I started in this business.

I’m an atheist Jew, but I do take things from the Jewish culture. One of these things is the culture of charity within the Jewish religion (called ‘Sadaka’). One of the higher levels of charity is to help put someone in a position where they can make a living for themselves, rather than just giving them a gift. Instead of giving a homeless person $10, why not put them to work? We need to manage the fashion industry in such a way that it’s not as harmful to industrial workers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a man that yells at my workers… I’m a man who’s rough with my retail managers, district managers and retail employees. I expect cleanliness in the store and so on. I’m also a man that feels that industrial workers should be fairly paid. I don’t want people making my clothing who are earning 50 cents or a dollar an hour. I don’t mind if they make $10 an hour, it’s not amazing- but it’s outrageous that people get paid $1 an hour to make garments.

Even if companies are buying from China, there are ways of giving workers a fair deal. Maybe you could produce in Shanghai where workers may earn more money than the interior. Don’t forget that the further you go, the more expensive it is to move goods- so you have to pay the workers less.

Technology means that it’s possible for the fashion industry to do better than it has done in the past. There’s ways of cutting-corners on distribution costs and other areas to save rather than just paying workers less. That’s what we’re trying to do at American Apparel.

I don’t think the government should be regulating where the fashion companies buy their clothes. I think the fashion companies should get involved in reversing this trend. They need to mature and not always run for the cheapest products. They have to think about how products are made, and even organise their businesses in such a way that it makes good business sense to produce goods in such a way that workers are not making the lowest possible wage. There’s a way of making lots of money and doing good by the worker.

For me to manufacture in LA is cheaper than going offshore. I don’t think I could have built American Apparel if production was offshore. I only started in 2004, I’ve not even been in retail for 10 years but I’ve built a half billion dollar business. It’s not been plain sailing, there’s been bumps in the road, growing pains and challenges- but we are producing a positive cash-flow. We have over 1 million people walking into our 254 stores worldwide, and more than 200,000 of them buy something- so I feel we’re doing something right.

Q: What has been the impact of the internet and globalisation on fashion?

[Claudia Schiffer] It’s opened up fashion to so many more people creating greater demand, ever increasing awareness, widening of the luxury market and offering exposure to a greater mix of cultural influences.

The internet has democratised fashion as information is much more widely available. The industry has become more exposed and fashion as a whole less elitist especially with social media allowing anyone to have a voice and critic.

[Dov Charney] Globalisation has made things more competitive. You may have had a small clothing company in Poland that did OK, but now is washed out by the international titans. You may have had a small shoe company that was really important in culture that is now gone. Take the example of Doc Martens. The fact that they’re no longer made in England has meant they’ve lost some of their meaning. I remember when I put on my first Doc Martens and I was like, “Wow! these are out of a coal mine in England or something!” When I put the shoe on, I felt part of the story. I felt like they were perfect for a cloudy day in England. Globalisation has pushed production like this out to other parts of the world, and has also removed certain mutations from the marketplace such as maybe a small French scarf-maker and so on.

Globalisation has also meant that companies like Repetto– who produce a “Made in France” shoe, to sell their products all over the world. American Apparel also relies on international trade and the internet. We use the internet to move information between our stores. We communicate with our stores in the UK for example, electronically- and that, combined with favourable tariff agreements, has meant that American Apparel can export successfully from the United States.

Where we’ve had trouble exporting, such as to China and Brazil, our stores have not been as successful. Where we’ve had environments of low protection, we’ve been able to flourish. Globalisation has removed some companies, but other companies have surfaced.

Access to information has also been really important. A child in India who has grown up in poverty can now grow up and study fashion on their smart-phone…. They can see what Dior design! That child 50 years ago, from the same milieu would not have access to Dior, the Vogue archives and so on. Now he or she has access to that information, and can be inspired by it.

My vision is for a borderless world. An environment of free-trade where merchandise moves freely. I have no problem with Chinese imports into the United States and I don’t think they should attract duty. In fact, I don’t think the United States should have duty on imports- period. At the same token, I hope that I would have no duty when bringing things into China or the European Union. I am a free-trader.

I also don’t believe in restrictions to immigration. The longer we wait to remove these barriers, the longer we’re going to have massive labour inequalities. There were many Europeans that were frightened by the concept of free movement of labour in Europe. When things got shaky in the European economy, people questioned whether this borderless approach was even the right idea. The European community provides hope for what it will be like in the future when we open borders between countries.

