Whilst in Milan for Fashion Week, I went to a few shows, but the highlight for me has actually been the re-sees. The craftsmanship and actual handiwork in a lot of the pieces is simply not evident from the runway or the runway pictures. Seeing and touching the clothes in person, I could only marvel at the quality of materials and finishing here in Italy. And then I wondered about the dry cleaning bills that these clothes must accrue, which, rather unwittingly, is a trait that most Swedes apparently share.
Let me explain. In my last post, I spoke about the pragmatic nature of Swedes when it comes to fashion, mainly to do with comfort and style. But it also extends to the care of clothes – namely, if it can’t be machine-washed, Swedes ain’t gonna buy it. Which I’ve been told leads an overwhelming number of Swedish labels (high street to designer) to use washing machine-friendly materials when maybe they want to use, say silk for example, instead. And you can almost forget about any heavy beadwork.
But this (begrudgingly?) accepted wisdom on behalf of both consumers and designers could also stem from the fact that dry cleaning is outrageously expensive here. I took a single “fancy” (read: silk georgette by a New York designer) dress to my local dry cleaners in Stockholm and it cost me near 300 kronor. The cost to dry-clean a similar “fancy” dress in New York City? Nine bucks, or roughly 61 kronor, according to friends there right now. I saw a sign here in a Milanese shop advertising 5kg of dry cleaning for 14 euros, or roughly 129 kronor. Five kilograms!
Maybe the exorbitant dry-cleaning prices in Sweden are actually a subconscious act of protectionism? Forget about those extravagant Italian/French/New York/London labels! Buy locally instead! We’re machine-washable! Hurrah! The irony, of course, is that once again, Swedish pragmatism is winning over the world. I’ve seen people actually clap their hands in delight when they discover the coveted item of clothing from the latest Swedish label can be thrown into the wash. No joke, it’s the little victories like these that are winning more and more people over to Swedish fashion.
But selfishly, would it really hurt to try to bring down those dry-cleaning prices just a little bit? Pretty please?
On Thursday I went to Fashion talks 2011 at Arkitekturmuseet (Architecture Museum) to listen to researchers and business leaders discuss sustainability in fashion. It was highly interesting and a very optimistic seminar – too optimistic even for someone as fashion-friendly as yours truly.
To me there seems to be a very powerful dilemma at the root of sustainable fashion. As the fashion system is evolving, it is the mechanisms of fast fashion, which are increasingly influencing, and even dictating the conditions for all areas of fashion design. Small luxury designers must now deliver four or five collections a year, rather than the traditional two. On top of that they need to design capsule collections and other one-offs. There is a constant demand from the stores and the customers for more merchandise.
About a year ago I tried to calculate how many pieces of clothing that are being produced worldwide each year. My calculation started with information from China National Garment Association claiming that in China alone, 51.8 billion garments are produced annually. According to what I could find, China’s production amounts to between 20-25% of the worldwide output which means that each year, the world makes somewhere between 200 and 250 billion of new items of clothing. It is a staggering amount.
This is why, as I sat there listening to the CEO of retail chain Indiska and the chairman of Acne, I wondered if fashion companies really can break free from the driving forces which urge them to keep up with the customers’ demands for new clothes, new collections, new lines.
Sweden is very much into sustainability and naturally, I’m all for it, believe in it, think it’s the future. But the sceptic in me wonders if the idea of a wholly sustainable fashion system just happens to be the only option available for fashion companies as consumption has sky-rocketed in the last decade and they have seen their revenue increase several times. The 250 billion garments which flood our markets each year are also part of a greater wave of clothing, including thrift stores, eBay, mitumba markets in Kenya, charity shops etc. In this climate it is no wonder that customers have gotten used to an incredible variety and ever-changing clothing racks in stores. The only way for fashion companies to solve the dilemma of the demands and perks of the market at the same time as they handle the moral and public relations issue of sustainability is to believe that there is such a thing as a wholly sustainable fashion system – this solution simply doesn’t involve any hard truths. But the fact is that it might just be that the fashion industry isn’t sustainable at this level, and it might be that consumers need to learn to buy more carefully, investing in a wardrobe, rather than wearing and tearing.
But who is going to tell them that?