The Geographies of Fashion Cover Image

The Geographies of Fashion

Consumption, Space, and Value


Louise Crewe

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Fast fashion, global spaces, and bio-commodification

Book chapter

DOI: 10.5040/
Pages: 37–65

In 1997 Nguyen Thi Thu Phuong died while making Nike sneakers in a factory in North Vietnam. She was struck in the heart by a piece of shrapnel that flew out of a sewing machine and died instantly.[1]

In August 2006 a 22-year-old Uruguayan model died of heart failure, allegedly as a result of starvation, while participating in a fashion show during Fashion Week.[2]

In August 2008 the summer Olympic Games were hosted by Beijing, China. The Olympic Games are the most effective international corporate marketing platform in the world.[3]

What unites these seemingly unconnected events that span continents and decades and speak of both death and celebration, the individual and the crowd, labor and leisure? The answer, as I go on to demonstrate below, is the global significance of the fashion industry and the contradictions that lie at its heart. These events reveal how the geographies of fashion connect people, places, practices, and objects in ways that are scarcely imaginable. Think for a moment about some of these connections. From the sweatshop worker making premium branded sportswear for the Beijing Olympics, to the clothes-hanger models on the catwalk prepared to die for their careers, to the unemployed young designer fresh from college who dreams of a highly paid job in the fashion industry that is unlikely to ever come to fruition, to underpaid and overworked shop assistants in the global north, and to us, the consumer, faced with the constant anxieties about what to buy, where to shop, what to wear, and how to wear it. It would appear that there are a great many fashion victims, all connected by the invisible threads binding this global system of garment design, production, retail, consumption, and wear (Bhattacharjee et al. 2015; Chamberlain 2016). It is tempting to see the fashion commodity chain as a series of discrete and distant places each with their own specific economic and social geographies (international designer hubs, global production sites, retail stores).

In many ways this has been a spatial construction that has suited big business well. It has enabled brand managers and designers to seduce fashion consumers into paying hugely inflated prices for branded goods while masking the global inequalities that lie at the heart of the international fashion industry. In a classic example of the international division of labor, global companies in an increasingly borderless world have been able to use wage differentials in order to derive competitive advantage. Fashion is arguably capitalism’s favorite child and “the transience woven into the fabric of free trade zones is an extreme manifestation of the corporate divestment of the world of work which is taking place at all levels of industry” (Klein 1999: 229). Klein discusses with precision and persuasion how the violation of basic employment, and indeed, human rights has become standard practice in globalized garment supply chains. The recent history of the garment industry encompasses not simply a relocation of the geographies of employment from developed north to global south, but a simultaneous reordering of the moral obligations owed to workers in garment-producing factories around the world. The violation of wage, child, health, or safety law is the product of a concentrated and powerful clothing retail sector that scans the globe in search of vulnerable, desperate workforces that can be super-exploited in the neoliberalized world order that seeks to extend the social and economic distance between employer and (hidden) employee. Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop tells how

money without borders leads to sweatshop exploitation of the world’s poorest. Industry after industry seems perfectly happy to use sweatshops and the globe is quickly becoming a playground for those who can move capital and projects quickly from place to place. When business can roam from country to country with few restrictions in its search for the lowest wages, the loosest environmental regulations and the most docile and desperate workers, then the destruction of livelihoods, cultures and environments can be enormous. (Roddick 2000: 7)

While some economists would argue that any job is better than none for those who live in the global south, such a “better than” argument (Krugman and Venables 1995) can be challenged with remarkable ease: “the ‘better than’ argument is a slippery slope – working in a sweatshop is better than picking through a trash heap, which is better than prostitution, which is better than bonded labour, which is better than slavery, which is better than death. So by Krugman’s logic, two cheers for slavery?” (McIntyre 2006: 4). Moreover, the excessive attention paid to distant sweated labor practices within the fashion industry has masked a number of other inequalities, asymmetries, and connections that begin to scramble many of our trusted assumptions about the taken-for-granted distinctions between production and consumption, near and far, us and them, now and then.

Drawing on a range of commodities (jeans, t-shirts, trainers, handbags) and organizations (Primark, Zara, H&M, Hermes, Louis Vuitton) the chapter critically reflects on commodity fetishism, value, and the ways in which global flows and processes enable the creation, exchange, and consumption of fashion. It reveals how the most highly priced fashion commodities may be socially and culturally the least desirable, if their production depends on exploitative, unscrupulous, or toxic practices. It argues that while many people in global north own more items of clothing than any other commodity, they also know the least amount about their clothes:

I checked the labels on my eggs but not on my t-shirts. I didn’t know the significance of fibres like polyester, nylon or elastane of which so much of our clothing is now made. I knew nothing about garment construction nor could I recognise quality … one need not have the sharpest fashion acumen or know a single thing about clothes to accumulate massive amounts of them. (Cline 2013: 5)

It explores the misplaced value of fakes and the liminal, hidden, and fictitious worlds of counterfeit fashion. The chapter asks the reader to come on a journey in search of some answers, to explore the secret geography of our clothes. This is a journey that connects people, places, and objects together in ways that are scarcely imaginable. It is a journey that spans scale, from the world to the body, and traverses from here to there and everywhere in between. Fashion is one of the most global and the most intimate of commodities. It is both the world and the body. It is both mundane and extraordinary. And of course we all wear clothes. But do we think enough about where our clothes travel around the world, through farms, fields and factories, oceans and air, into shops, homes, wardrobes, bodies? And how often do we reflect upon who made these clothes, where and under what conditions?

Significantly too, it is striking how rarely we question what our clothing is made from. So while commodity fetishism—the ways in which consumers are persuaded not to reflect on the hands of the makers of their clothes—has been an important focus of geographical enquiry over many years, this chapter argues that a new form of geographical dissociation is in the making, one that asks the consumer to reflect not simply on “who made my clothes?,” or “where were they made?,” but to question what our clothes are made from and to understand how contemporary capitalism has so adeptly disguised from view not just the geographical and social but also the biological origins of our clothes. Taken together, these questions of geographical association and dissociation underscore the complexities of the geographical biographies of commodities. If our clothes could talk, what geographical stories would they tell? Where do our geographical imaginations take us when we hear the word fashion? Perhaps it takes us to spectacular flagship stores in global fashion cities such as London, Paris, New York, Milan, and Tokyo. Or maybe we imagine spectacular performative events such as the biannual Fashion Weeks in world cities (Duggan 2001; Evans 2003). Perhaps we reflect on how the dominant global spaces of fashion are but nodes in a much larger, richer, and highly textured and variegated fashion system that presents exciting opportunities for emergent fashion spaces that were formerly “off-the-map”—Casablanca, Melbourne, Mumbai, Shanghai, or Sao Paulo. Or perhaps we think about hidden geographies “over there,” the distant sweated labor practices that shore up this vast global industry or the sentient animals that are farmed for their skins, feathers, and fur. Somewhere in our geographical imaginations we sense the growing presence of China on fashion’s world stage as both a production and a consumption “super-power.” China’s contribution to world clothing trade is undeniable: exports were valued at $164 billion in 2014 and it accounts for 38 percent of the world market for garments. The next six lead exporters combined (Turkey, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Mexico) export just half of China’s total output (China Customs Statistics 2014). We might also wonder about the provenance and authenticity of “designer” goods and on the spaces through which the trade in fakes travels.

