My manifesto for an ethical fashion

Maria Adele Cipolla, costume maker and designer

Ten points:

1) Ensure a fair earning for all workers involved in the production cycle: designer, cutter, tailor, and others.

2) Revive the socializing and gratifying aspects of work producing goods.

3) Give due recognition to the role of creative design.

4) Give priority to materials from developing areas for the world, paying for them fairly.

5) Avoid the use of materials that result from polluting industrial processes.

6) Ban materials that involve suffering or killing animals (eg, furs, ivory).

7) Refuse a female model that offends women or pushes them to anorexia.

9) Include market segments forgotten by fashion off the catwalk.

10) Avoid low cost and short liven garments, because they exploit labour and end up in the landfill shortly after purchase.

Background of this manifesto:

The crisis of Made in Italy



The recent global economic crisis has laid bare the contradictions of entire sectors of commerce that had slipped into cynical and inhuman behaviour for some time. Meanwhile, the rapid and uncontrolled spread of Web 2.0 and new technological devices, are decreeing the end of traditional forms of communication. These factors give rise to the crisis of the fashion industry, especially “Made in Italy”.

Wrongly accused of unfair competition from Chinese manufacturers, the demise of “Made in Italy” began when the term "creative" ceased to describe the "designer" and his or her staff and shifted to a whole host of figures surrounding actual production: public relations experts, advertisers, and directors and editors of fashion magazines.

Indeed, when fashion is no longer a "creative and artistic" act and becomes an "event", the need arose to divert an ever larger slice of budgets to marketing, promotion and advertising. All this at the expense of just pay for those who physically create the object of attention, namely cutters and tailors. The actual dress has lost importance at the expense of an "atmosphere", so that what now remains in the mind after a fashion show are colours, music, nudities, hair styles, and special effects, while one can barely can remember how each dress was cut.

Nor should we ignore the trend to show ever skinnier (if not anorexic) models, whose lack of harmonic female form makes cutting and tailoring easier.

What I want to emphasize here, however, is the extreme unfairness that increasingly characterizes the organisation of production over the last 30 years.

There is no longer the traditional factory in which everything happens in one place, just as we tend to imagine it. In reality the bulk of production is outsourced, that means subcontracted outside the factory, to smaller and smaller businesses. The system is based on piecework (a small amount per each item) in which the price imposed by the buying company is so low that the only way outside laboratories are able to make a profit is to eliminate workers’ rights. Of all this the mother brand pretends not to know anything; outsourcing is in fact a convenient way to escape the rules. All too often, the dirty work is dumped to illegal organizations, in the past run by organised crime in southern Italy and now by Chinese clans.

Another relevant argument is that the trademark, brand or signature, are terms often equipped to a birthright, deed, patent: as a result, those who copy the purse of a famous signature risk jail. In fact, the creative act of designing a dress or a fashion accessory has become parcelized and distributed among poorly paid young designers. We are far from the historic Parisian fashion houses dominated by creative minds such as Poiret, Chanel, and Schiapparelli: people at ease in the world of visual arts, theater and literature and who took months and days studying the perfect garment.

Finally, “Made in Italy”, by focusing entirely on a younger and physically fit target, ignores the economic potential of markets that, due to the aging of the world population, are growing steadily. For instance, those over forty who are looking for beautiful yet practical clothes, made of quality fabrics and sewn so that they help to hide little physical defects.


What good could emerge in the vacuum created by the demise of Made in Italy?

“Made in Italy” is undergoing a profound crisis, desperately trying to preserve the assets it has built through years of exploitation while shedding off throngs of skilled workers. My thoughts go to those who have cut and sewn for decades, single sewers or small laboratories, now without work but with a wealth of experience and knowledge. I also think of the too many young designers squeezed by the large jaws and then thrown away. The immediate desire is to find a way to put these people in touch with each other and the market. The business I propose does not aim to compete with traditional fashion from the catwalk, but rather addresses markets normally neglected by fashion: galaxies of niche markets (dubbed the “long tail”) not currently satisfied by fashion, who live alone or do not like crowded department stores.

There is a general trend throughout the world (often for produce) to experiment new forms of trade bypass the network of intermediaries that drive up prices at the expense of producers and consumers. There is indeed a growing number of consumers, not particularly attracted by logos, more motivated to buy if they have the knowledge that their act is coherent with a cause: energy conservation, respect for labor rights, the fight against organized crime, combating financial concentrations, respect for the environment and animals, etc..

A similar model could be adopted for the clothing sector although this would require a more complex organization.

How could we link up fashion designers, cutters and tailors? How to ensure that their products have a market?

My proposal is to create a network following the "Web 2.0" approach, involving suppliers, designers, workshops and buyers interacting on platforms such as ning or blogs.

Their products can be offered through on-line or paper-based catalogues, again using social networks and tools such as Twitter or Facebook to capture niche user groups within large audiences, according to the long tail model.

For a definition of Web 2.0 see the original article by Tim O'Reilly, “What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software”, available at http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html

In the following, I suggest a first model that is open to suggestions and further inputs both at http://www.stagewear.biz and http://arteinscenaenglish.blogspot.com/

The scenario proposed is based on a simple blog or forum post, using a platform that allows for comments and links. In the first step, a designer publishes a post that illustrates an article of fashion as fully as possible (sketchs in various positions, technical specifications, suggestions for materials) and inserts a link through which to purchase the pattern (size graded or custom drawn to measure).

Then, one or more producers of fabrics and accessories may be inspired by the design, using the comment feature to suggest its own fabrics or other materials, including a link to their website or an on-line purchase procedure.

One or more artisans (individually or as a workshop) could then decide to produce the article, buying the paper pattern from the designer and the materials from the producers. They then publish pictures of the ready made garment, complete with prices and links for on-line purchase.

At this point an end user can select and item from the various designs posted on the network, while checking the reliability of designers, producers of materials and workshops by just clicking on their profile pages or downloading promotional materials made available different members. For instance, a laboratory might publish photos of the workshop with the artisans at work, so the buyer can see the working conditions where production takes place. In addition, there can be feedback ratings by other users or the workers themselves. The end user is thus able to able to participate in an act of “aware” purchase. In a virtuous competition between the proponents, users can not only choose the models they find most appealing, but also select the laboratory that best respects worker rights, uses more environmentally friendly fabrics, or requires the least transportation in addition to offering a competitive price.

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