Happy International Women’s Day everyone! I know I’ve not posted anything in a while now and I apologise for this – the master’s course is keeping me quite busy this year but I’m planning to be back here more frequently soon 🙂
Today I’d like to talk a little more about the women who sew, knit and produce our clothes. International Women’s Day is an important day on which to remind ourselves that we, women, are strong and that we will continue fighting together for equal rights and fair living conditions for all women around the world!
The inspiration for this blog post came a few weeks ago while I was watching a video of the first runway show for the brand ‘United Colours of Benetton’ at the Milan fashion week. The show, called ‘Rainbow Machine’, has since had thousands upon thousands of photos uploaded to Instagram, all capturing the colourful and dynamic show in which the designer, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, was applauded for the original pieces he had created for the coming autumn/winter season. I have to admit that the designs themselves were beautiful and gave off a distinctive happy vibe – not hard to achieve when taking into consideration the bright, shiny colours the clothes were made from. But something more important than the colours of the clothes struck me. Something that made me reflect again on the fashion industry and the people, in this case the women, who work for it.
In the middle of the catwalk sat sets of knitting, spinning and sewing machines. At each machine were people working on them. I suppose that the idea here was to emulate how Benetton garment pieces are manufactured and who is behind their manufacture. But this scene really surprised me, because it wasn’t the image I had in mind when I pictured work in supply factories. The scene on this Milan catwalk was peaceful with white skinned workers wearing big smiles and clean white robes sewing and knitting garments at an easy and relaxed pace. It was indeed an image of an ideal ‘rainbow’ factory, complete with colour and happiness. What baffled me, however, was that I had always thought that Benetton was one of those brands that manufactures their clothes in ‘developing’ countries and that their business practices were more in tune with fast fashion rhythms than ethical production processes. But…perhaps I was wrong; perhaps Benetton actually did produce their clothes in Europe in an ethical way. To find out, I decided to do a bit of digging into the brand.
What I found was that Benetton clothes are made in different parts of the world – some in Europe, yes, mostly Eastern Europe (Albania, Romania & Serbia), but that the bulk of its production comes from Asia (Bangladesh, China and India mostly, but also Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar) and North Africa (Egypt and Tunisia). Also, sadly, I found out that Benetton was among the brands who were purchasing and producing clothes at the Rana Plaza, the eight-story commercial building that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 killing 1,134 garment workers.
So, it seems that my initial feeling of surprise and confusion at seeing this Rainbow Machine was in fact founded. Who, then, were all those people sitting at the sewing machines during the show really representing? Clearly not the actual garment workers. The actual garment workers are mostly women from developing countries and the business practices of brands like Benetton would certainly never allow them to work in a relaxed and easy manner. Garment workers, if they want to complete the heavy deadlines imposed on them by orders from western fashion brands (remember, brands need new clothes in their stores every two weeks or less), need to work fast, and at a pace that would probably erase any smile form their faces. Workers would also most likely be wearing masks on their faces to protect themselves from the dust that accumulates in garment factories, and their uniforms would be a far cry from the pristine uniforms worn at the Benetton show. If you were to look for a photograph online of workers in garment factories, it would almost certainly present a very different reality to the one portrayed in Milan – not necessarily worse, but certainly different.
This led me to wonder why a brand like Benetton would decide to depict such a scene during its show in the first place. I looked online and they said that it was a tribute to ‘Benetton’s great industrial tradition, its know-how and its one-of-a kind technological expertise’. Fair enough…but my question is, was it necessary to misrepresent the majority of its actual garment workers to pay tribute to this tradition? Are not garment workers an essential aspect of that tradition and technological expertise? Why not honour them and give those women the space and consideration that they deserve? Given the important role that these women play in the company, I feel that they deserve to receive a little recognition and reward for the work that they do. But even worse than simply ignoring them is to misrepresent them and deflect our thought away from them altogether. That is why today, on Women’s Day, I would like to honour and remember them all. The majority of garment workers working in the fashion industry are women. Women who work in high-intensity, dangerous environments and who spend large parts of their youth working relentlessly for high-street brands like Benetton. Brands that later don’t even take these women into consideration when paying tribute and honour to their workers. Brands which, frankly, exist solely to get the maximum profit possible by bargaining the cheapest prices with suppliers and, hence, have ultimate control over the final salaries and rights of its overseas workers.
So…what does this mean for us and the industry? Firstly, we need to recognise the work these women do and pay tribute to them. We must not allow brands like Benetton to misrepresent and hide them in such a way. It may seem trivial to focus on the fact that there were sewing and knitting machines being operated by happy workers in the middle of a fashion runway, especially when compared with the amount of damage the fashion industry causes otherwise, but this trivial issue does do real damage to the garment workers. It makes these women invisible and voiceless and it obscures the reality of garment production and labour conditions along global supply chains. Misrepresenting them is just one more way to exercise violence towards them. Secondly, I believe that the fashion industry owes these women real visibility. It owes them transparency and recognition for the hard work and struggles they face every day while sewing and knitting the clothes that we wear. Their stories and experiences should be visible and honoured and they should be given the platform on which to stand before us and truly unite the colours of our world!