The key point made in the chapter is that a critical geographical understanding of fashion needs to break away from existing, static (and constraining) dualisms between, for example, global cities and “the rest,” Western and non-Western fashion, core and periphery, human and animal. If we begin to think about relationality and about spatial connections we see that the discrete fashion spaces we might at first imagine (“over here” and somehow socially, economically, and morally “acceptable,” or “over there” and quite the converse) begin to unravel, collapse, and reveal some curious and troubling geographies at work. If we adopt this more relational conceptualization of space the centrality of journeying or mobility becomes instantly apparent. Clothes have lives or biographies. They are made, born, fashioned, and differentiated in a variety of ways. They are sold, retailed, advertised, and consumed/reconsumed/recycled/disposed of. The life of a garment involves movement through space and time during which it adds values and meanings of various forms. Clothes are therefore inherently geographical objects. We can usefully conceptualize consumption, exchange, and value via the metaphor of the journey, as one moment in a much longer series of person–object encounters.

Mapping fashion’s geographies

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in April 2013, the worst disaster in the history of the fashion industry, was also the most graphic display of its failure to ensure the most basic of workers’ rights. (War on Want 2013)

In the quotation above, War on Want demonstrates that the geographies of fashion reveal the stark disparities between different actors and spaces within the clothing supply chain. In order to unravel some of these connections we need to travel around the secret world of fashion. Let us pause for a moment at the first stop on our journey, at a large discount store called Cromwell’s madhouse in a provincial British city. Piled high are endless pairs of branded Lee Cooper jeans. The jeans sell for £19.95—cheap for a global brand—and include a label instructing the consumer to “wash inside out separately.” Curiously, the label tells us nothing about the geographical origins of these jeans, and I suspect few of us would spend much time thinking about where the product was made, nor by whom. Clothing labeling is a legal, if profoundly misleading, mechanism through which manufacturers creatively interpret the World Trade Organization’s “rules of origin” (ROO) in order to circumvent quotas imposed by the United States and the Europe. As global brands enter into ever more tortuous sub-contracting agreements with overseas producers they can actively use space and global complexity to create a production system that is sufficiently intricate as to make the application of ROO extremely difficult. Current ROO legislation is both highly technical and very obscure. The qualifying criteria include “substantial transformation” at the labeling site which is itself an inherently subjective concept. In practice garments that are finished, labeled, and/or packaged in the destination location can be labeled as “Made in USA” or “Made in England” (Jones and Martin 2015). As is the case with a majority of fashioned garments, the labels inside our clothes tell us far more about how to launder our garments than they do about where they were made or by whom. Yet this pair of jeans connects us, the consumer, to people and places we could scarcely imagine and reveals that we are complicit in determining the conditions of their production simply by turning a blind eye in our pursuit of cheap fashion. The retail store is one stop on a 40,000 mile journey where raw materials and components criss-cross the globe.

The jeans arrived in a van that came up the A12 from Lee Cooper’s warehouse at Staples Corner, just at the bottom of the M1 in North London … Before that they came through the Channel Tunnel in a lorry from France, and before that by boat and train from Ras Jebel in Tunisia, colloquially termed Lee Cooperville. In one of the three Lee Cooper factories in Ras Jebel 500 woman work furiously, eyes down, muscles clenched amid the heat and noise of the huge grey factory. Each individual here functions like an automaton, hurling garments onto machines and roaring their sewing machines down seams, over and over again. There are no safety guards on the machines and the women work hard and fast and concentrate to avoid the pounding needles punching through their fingers. It is alarmingly simple to imagine how the fatal accident that began this chapter took place. The average pace is three tasks per worker per minute and there are eight lines, each with more than 60 people and each producing 2,000 garments per day. (Abrams and Astill 2001)

If this pace of work is difficult to conceptualize, the online game may clarify things a little. Here you can become a virtual sweatshop worker. You are invited to enter the world of the sports shoemaker. The clock ticks away while you frantically try to put the trainers together. If you work hard you will be paid your full wage. If you make a mistake you will be punished accordingly.

If we continue our journey back at Ras Jebel and investigate the geographies of jean production in more detail we see that this tiny, busy node is just one moment in a much more extensive journey for our pair of jeans. It is here that dozens of different components converge and are transformed: the cotton is grown in Benin, West Africa; the raw denim comes from Milan; the indigo with which the denim is dyed comes from Frankfurt; it is stonewashed with pumice from Turkey; the thread is made in Northern Ireland, Turkey and Hungary and is dyed in Spain; the rivets and buttons are manufactured from zinc and copper from Australia and Namibia. And these components in turn raise a whole series of questions about the real social, economic, and political costs incurred in the making of a pair of jeans: stonewashing produces several tons of powdered pumice each year that is discarded in Tunis; indigo leaches into local streams and kills plants and fish; Benin’s cotton industry is haunted by corruption and mismanagement, its labor is hard, the rewards slight, and people are dying from insecticide and pesticide poisoning (Abrams and Astill 2001). A pair of jeans uses three-quarters of a pound of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (Harkin 2007). Pollution from the copper mines in Namibia is toxic, but considering environmental and health impacts is a luxury when the alternative is no job and no income. Yet the tortuous geography that is the making of a pair of jeans doesn’t stop here. This is a partial story of production. For these jeans have been designed in the United States, advertised globally, and will end up in someone’s wardrobe, on someone’s body, ready to begin another set of journeys and transformations in their biography: they will be worn, soiled, washed, dried, and perhaps even ironed. As Rachel Snyder argues so persuasively, exploring the complex geographies of a commodity such as jeans reveals dramatic stories about “the people in our pants” (Snyder 2008). When Snyder looks at a pair of jeans, she sees faces and ghosts. “She pictures Ganira Aliyev in red socks and ankle high galoshes picking cotton in Azarbaijan. She recalls Cambodian Ry Muong, whose right hand has no fingers apart from her thumb, sewing belt loops onto jeans six days a week” (, Brooks 2015; Miller 2010). But as a report on the life cycle of a pair of jeans reveals, from production to daily use, washing your jeans can cost the earth (Boeglin 2006). Machine washing, tumble drying, and ironing causes 47 percent of the eco-damage caused by an “average” pair of jeans that are worn one day a week for four years and washed every third wear at 40°C. This is the equivalent of burning 4,000 light bulbs for an hour (Boeglin 2006). And it is highly likely that our jeans will then be worn again, they will wear, perhaps tear, undergo repair, be stashed or stored, customized or cannibalized, discarded, donated, or given away (Brooks 2015). Denim “has a life and lives with the wearer … When used jeans are transported somewhere new and taken up by a second owner they will form part of a new semiotic register, made up of a group of different signs and signifiers” (Brooks 2015: 13). Here we begin to see something of the hidden lives of things and how their stories and journeys speak geographically. The vast expansion of the global denim market reveals a fascinating political-economic geography and has undoubtedly been a good double fix for capitalism, enabling the super-exploitation of global labor and the creation of a generic yet ever-changing global uniform (Guthman and DuPuis 2006). As Snyder argues “No other fabric has held the symbolic fortitude of denim” (2008) and in a number of ways jeans embody the dynamism and the contradictions of capitalism. Jeans are everywhere and nowhere, a source of both creativity and constraint, comfort and discomfort, individuality and conformity. They reveal rich historical geographies yet are very much of the here and now. Their presence in the world is both global and intimate; as a commodity form they are both mundane and extraordinary. Jeans are the most ubiquitous form of everyday attire, the most popular item of clothing in the world (Cotton Incorporated 2005) and a key referent of contemporary consumption. They are worn throughout the world by people of all ages, by the fashionable and unfashionable, by those who want to stand out and those who want to fit in (Candy 2003). It is estimated that American women own on average nine pairs of jeans (WGSN 2005) and over half of the adults in the UK reportedly “usually” wear jeans (Mintel 2007).

