Is Inclusion as Necessary as Everyone Makes It Out to Be?
In every major discussion about the present state and the future of fashion, the question of exclusivity never fails to come up. And there has been a constant stream of discussions in 2016, centered around the new retail models, buyer fatigue and the never-ending game of fashion musical chairs that has seen a handful of designers juggled around by the world’s biggest labels. This discussion and the actions it inspires have filtered down to African and Nigerian fashion as seen by the emphasis on inclusive retail options by the country’s biggest fashion weeks. But inclusion does not seem to be working either, and to understand why, we need to understand why fashion is inclusive in the first place.
The industry that evolved to become what we currently know as the global fashion industry was one that was built on scarcity. Good, durable clothing was scarce, even more, ceremonial dress. But regular and ceremonial dress required time and materials, neither of which was available in abundance as such, creating clothing became its own multi-tiered profession. The skillset that was required to enter the industry (weaving, knitting, animal husbandry, dyeing and retail) were all highly specialized and required long apprenticeships to become master artisans. As such, these occupations became largely hereditary, passed down through lineages. Dries Van Noten is a notable heir of one of the Belgian retail lineages.
Fashion was ceremonial and functional rather than aesthetic. Royalty and nobility used fashion to distinguish themselves from the peasantry and each other, and only they could afford the expense of hiring artisans to create one-of-a-kind pieces in their distinct house styles.
The democratization of fashion only began less than 150 years ago, spurred by the industrial revolution. Many parts of the manufacturing chain that required skilled artisans, were machinated, reducing cost and increasing efficiency. The industrial revolution also saw the rise of the upper middle class and the nouveau riche, first and second generation millionaires that sought to show their wealth through acquisitions of fashion formerly exclusive only to the nobility. That meant more people could afford clothes, and as demand grew, so did the need for highly specialized, fashionable clothing, leading in part to the creation of the ‘pret-a-porter’ lines in Paris and New York, a trend that has all but dominated fashion today. The internet further democratized the process and helped ‘fast fashion’ crest the new wave of consumerism, offering designs that used to be exclusive to the upper middle class to everyone.
But inclusion comes at a cost.
For one, artisanal skill is dying out. Skills as simple as darning torn dresses and patching worn knees and elbows are gone, and because the clothes are so cheap, it is much cheaper to replace clothing than have them fixed by an artisan. The democratization of fashion has not dulled our need to differentiate ourselves through dress and other forms of external self-expression. We demand more, newer, faster; urging the fast fashion cycle to churn out more clothes that we wear only because they reflect a certain, often impractical trend and abandon the clothes once a trend is ridden to its logical conclusion.
Inclusion’s biggest ruse however, is that there is no true cost for exclusivity at dirt cheap prices. There is. Every year we hear horrific stories about women and children forced into slavery in sweat shops so we can have cheap, ‘fashionable’ clothing. Corners are cut to speed up the production process and safety requirements are overlooked. In China alone, thousands of gallons of toxic waste are pumped untreated into the country’s rivers, because treating would increase the cost of production and production times. The list goes on and on.
The question is this, do we appreciate the true cost of inclusion? Do we even see this ‘inclusion’ that is so passionately marketed to us for what it really is? A marketing ploy to keep a handful of people rich at the expense of our consciences and the future of the planet. Maybe we should.