I have hoped that the United States and Canada would have adopted a similar approach. It’s still very difficult to move labour and merchandise across the US/Canadian border- in spite of NAFTA. After April, two rules which are applied. One is to show that goods are made in the USA, and another is to show that they use US fibre. You have to prove that the Nylon filament is made in the USA or that the cotton was grown in on a US farm… otherwise you pay 18% duty.

I called the company American Apparel because I am Canadian! I’m a man that’s been over the border, and spent a lot of time on that US/Canadian border. I’m part of the BNA- British North America- as it was called before the American Revolution. I’m in Montreal right now, on Peel & St. Catherine and if I look 35 miles south from my window, I see the US/Canadian border. I’m very affected by the border, being a Canadian boy….. especially when I look at the US flag and the declaration of independence which states, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…
I’m hoping that one day a boy in Jakarta can open a fashion company and move to Paris if he wishes. True freedom would mean mobility for everyone, and a hyper-intelligent business model that’s more sensitive to everyone touched by that business.

In this environment, you would not have cheap labour in Bangladesh. An environment of free trade would elevate standards all over the world. The standard of life in Poland for example, has improved for its joining the European Community which in turn, has provided financial opportunities in London.

I’m very optimistic about what business can do for the world, and what an environment of free enterprise can do for the world. We have to protect the business environment and have minimum requirements and standards that businesses must adhere to- an environment where there is some regulation, but not too much.

Don’t forget, there was a time where there was no minimum wage in England- but still people earned a fair living. There was no codified minimum wage, but people still survived and the country was a wealthy place. The market was taking care of itself, setting the minimum wage and ensuring it was fair. In time, and given an environment of free-trade, it will not be ‘inexpensive’ to produce in China. What they will offer however, is manufacturing knowledge. When Mexico started producing t-shirts and the US started to import them rather than making in South Carolina, it was 50-60cents to produce each garment domestically and around 30cents to produce them in Mexico. Today it’s more expensive in Mexico than it was in South Carolina 10 years ago.

It’s not going to be cheaper to go offshore over time. It’s important to start thinking about making products where they are made best, and developing skills that don’t just rely on cheap labour. The entire market currently relies on the supposition that they have to pay people $1 an hour otherwise the maths don’t work.

I think it’s of a much higher place to think of businesses that no longer rely on cheap labour. If I could say one thing to Apple, it would be to ask that now they’ve changed the world- and how the world thinks- can they start to produce their products in a way that’s not as damaging on the human soul.

Take a look at Facebook, they’ve achieved that! Facebook does not rely on cheap labour. Everyone gets a fair shake. It’s a win-win.

I’m hoping more and more companies in the fashion industry develop business models that are not as damaging to humanity. Fashion is very trend-oriented. A lot of the environmental stuff you read about isn’t authentic. The fact that cotton is ‘organic‘ doesn’t mean that the way in which it was produced was more environmentally sound. People had the same discussion about ‘bamboo cotton’. People felt it was better for the environment when, in fact, the processes used to produce bamboo textiles damage the environment. The commerce department put out a paper called ‘Don’t Get Bamboozled by Bamboo.

Automation in the apparel industry has been held back more so than any other industry because the cost of automating is sometimes so expensive. It may make sense to automate at $10 an hour, but if you have access to labour in Vietnam at $10 a week? then automation is not valuable to you. The companies that developed automated equipment in fashion simply didn’t have a marketplace. This is also compounded by bank attitudes. Banks argue that firms don’t need to automate when their competition can take advantage of cheap labour in Vietnam or elsewhere. Free hands are cheaper than a machine!

I’m preoccupied by the issue of how I can make clothes that maintain the positive spirit of what we represent. I don’t know how some of the big fashion companies can feel comfortable. It would be one thing if it was sometimes, but every single morsel of clothing that they make, is made in an environment that’s almost ridiculously bad for their workers….. Then they’ll run a charity drive to raise money for a health cause, while denying the people in their factory access to health services.

At American Apparel for example, we spend around $7 million of contribution to provide reasonably priced private health plans to our workers. It’s one thing to talk about the health of one’s community, but if your workers don’t have access to the same kind of treatment that you would want for your customer? it’s a low-trade!