The UK denim market is currently worth £1.51 billion and it was estimated that 86 million pairs of jeans were sold in Britain in 2007 (Mintel 2007; Smithers 2007). And as our Lee Cooper jeans reveal, a little geographical detective work uncovers labyrinthine connections. The global maps of denim supply and retail expose our complicity in the production of deeply unequal economic geographies. Our lives are affected by and implicated in the social and economic consequences of globalization (Ramsey and Wrathmell 2009: 59–60). Exploitation will shift geographically as the hunt for a spatial fix drags different territories into global systems of provision (Brooks 2015: 252; Shell 2009). Mapping the geographies of jeans underscores above all the importance of thinking relationally about global inequalities.

Fast fashion: From Bangladesh to Manchester to a high street near you

Let us pause again as we begin the next leg of our journey into the secret life of clothes. This part of the journey takes us to the remarkable growth of value clothing retailers such as Primark, H&M, and Zara. Following the collapse of the middle market in the UK and US through the 1990s and on through the subsequent years of financial crisis, recession, and austerity, the growth of global discount clothing stores has been one of the most marked, and remarkable, features of the urban landscape. The disruptive effect of discount retailers has been profound. Spatially and socially they have reconfigured high streets and consumer behavior around the world, eating into middle market retailers who have unique selling propositions based on quality points, but with price points to match. The Irish chain store Primark is one of the most instructive examples. Primark’s annual sales were close to £5 billion in 2014, having risen 17 percent during the year-ending September 2014 and it was estimated that the company could be worth £19 billion (Butler and Rankin 2014). For a retailer that has no web presence and relies solely on store sales, Primark is in many ways a remarkable success story. The recent growth has been a result of the addition of 1.4 m2 ft of shopping space and its expansion abroad, including the opening of stores in Boston, US, in 2015, and Milan, Italy, in 2016. Primark has, in many ways, become emblematic of the “fast fashion” revolution, where a “season” is no longer winter or summer but, rather, is four or five weeks, from design, through global manufacturing to shop floor. The economic success of Primark has been astounding—in the first ten days of trading its Oxford Circus store sold one million garments (Siegle 2011). When Primark opened its first Oxford Street store in 2007 there was a frenzied stampede in which 3,000 crazed bargain hunters clambered over each other. Doors were ripped off their hinges and police were brought in to control the crowds as would-be shoppers were crushed.[4] Primark has come to symbolize many of the evils of fast fashion (Hoskins 2014: 23). The store connects children in India, toiling by candlelight sewing beads onto clothes to be sold in Primark and earning 60 pence per day, to migrant workers in deindustrialized cities across northern Britain working for far below the minimum wage in an ugly globalized supply chain (BBC 2008). There are few consumers in the global north who will not own a garment that was “Made in Bangladesh.” Garments account for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and a cheap and willing reserve army of labor has ensured that the country is the second largest clothes producer in the world after China, a trade worth in excess of £15 billion per year. Primark is not alone of course. Ninety-seven percent of our clothes are made overseas (Timmerman 2008) and the intricate sub-contracting supply chain webs that characterize the fast fashion industry are both tangled and opaque. Primark has undoubtedly had profound impacts on the lives of consumers and the strategies of its rivals. It has effectively rebased the price of a collection of core clothing items which has had transformative and lasting effects (Ruddick 2014).

It is important, however, to recognize that “fast fashion” is an amorphous and conceptually vacuous descriptor for the range and variety of retail models within the mid–low range price points of the fashion market. The next stop on our giddying journey around global fashion sites takes us to northern Spain, home to the world’s richest man (Ortega) and the world’s largest clothing retailer. Zara, the Spanish chain store, operates in over 7,000 stores in eighty two countries (including over 350 shops in China) and makes in excess of 840 million garments per year. These figures are but snapshots at a particular moment in time because the groups are currently opening in excess of one store per day and have been described as an “unstoppable sales machine” with sales rising to 15.4 percent in 2015 (Bain 2016). But their rise to success has not been founded on distant global sweatshops, grotesque violations of labor rights nor long, opaque geographical supply chains. From the outset Ortega wanted to maintain his own manufacturing business in La Coruña, northern Spain, so from the very start Zara’s business model was markedly different to the majority of fast fashion retailers. More than half of Inditex’s manufacturing takes place either in the factories it owns or within the proximity to company headquarters in Europe or Northern Africa. Zara uses geographical variation in unusual and fascinating ways and have arguably inverted the international division of labor, locating manufacturing close to “home,” using distant locations in South East Asia as style and trend incubators, rather than as reserve armies of labor, and investing in prime retail sites as opposed to expensive advertising and marketing campaigns. They argue that the neighborhoods in which stores are located often share more trends and similarities than countries do: The store on Fifth Avenue in Midtown New York “is more similar to the store in Ginza, Tokyo, which is an elegant area that’s also touristic, and SoHo is closer to Shibuya, which is very trendy and young. Brooklyn now is a wildly trendy place to go, while Midtown—well, no New Yorker is actually shopping on Fifth Avenue now” (Hansennov 2012). Thompson explains Zara’s process-driven innovation strategy thus: Rather than hire world class designers Zara … politely copies them. Then it relies on a global network of shopper-feedback to tweak their designs. Corporate HQ absorbs thousands of comments and sends tweaks to their manufacturers in Europe and North Africa who literally sew the feedback into the next line of clothes. The clothes are shipped back and the stock changes so quickly that shoppers are motivated with a “now or never” choice … It’s a user-generated approach to fast fashion (Thompson 2012). Zara deliberately undersupplies many of their lines and operates a policy of limited reordering which has the effect of reminding the consumer to buy what they see when they see it, as it won’t be there on their next visit. The supply chain—that rather boring metaphor for the choreographing of clothing’s design, fabrication, and retailing across space—is absolutely central to Zara’s competitive success. The “fast” in Zara’s fast fashion model comes largely from its proximate production plants and its lightning speed response to consumer preferences—a perfect illustration of the importance of spatiality and temporality as key components in determining the success of fashion’s geographies.

