Mass retailers are increasingly facing scrutiny for their manufacturing practices following last year's tragic Bangladesh factory collapse, but the media conversation surrounding global garment production has largely ignored higher-end fashion brands. Even though most designer labels don't have the scale of H&M or Target, many luxury brands reportedly still outsource a significant portion of production overseas, to the same factories used by their mass market counterparts. As Zady co-founders Maxine Bédat and Soraya Darabi told me last week, "The middle market no longer exists the way it used to; it has become fast fashion on one end and hyper-luxury on the other."
Most so-called luxury fashion companies put profits ahead of quality and design and as a result, we're sold dubiously manufactured product at exorbitant prices. As Dana Thomas, the author of How Luxury Lost Its Luster, told me last year, crazy markups are common: "When it comes to brands in major groups, the sole motivating factor is profits. The designers can dream up beautiful designs, but the number crunchers will cut costs wherever they can to raise the profit margin. Even if the fabric costs $2 a meter, and the dress costs $50 to produce, the number crunchers will price it at $3,000 retail. Because they can. One designer told me a case where this happened and he even protested the high price. And the number crunchers didn't care. Their argument: consumers will pay it. And they did, crazily enough."
But those huge brands are still synonymous with quality and style. And on the flipside, sustainability advocates have been mocked and maligned for their grannies-and-granola alternatives to runway fashion; today's most viable eco-brands stress a "fashion first" approach.
"There is a demand for fashion that's ethically made, but a lack of platforms offering clothing that's actually fashionable as well ethical," said Rachel Kibbe, the founder of Helpsy, a slow fashion platform for uniquely-designed pieces. "[The public needs] to see that ethical fashion doesn't have to be an aesthetic — green-crunchy or otherwise."
We hear similar messages, downplaying the ethical dimension of ethical fashion, when eco-initiatives appear in broader contexts. There's a big splashy feature in the latest issue of DuJour, a magazine catering to the wealthy, on supermodel Amber Valleta's new company, Master & Muse, which aims to "[bridge] the gap between cutting-edge fashion and mindful manufacturing."
"There certainly is more and more consumer interest towards ethical fashion — people want to feel good about what they buy," said DuJour editor-in-chief Nicole Vecchiarelli, "But in Amber's case, the appeal is just as much that it's a well-curated site with stylish, shoppable pieces."
In large part, Zady pioneered this message when it launched last September, to a flurry of media attention. "Just as Maxine [Bédat] and I don't want to be thought of as women entrepreneurs, we want to be thought of as entrepreneurs," said Darabi, "We want Zady to be thought of first as simply a fashion brand."
"Slow fashion, or as your grandparents used to call it, fashion," joked Bédat.
Today, buying ethically doesn't have to come at the expense of dressing stylishly and yet so many of us still don't make it a priority. Some consumers argue that eco-fashion is cost prohibitive — and yet, the luxury industry is seeing growth. Major design houses, which are already marking up their clothes by obscene margins, might at least justify their astronomic prices by adopting and promoting mindful manufacturing standards. When I interviewed him in December, New York designer John Patrick (his stunning eco-friendly line, Organic, is available at Barneys) gave me an example of what ethical higher-end fashion can cost: "Our industry can still produce a responsible, ethical sweater for $135 which can then retail for $300. We're actually capable of producing sweaters for much less, if you have the economy of scale."