Just take a look at the marijuana market in California. Look at how the farmers get paid… they’re paid well! and people enjoy the product… you see a lot of people having a great time smoking marijuana in Los Angeles! Is being a pot-dealer a higher calling than being a clothing maker? at least everyone touched by marijuana business process is, essentially, having a positive experience….

Q: What are the biggest opportunities and challenges fashion faces?

[Claudia Schiffer] The opportunities remain the same as do the pitfalls the only difference is the internet has changed how people read about and buy fashion.

Q: What have been the biggest changes in fashion over the past quarter century, and what do you think the future holds?

[Robin Givhan] The biggest change so far has been the move towards fashion becoming a global business. I was enthusiastically covering the Gucci vs. LVMH brouhaha in early 2000- it was a period where fashion was transforming into an industry with a real corporate structure. It was increasingly the case that independent designers would not be able to build the kind of businesses that were previously possible- to go from the tie-maker like Ralph Lauren and transform it into a massive global brand. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing, it depends on the structure and desires of the individual corporation.

Going forward it seems that globalisation is the thing. It allows those businesses to continue to grow and begs the question as to how big these businesses will get, just how many bags can Louis Vuitton really sell!? It also makes you wonder how those other markets will affect the way that designers design, the way that models look, the way that we define beauty and the way we understand power. We’re opening the door to so many new cultures, and these influences will change the industry. It’s not like designers haven’t been travelling- but there’s a big difference between a designer going on safari and coming back with an African Masai themed collection and a designer actually having a store in Nigeria, and having customers they must relate to- understanding their lives, their past-times and cultures.

[Dov Charney] Each generation of young people gets a little smarter, more open minded and want to do things better. We had racism and slavery in the United States not too long ago, and today we have a black president. Things progress!

Collaboration between human beings usually happens over time. The quality of life in England today is better than it was 100 or 1000 years ago. Things get better, and young entrepreneurs will ask more of themselves and their markets. The men and women directing enterprises are the ones that make a difference.


Perhaps the most irreducible truth concerning fashion…” wrote César Moreno Márquez, “…is the inability of our presence in the world (as bodies rendered meaningful in public or private everyday life and in various contexts) to be understood in such a way as to allow our nakedness to suffice…” He continues to describe how, “…The phenomenon of ‘fashion’ does not depend, as does mere clothing, upon our need to cover our nakedness. Rather, it depends on the fact that, having been able to remain naked, human beings did not do so.” Márquez suggests that, “…we could better approximate the phenomenon of fashion if we consider the degree to which human beings have always been preoccupied with their appearance-for-Others in all of its richness and complexity, so that within the horizon of sociality and culture, appearing-as-clothed (rather than being-clothed) has been transformed into a decisive vector of our presence.

This assertion that fashion becomes a ‘vector of our presence’ is important. Jukka Gronow (in his analysis of George Simmel’s seminal works on fashion) identifies that “…fashion is a societal formation always combining two opposite forces. It is a socially acceptable and safe way to distinguish oneself from others and, at the same time, it satisfies the individual’s need for social adaptation and imitation. Fashion helps to solve – at least provisionally – the central problem of the philosophy of life, also expressed in the antinomy of taste as formulated by Kant. It teaches the modern man how a person can be a homogeneous part of a social mass without losing his individuality, or how he can both stick to his own private taste and expect others – who recognizably also have a taste of their own – to share it. Fashion helps to overcome the distance between an individual and his society…

Humanity is punctuated with seemingly intractable dilemmas. We are individuals- who each have an unwavering sense of ‘self’- but who must fundamentally exist as a group. We are part of nature, but make our every assertion as a species an act of rebellion against it. Fashion in this context is both a manifestation and assertion of human agency, in a system that would see agency as being superfluous to our existence.

Culture does not exist apart from humanity… it is something we create. It may take the form of art, music, fashion, architecture, or literature- but fundamentally it plays the role of being a medium for conversation- for statements, questions and answers.

In the discourse of humanity, fashion is a conversation about who we are (and who we are not). A conversation I would like to explain, and conclude, with a poem entitled “Anonymity

I see you,
You see me.
We are strangers,
But connected.
I am like you,
But I am not you.
I am me.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

Stay up to date. Signup to my newsletter.


Cookies are used on this site to give you the best possible experience. By continuing to use the site, I assume you are OK with that.

Accept Privacy Policy