The real success of Zara’s supply chain model lies in its geographical strategy: the generation of fast fashion, directed by global consumers, influenced by international designer firms, and produced close to home. In spite of global recession, Zara saw sales increase by just over 50 percent between 2007 and 2012 to $17 billion (Thompson 2012), employment numbers rise from 80,000 to 110,000 over the same time frame, “despite being headquartered in a depressed Spanish economy and selling predominantly to a very sick European continent” (Thompson 2012). The merchandizing policy at Zara emphasizes rapidly changing product lines, high fashion content, and an increasing tendency toward classical, minimalist, design-led garments with clean, spare lines that are excellent yet affordable approximations of runway trends. Approximately 11,000 distinct items are produced per year, compared to an industry average of 2–4,000 and designs rarely stay in store for more than one month. With their affordable prices, prime pitch locations, and sophisticated stores that draw in repeat customers, Zara has pioneered a perfect design-led-copy-cat strategy that off-sets the advantages of cheap off-shore production by investment in local, or at least proximate, production facilities, ownership of production by the lead firm, fast delivery speeds, careful attention to consumer demand and knowledge, and to the significance of retail and web aesthetics and brand message. Their high-luster website with carefully curated, crafted, and presented minimalist pieces have caught the attention of both progressive fashion celebrities and fashion bloggers globally, some of whom argue “I’m addicted” (Style blog with Kirsten Kai) and ask “why can’t our closet be just like the Zara lookbook?” (Hannah Weil, Pop Sugar).

Economies of scales: Dissociation and bio-commodification

Picture a hot dusty farm in the outback of Australia, the sun beating down on a series of large concrete tanks filled with a writhing mass of crocodiles. The tanks stretch on and on, housing 70,000 factory-farmed reptiles which will get a bullet in the head once they have grown enough scales to satisfy European handbag manufacturers … In the wild crocodiles can live to be 70 years old; on factory farms they are shot at the age of three. (Hoskins 2014: 90–91)

Moving from the case of fast fashion to the very different market segment—luxury—we begin to see ways in which circuits of value are obscured—a particularly chilling example of which is described in the quotation by Hoskins above. Within contemporary geographical scholarship much attention is afforded to geographical associations and country of origin appellations (Made in Italy, Made in England). There is mounting interest, discussed above, in where our clothes are made, by whom, and under what conditions. Much less attention has been paid to the ways in which luxury firms employ techniques of geographical dissociation and encourage the consumer to not reflect on what our clothes are made of and what the implications are of the increasing bio-commodification of luxury fashion and the manufacture of luxury commodities fabricated from sentient animals (python leather, crocodile and alligator skin, ostrich hide and feathers, silk, fur). This section of the chapter argues that bio-commodification is quite literally “fleshing out” the luxury market through the commoditization of animal parts across a range of integrated spaces in the global economy. From the crocodile, fox, and mink farms of Russia, Norway, and the USA and the python farms in South East Asia, via global tanneries and manufacturing plants in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Bangladesh, to the flagship stores of Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, and Prada in global cities, and on to the bodies of the wealthy super-rich in world fashion capitals, the luxury market actively puts geography to work in its production of high-value, high-controversy goods for global markets produced under intensive factory conditions and leaving toxic chemical wastes in its wake.

Luxury fashion, so often positioned as fast fashion’s alter-ego, also has a dark geographical underbelly. A number of fashion houses are relying on sophisticated methods of “geographical dissociation” and are becoming increasingly adept at managing the “dark side” of their operations. In part this is being achieved by subtly shifting their marketing message away from the primacy of the geographical origin of production (Made in Appellations, ROO), and away from the materials used in the production of luxury commodities (skins, hides, furs, and feathers), toward the brand message and the “context of consumption” for their products (Tokatli 2013). This geographical dissociation from the places, practices, people and raw materials of production, and the assertion of the primacy of the brand, the logo and the place of consumption represents a strategy of super-commodity fetishism that actively puts geography to work. The growth of the luxury market underscores the impossibility of severing strictly commercial or financial explanations from those that emphasize the aesthetic, auratic, and creative determinants of value and desire. This is conceptually significant as it furthers our understanding of the possible ways in which the immaterial and aesthetic qualities of goods can generate, or even determine, value (Karpik 2010). Geographical dissociation will be explored here in relation to one particular commodity—the leather handbag—which will be used as a lens through which to understand the enduring growth and increasing demand and desire for labeled luxury goods. Handbags are a particularly useful commodity through which to explore the geographies of desire and dissociation in the luxury fashion sector as they are both global and ubiquitous but also intensely personal and a key means of displaying the self. Iconic, enduring, and symbolic of both status and the brand, designer handbags have entered the popular imagination and vernacular—the “it” bag has its own set of meanings and vocabularies and is a key commodity for the display of cultural and economic capital (Bourdieu 1984). Not only is the luxury handbag sector growing, but it is a key means of tracking how luxury products hold their value. There is an emergent auction market in designer handbags, many of which sell for more than their original market price at global auction houses. One Hermes alligator bag, for example, sold in auction in New York in 2004 for $64,000. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, designer handbags are being accepted as collateral for the securitization of loans. As with other economies of singularities such as art and fine wine (Karpik 2010), the valuation process is a complex amalgam of reputation, quality, taste, distinction, and rarity. The global market for luxury leather accessories grew to represent almost 30 percent of the overall personal luxury goods market, up from 18 percent in 2003 (Exane BNP Paribas 2015), and the category has transformed business, invigorated brands, and contributed significantly to sustained periods of double-digit revenue growth at a time of widespread global recession. A number of factors might explain this. First, the success of the luxury sector can be attributed in part to the structure of the industry. It is a highly concentrated sector where market share and power is held in the hands of a few global corporations. The world’s ten largest luxury companies account for 48.9 percent of global sales for example (Deloitte 2015). Second, the industry has been founded on a long history of skilled craftwork, artisan labor, and talent creation. Third, the global luxury leather sector offers attractive retail economics across a number of metrics—high margins, high sales productivity (sales per square meter), strong full-price sell-through (Solca 2015). Fourth, the handbag has long been seen as a significant marker of taste, style, and distinction that has fueled ongoing and sustained consumer interest in what have recently been termed “cost-effective status anchors” (Solca 2015). Handbags are a perfect example of “Veblen goods,” the demand for which increases the more expensive they become. Veblen goods derive value as a result of conspicuous and competitive consumption: these are display goods that are consumed in order to signal wealth or prestige (Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1. Louis Vuitton handbag elevator, London, 2014. © author’s photograph.

Louis Vuitton handbag elevator, London, 2014. © author’s photograph.

Fifth, the global luxury market is expanding vertically in order to secure control over the supply chain, traditionally in terms of skilled labor at assembly sites but more recently in relation to the sourcing of raw materials that are becoming both more costly and more difficult to acquire. In 2014, for example, the price of all rawhides increased by 18 percent. By buying up tanneries and vertically integrating the leather supply chain, luxury fashion houses are increasingly geographically “managing” an industry characterized by tight demand to supply ratios in order to ensure the ongoing supply of quality skins. Such corporate strategies appear to be accruing reward: the global luxury market is currently valued at $46 billion (Bain 2015). But this is a competitive and crowded category, a murky market that derives value in part through the construction of brand myths and the obfuscation of sourcing realities. While luxury designs undoubtedly hold and grow their value from the moment they are purchased and act as investment objects, the significant geographical question of interest here relates to the extent to which consumer knowledge informs investment decisions. As this section goes on to argue, the dislocation between how we and the market value luxury handbags and how their global supply chains operate “on the ground” raises some important social, economic, and environmental questions. Behind highly coveted brand messages lie altogether darker geographies. How many of us know where and from what our handbags are made and how does the commodification of animal products interface with consumer’s geographical knowledge about the origins of the luxury products they are buying?

Our exploration begins with “brand Hermes” whose dedication to quality and luxury are argued to be the result of three guiding principles: craftsmanship; control over stock, inventory, and distribution; and careful management of the supply chain of raw materials. First, Hermes has been a family-run enterprise since its inception, allowing it to maintain its focus on skilled craft work; the company does not employ production lines but, rather, relies on the reproduction and management of talent within French “ateliers”: “all luggage and handbag collections are handmade and typically only one craftsman will work on one handbag at a time” (Huey and Draffan 2009: 89). In an interview with Hermes for Forbes Life, Hannah Elliot asked “Why the Artisans Matter?” The vice president of Hermes quotes that their regular “Festivale des Metiers is a way for us to show some of our know-how and our craftsmen who are behind the quality and beauty of the Hermes object … The success of Hermes is based on this savoir faire. The consumer—the people who shop at Hermes—know that they are buying quality” (de Seyne 2015). Hermes has created two of the most classic and covetable handbags in the world, the Kelly and the Birkin, seen by some as “works of art”: Exceptional craftsmanship, exquisite materials, and attention to detail mean these heirloom bags never go out of style (Huey and Draffan 2009: 85). Kelly and Birkin bags are rarely displayed in store, have waiting lists lasting months, sometimes years, and the price of a Hermes Kelly has had a compound annual growth rate of 13 percent over the past decade (Exane BNP Paribas 2015). Second, Hermes maintains tight control over the distribution of their products, which are only available through their own retail stores and would never appear in an outlet or discount store. They argue that “discounting would be a disservice to our clients … Keeping excess inventory out of the market is a top priority. If something doesn’t sell it goes into our sample sale. If it doesn’t sell there it is destroyed” (Hermes 2009). The philosophy is to protect the positioning and imaging of the brand in an attempt to guard the value of the commodity. While destroying valuable merchandise may seem counterintuitive and grossly wasteful, as a corporate strategy it is one means by which to reinforce exclusivity and protect the brand’s image and integrity. Legacy is everything for Hermes. Their website exudes a sense of history, craft, and legacy—the orange font against the luxurious rainbow of soft leathers and silks is redolent and seductive, the tabs acting as tiny windows into the philosophy and heritage of the brand, the spatial allusions “placing” Hermes and “petit h,” the brand’s symbolic horse, firmly in France and the Parisien ateliers of Hermes. Hermes reveal the magic alchemy that creates their brand message, itself a project in the art of commodity fetishism where, through hand-craft, individualization, ancient skill, the finest materials, and most opulent spaces of display, all reference to sourcing and supply chains is effaced: “Everything that issues from the hands of Hermes is the product of a metamorphosis—of matter most of all … preciously attested by each of our objects” (italics author’s own, Hermes 2014 ‘Les metamorphoses de l’objet).

Hermes’ consumers can be described as “passionate investors” who are “driven purely by their passion for the product category and not economic gain; they have a very personal, emotional and interest-driven view to investment,” a view which is motivated by beyond-market calculations (Mehta 2013). The passion, hunger, and enthusiasm that certain consumers feel for particular objects of desire are undeniable. They love their things, worship them, cherish them. Quite why consumer groups commit considerable emotional investments to the objects, subjects, and texts that they follow is the focus of much debate (Sandvoss 2005). The fetishistic worship of designers is revealed in the Tsuzuki photography exhibition “Happy Victims” that features one young Japanese man who describes himself as being so devoted to Hermes that he carries his 500,000 yen Hermes briefcase in a (Hermes) towel to protect it from his own sweat. High-investor, passionate consumers rely on the skill and craft that has gone into the production of their love objects to sustain desire and demand. Third, while craft, skill, and knowledge certainly play a significant role in the final assembly of Hermes’ luxury leather goods, behind this public-facing celebration of French skill and artisanship lie a series of other spaces that are involved in their value chain, spaces that are legally and commercially concealed, hidden from view. There is much more to the story of a handbag than retail prices and inventory control (PETA June 23, 2015). Hermes, along with a majority of luxury leather goods houses, is exploiting increasingly exotic and rare species such as python and alligator in their search to capture value in global markets, and bio-commodification is emerging as a key means through which luxury commodities are valorized and sacralized. The demand for exotic skins is high and growing.

If we continue on our journey in this chapter and travel from the Maisons of Hermes in Paris to the Padenga factory farm in Zimbabwe we find ourselves in one of the world’s largest suppliers of Nile skin (crocodile) in the world, and Hermes’ key supplier. The Padenga site has a single supply arrangement with Hermes whereby the French luxury house buys every skin that the factory produces. The belly of the crocodile is used in the production of iconic Hermes handbags such as the Birkin and the Kelly. It takes three crocodile skins to produce one Kelly handbag which in turn retails for upward of 37,000 euros. (PETA 2015). A closer look at the farming of crocodiles reveals a profoundly unethical and dispassionate mode of production. In the wild, crocodiles have a lifespan of between 70 and 90 years. Mothers guard their eggs fastidiously, carry their hatchlings for many months, and stay with their young for up to three years. The fashion industry kills the animals when they reach thirty-six months, either by stunning them or, more usually, by plunging a scalpel into their spine and removing it in its entirety before grinding the brain to pith, “otherwise the nerves and everything are always twitching on the table” (Padenga Head of Operations 2015). The skins are stripped of flesh and tissue and are worked on before being treated at the Padenga-owned tannery that treats the skins for Hermes before they are shipped back to France to be made into handbags, wallets, and purses (ibid.). It might be more accurate to explore the Hermes supply chain in terms of a harm chain analysis rather than a value chain study.

Tracing the python-skin bags from Hermes flagship stores to their finishing plants in France again obscures a snakes-and-ladders geographical journey that is as complex as it is long. The forests of South East Asia have supplied Hermes with python skins worth in excess of $1 billion annually for many years. In 2004 the EU banned imports of Malaysian python over fears that the species Python reticulatus was becoming endangered. Two specific geographical outcomes are identifiable. First, the hunting and farming of python has shifted in part from Malaysia to other South East Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia. Second, a more intricate chain of import–export sub-contracting relationships have emerged. With little political will in Malaysia to protect the python and few accurate records of the population in existence, a small number of companies have emerged in Malaysia to orchestrate the procurement and sale of python pelts from both illegal hunters and indigenous snake farms (Journeyman 2014). One company continues to export 8–10,000 python skins annually to European luxury fashion houses, a similar number as before the EU legislation came into force, but they do this via an intermediary in Singapore. Ninety-five percent of the profits of the python industry accrue to European fashion buyers, a profoundly geographically skewed harm chain that is ecologically, biologically, and economically damaging. We see here how import bans and ROO legislation become, in practice, impotent in the face of such opaque and convoluted supply chains. The Malaysian trade in exotic python skin, far from being curtailed has, rather, been rerouted via Singapore before onward transmission to Europe in a legitimate global trafficking network that uses geography in order to circumvent legislation that applies solely to certain sovereign jurisdictions. The figures produced by CITES,[5] a regulatory agency for trade in endangered species, allow us to explore this trade in “blood skins” in a little more detail. In 2009, for example, France imported 5,800 python skins from Singapore, although their shipping licenses confirmed that the original source of the cargo was Malaysia (Journeyman 2014). More recently, customs searches and seizures have increased in Singapore. Again, a clear geographical response has been mobilized in order to overcome the increasing surveillance and seizure of skins in Singapore: python tanneries, such as the Sunny International Leather Industry in Malaysia is currently exporting 40,000 pre-tanned python skins per year to Europe, this time through Turkey which has emerged as the largest global buyer of exotic skins in terms of volume (Journeyman 2014). As one Turkish import–export intermediary explained “I know which skins are Malaysian but it doesn’t matter to the buyer. You don’t need to know. Nobody can say ‘This is Malaysian’ by looking at the skins” (Journeyman 2014). Laundering contraband Malaysian python skins into Europe is, it appears, all too easy. As CITES argue,

There isn’t a traceability system right now, whether at a regional, national or international level. Such a system simply doesn’t exist … This is what TRAFFIC and a number of other organisations are pushing for. We want to know whether a skin caught by one person somewhere in the world is the same skin being sold in the shop in the EU. (Journeyman 2014)

These global movements begin to reveal how the value of luxury is created, displaced, transformed, and consumed through space and time. They demonstrate how important it is to understand the range of sites and spaces that commodities travel through and suggest that “luxury” goods may be less valuable and desirable if their sourcing and supply is based on toxic, unequal, or immoral practices that come at significant environmental, ecological, economic, and social cost. This exploration of one luxury fashion house has revealed the complex connections that exist between bodies and economy, between life and capital. That which appears most priceless—life itself—is being commodified and marketized in highly disparate ways. The geographical disjunctures that emerge between, for example, the feathered geese in Louis Vuitton’s Christmas window in 2014 (see Figure 3.2) and the skins, hides, and furs that its luxury commodities are fabricated from articulate the profoundly unequal and unsettling global geographies that underpin luxury production and consumption in the contemporary era.

Figure 3.2. Louis Vuitton Christmas window, 2014. © author’s photograph.

Louis Vuitton Christmas window, 2014. © author’s photograph.

The window displays a number of geese surrounding handbags fabricated from exotic skins. The irony of the skins of rare animals that have, by alchemy and craft, been transformed into handbags, alongside an array of large display geese—traditionally resonant of Christmas (its celebration and its feasting) is not lost. The iconography of the goose nods to the perils of greed in the laying of golden eggs, providing a richly symbolic and deeply geographic set of allusions that speak to the global traffic of goods, the role of bio-commodification and bio-trade in the luxury industry, and the pivotal space of the store window in displaying, but rarely dispelling, many of the more unsettling aspects of luxury leather’s supply chain.

This section of the chapter has attempted to unpack the meanings, materials, and spaces of luxury fashion. Global in reach and encompassing some of the largest global organizations, wealthiest global citizens, and most highly priced (and desired) global commodities, this is an industry that reveals significant but opaque connections—between consumers and producers, between people and their objects, between biotrade and retail display, and across entangled global spaces of supply. Taken together, the discussion offers new insights into the articulations between luxury production and consumption. It reveals both the resilient and variegated geographies of luxury and the affective capacities of luxury goods on consumers. Investment purchasing is clearly emerging as a key consumer motivation, one that appreciates how commodities accrue in value through time. Luxury leather goods are seen to hold value and meaning in ways that cheaper fashion products may not, and yet their conditions of production may be similarly dark, ugly, and tainted. As Iain Hay argues so well “luxury fever and the associated ‘arms race’ of possessions in which many of us find ourselves now occurs against a crumbling and putrefying environmental backdrop” (Hay 2013: 13). The discussion raises a number of questions about how sustainable and ethically attuned luxury firms’ sourcing strategies are given the central significance of rare skins in their product ranges. It suggests that passionate “high investor” consumers know relatively little about the things they own, love, and desire and that theirs’ may be a tainted love.

Fake luxury and fictitious value

Consumer’s geographical knowledge about the production conditions, places, people, and raw materials that make up their clothes appears to be, at best, patchy. The value of luxury goods is determined via an unstable conjunction of “tangible, material things (products and commodities) with immaterial forms of value (brand names, logos, images)” (Moore 2003: 334). Brands are constructed both as objects and as signs and meanings. The inherent instability of the brand is “fixed” through careful corporate discourses of authenticity, craft, heritage, and rarity. Luxury brands leave behind the “dull, passive, generic, inert utility and materiality of the product” (Manning 2010: 36) and emphasize, instead, a commodity’s qualities, aura, and signification. The value of luxury is entangled with economic imaginaries, perceptions of place and knowledge of good labor, care, and economic worth. When the significance of the brand is related not to object materiality but to its auratic qualities and self-referential dimensions, the creation and continuation of the luxury project is vulnerable to co-option and usurpation in unpredictable and unanticipated ways. The misplaced value of fake-branded luxury goods is a perfect illustration of the risks associated with authenticity that is culturally and socially constructed.

The “problem” of counterfeiting has allegedly increased substantially during recent years, with estimations of the counterfeit market standing at 5–7 percent of all world trade (International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition 2014; OECD 1998). The rhetoric surrounding counterfeiting is that it is increasingly linked to organized crime, money laundering, and even terrorism (ACG 2007; AAIPT undated). Counterfeiting is seen as detrimental to legitimate businesses and to national economies. Ethical discussions about fake fashion are centered on the economic harm that the traffic in counterfeit goods brings to bear on large corporations. The most heavy-handed legislative battles against counterfeiting are carried out in the poorest parts of the world by international legislative bodies working in the interests of world’s largest and wealthiest organizations—a perfect illustration of corporate greed at potential lost income peddled in the interests of international security and vague allegations of organized crime. It comes as little surprise to learn that the major counterfeited brands are Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, Tiffany, Prada, Hermes, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Cartier (Ledbury Research 2007: 9). Desperate to maintain their luxury credentials, the world’s largest fashion businesses classify and position the fake as a deceptive object—the opposite of the original which boasts authorial hallmarks, signatures, and solitary craft. In suitably hyperbolic terms, global luxury firms report growing concern over the scale and quality of the counterfeit market. They argue that the emergence of high-quality “superfakes,” whose inauthenticity is discernible only to the very well–trained eye, is damaging the values that are fundamental to the perception of luxury designer brands. The copy, they argue, represents an inferior craft, a failure of creativity. The fake stands as “the discredited part of the pair, the one that opposes the multiple to the singular, the reproducible to the unique, and the fraudulent to the authentic” (Krauss 1981: 58 in Craciun 2014). The threat that the copy represents to the commercial success of luxury brands was acknowledged by Veblen who argued that “the offensive object may be so close an imitation as to defy all but the closest scrutiny; and yet so soon as the counterfeit is detected, its aesthetic value, and its commercial value as well, declines precipitately” (1934: 81). It is little surprise, then, that those with the most reputational and commercial capital to lose through the copy-cat market are those who mount the highest profile and most aggressive attacks on the market:

The grand golden doors of 500 Pearl Street, in Manhattan, have welcomed such glamorous names as Hermès, Tiffany & Co and Kering, a French conglomerate whose treasures include Gucci and Bottega Veneta. The building is not a posh hotel or department store. It is the federal court for the Southern District of New York, a favoured battleground for the decidedly unglamorous war against counterfeit goods. (The Economist 2015)

Hermes International won a judgment in the New York court that included $100 million in damages against thirty-four websites that sold fake copies of its luxury goods including Birkin and Kelly handbags (Bloomberg 2012). Similarly, in 2008 a French court awarded LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) $51.3 million in damages for trademark violations by the online retailer Ebay and harm to its brand’s image. The European Commission recently reported that lost sales due to fake clothes and accessories amounted to 10 percent of the industry’s revenue in Europe. “This makes luxury firms shudder. They cherish their reputations for quality and exclusivity” (Antonio Achille, Boston Consulting Group).

It is argued in the following section that a more critical approach to the counterfeiting literature needs to be taken which incorporates discussions about knowledge, culture, and geography. Luxury fakes are a perfect exemplar of the paradox of value and reveal many of the contradictions that lie at the heart of the articulation of value. An exploration of counterfeit luxury reveals a great deal about the liminal, hidden, misleading, and fictitious worlds of value. It demonstrates how vulnerable brands are to exposure and how fragile their creation is. Authenticity is an elusive attribute. It is slippery and motile despite big businesses’ attempts to fix or stabilize its meaning. The fake, those “brazen simulacra … expose a conceit at the core of the culture of Western capitalism: that its signifiers can be fixed, that its editions can be limited” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006: 13). Superfakes expose with some clarity the extortionate premiums that brand owners charge and that high-investor consumers are willing to pay. They also reveal the extreme lengths that brands go to in order to preserve and protect their reputation and status. Hermes, as we saw in the preceding section, would prefer to destroy unsold merchandise than to risk its release onto the secondary market. The fake market has stripped away the garb of authenticity and revealed corporate tactics of distinction, prestige, domination, and profiteering (Craciun 2014). The quest for authenticity is marked by ironies, perplexities, vicissitudes, excesses, and even atrocities (Craciun 2014: 12; Handler 1986; Lindholm 2008). The desire for branded goods leads consumers into a “deceptive dreamworld which is no dream at all but a sales pitch in disguise” (Williams 1982: 65). The dreamworlds of consumption that Williams discusses are “not a casual fantasy or a vague desire but an inevitable corruption that results when business exploits dreams, blatant lies and subtle ones, lies of omission and commission” (Williams 1982: 65).

Fake-branded goods are an acute form of a doubly commodity-fetishized product. They are not what they claim or presume to be and thus betray both their makers and users (Craciun 2014). Who are the deceptors and who the deceived in the global luxury fashion market? Is the consumer who buys a superfake, a near identical copy, not the superior agent here? The consumer of fakes arguably outwits big business with its excessive margins, the regulatory authorities (with their eye on the corporate prize rather than the ordinary citizen), and the gloating eyes of fellow consumers, unaware that the status good they see is a copy. Fake brands are, after all, “inauthentic only in the eyes of certain people and only in certain moments or contexts” (Craciun 2014: 70). Further, in less economically developed economies, the fake may be bought by consumers who want to acquire the signifier but lack the economic capital to redress the worst excesses of global income inequality. Fakes here offer at least the potential to participate in the brand economy, without its extortion. It may be that the immorality of luxury production legitimates the fake economy. It certainly raises some important questions about the ethics and morality of the authentic luxury-branded economy that extracts extortionate surplus value from the global production of commodities.

It has been argued in this section that it is important that we think geographically about fashion value and its supply chains. Only by thinking through where, by whom, and of what our clothes are made can we understand the value of fashion. In the case of luxury leather products, the real costs of production are global in scale and reach. The circuitous routes of production and supply that underpin both fake and authentic commodities mask the realities of social, economic, biological, and ecological exploitation. As Siegle has argued, leather goods are the “rocket fuel” for the rapidly expanding global fashion business. “The fact that they are made from the skin of a beast is incidental. Presently around 290 m cows are killed every year from a global herd approaching 1 billion. Projections tell us that in order to keep us in wallets, handbags and shoes, the industry needs to slaughter 430 m cows annually by 2025” (2016). The realities of bio-commodification and the traffic in animal skins to furnish the luxury fashion industry, real and fake, are deeply troubling. The geographies at play are disguised and hidden in this deception economy where the brand hides all traces of production and distribution.

Skins are bought and traded across the world, from Ethiopia to Brazil, processed into the soft, buttery leather we associate with upscale European-made accessories. Nearly half of the global leather trade is carried out in developing countries—from Ethiopia to Cambodia and Vietnam—where, despite a backdrop of exploitation of animals and humans and the extraordinary level of pollution caused by unregulated tanneries and processors, the pressure is on to produce more. (Siegle 2016)

This is in spite of a seminal Greenpeace report in 2009, Slaughtering the Amazon, which made a direct connection between leather and environmental destruction. The report revealed that the Brazilian cattle industry is responsible for 14 percent of the world’s annual deforestation. Meanwhile the leather-production zone of Hazaribagh in Bangladesh has been declared “ecologically dead” and one of the world’s “Top 10 Toxic Places.” It is important that we challenge the normative discourses around quality, craft production, and deception at all levels in the fashion chain, both “authentic” and fake. Good fashion value must rely on both materiality and signification, on economy and culture. Corporate lawyers and state agents might attempt to place certain objects and their makers as outside legality; this is merely an exercise in classification and abjection. It has little grounding in the moral economies and supply chain ethics that underpin the global fashion system, both original and fake. Legislation may attempt such classification; those with geographical knowledge about the dark underbelly of the global fashion industry must refute them. The deceptive economy—narrowly applicable to counterfeits, may, in fact, be a perfect descriptor for the global fashion industry more widely. Falsification, secrecy, and deception apply in equal measure to the luxury-branded economy as to markets in fake commodities.


This chapter has mapped out the complex relational scalar geographies of fashion. It has revealed the gaping disconnect between dreams and commerce and desire and business. It has argued that while it is tempting to see the fashion commodity chain as a series of discrete and distant places each with their own specific economic and social geographies, it is important to acknowledge that scales are not stacked on top of one another in discrete layers. Scale is generated by distance and unequal power relations and these geographical scales need to be brought into simultaneous view. The chapter has argued that the strategy of commodity fetishism via forms of geographical association and dissociation is a spatial construction that has suited big business well. It has enabled the fashion industry to bring certain spaces and places into high relief while masking the global inequalities, abuses of labor standards, ecological damage, and environmental catastrophes that underpin the industry. It has allowed consumers to be seduced into paying vastly inflated prices for branded goods and for capital to extract enormous profit. It has revealed too that there is seemingly a disconnection between what people allegedly care about and how they fill their wardrobes. At one end of the market, we continue to buy more clothes that have short lifetimes. A “season” is no longer winter or summer. It is 6 weeks from design to shop floor, and probably not much longer in our wardrobes or on our bodies. But value retailing and fast fashion isn’t necessarily fashion democracy. It can also be a manifestation of consumer ignorance where we are encouraged not to think about the murky, circuitous supply routes of fashion and the demands this puts on garment workers in cheap–cost off-shore locations. But would higher price points have any material effects on global labor or environmental standards? While supporters of the current form of globalization often defend the “neoliberal” trade regime as one that favors consumers by keeping prices low, such arguments carry little credence given that the wages of garment workers account for 1–3 percent of the retail cost of clothing. Moreover, it is argued here that a majority of consumers would dearly like to pay more for their clothes if they believed it would make a material difference to those who produced them. And if only they could afford to. A majority of contemporary Western consumers may be doing all that they realistically can under increasingly precarious economic conditions at home and away.

Meanwhile at the luxury end of the market, firms are tightening their grip on supply chain networks and on their retail distribution channels, both online and off-line. Such tightly choreographed organizational control over the entire luxury value chain has some important geographical implications. Unlike the case with fast fashion companies who use the global division of labor primarily to drive down costs, luxury firms are in the midst of a significant wave of vertical global acquisition activity in order to control the value chain more effectively and thus to manage and protect both their reputational capital and, most critically, their most ethically and environmentally damaging activities. Vertical integration and the acquisition of global tanneries and animal factories ensure that firms can protect their carefully crafted brand identity from the prying eyes of the market. The chapter has revealed a profoundly polarized fashion market that has, at its heart, a series of geographical inequalities and dislocations that, together, ensure that scale is relational, that power and control is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few global fashion corporations, and that the value chains that underpin the “fast,” the “luxury,” and the “fake” ends of the market are spatially skewed, and economically, socially, ecologically, and environmentally toxic. An important challenge in developing a critical geography of fashion is to capture the multitude ways in which markets conceal social and economic information and relations.

More broadly the fashion industry seems to perfectly reveal the contradictions inherent in the projects of neoliberalism and globalization. As social and political functions are gradually shifting to the corporate sphere a number of prescient questions are raised in relation to the role and authority that consumers have in markets, and the extent to which the presence, practice, and regulation of markets might be influenced by workers, NGOs, trade unions, and governments. First, as geographical knowledge about fashion’s inequalities becomes more widespread, a requirement for firms to deliver social value in addition to generating financial return is likely to grow in significance: “Publically available environmental profit and loss statements, such as Kering’s, measure a firm’s environmental footprint throughout its supply chain and calculate its monetary value” (Deloitte 2015). Such accounting methodologies hold the possibility at least of providing greater transparency to stakeholders who are calling for more joined-up “triple bottom-line” accounting approaches that bring into focus the social, financial, and environmental implications of fashion’s global activities. This shift toward conceptualizing fashion in terms of a “harm chain” rather than a value chain approach may go some way toward ameliorating the very worst consequences of fashion’s global activities. Second, there are, it seems to me, a number of ways in which consumers-as-agents might participate in fashion in more productive and participatory ways. These rely on the importance of thinking, seeing, and acting relationally, and conceptually require that we free up our bounded notions of the organization, consumer, commodity, and place. When consumers acknowledge the profound geographical inequalities resulting from the globalization of fashion, they may use their economic and cultural capital to resist the worst excesses of the free market. This is particularly exciting in that it opens up new possibilities for more ethical and equitable systems of provision. The economic and political significance of fashion is increasingly giving consumers unprecedented power as global citizens. Significantly, these alternative ways of thinking and acting about global fashion emphasize the very real possibilities that we as consumers have for exerting our agency. As a whole range of recent forms of consumer mobilization such as No Sweat, Buy Nothing Day, and Students Against Sweatshops have revealed, consumer activism, boycotting, and buy-cotting can have significant economic and political ramifications. Equally, tactics of brand jamming and adbusting that refigure corporate logos and images have the potential to raise ethical questions about “big fashion” in highly persuasive ways. The streetwear brand Homies, a clear allusion to Hermes, borrows and repurposes imagery from iconic logos and designers to make a satirical parody about branding, value, and logo. The crafty iterations of brand names on his streetwear designs including Feline and Ballin, Paris, question the price and value represented by the fashion logo. The Fashion Revolution movement is one particularly significant example of how people can connect globally and mobilize for change. The movement grew out of the tragedy of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, in which 1,133 people died and another 2,500 were injured, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. That’s when Fashion Revolution began. It is now active in over eighty countries and believes that positive change can happen

if we all think differently about fashion and demand better. We want a cleaner, safer, fairer, more transparent and more accountable fashion and textiles industry. We want fashion to become a force for good. We believe in an industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure. Knowledge, information, honesty. These three things have the power to transform the industry. And it starts with one simple question: Who made my clothes?

Figure 3.3. I made your clothes. © Fashion Revolution.

I made your clothes. © Fashion Revolution.

Figure 3.4. Fashion revolution day. © Fashion Revolution.

Fashion revolution day. © Fashion Revolution.

The mobilization of consumer, activist, NGO, and corporate interests to work together in the interests of a fairer and more transparent fashion industry reveals the possibilities and potential for doing fashion differently (Figures 3.3 and 3.4). As McIntyre argues, “It is a small effort to develop a moral response to human indignity. It is a partial response to a global problem and it can, in some times and places, concretely improve the material living standards, solidarity and freedom of some of the most exploited people the planet” (McIntyre 2006: 8).


[1] McIntyre (2006).

[2] BBC News (2006). Is ultra-thin going out of fashion September 27, 2006.

[3] Playfair (2008)—an organization lobbying to clean up sportswear production in the run-up to the Olympics.

[4] Freeman (2007).

[5] CITES is the 1973 Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of World Fauna and Flora.