Academic journal article Geography

Ugly Beautiful? Counting the Cost of the Global Fashion Industry

Academic journal article Geography

Ugly Beautiful? Counting the Cost of the Global Fashion Industry

Article excerpt


This article asks you to think geographically about fashion. We all wear clothes, but how often do we reflect on who makes our clothes, where and under what conditions? Why do we buy and wear the clothes we do and how often do we think about where the value lies in a garment? Why do the phrases 'Made in Italy' and 'Made in China' have such different connotations? How can a child in Cambodia working in a denim factory have any geographical connection to a Prada store on Bond Street? The following article argues for a relational approach to the study of fashion, one that brings these complex connections between production, branding, retailing and wearing into simultaneous and mutually constitutive view. The article shows how the global maps of clothing supply and retailing expose our complicity as consumers in the production of deeply unequal geographies of fashion.


'In 1997 Nguyen Thi Thu Phuong died in Vietnam while making Nike trainers. She was struck in the heart by a piece of shrapnel that flew out of a sewing machine' (Mclntyre, 2006).

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 (BBC News, 2006).

In August 2008 the summer Olympic Games will be hosted by Beijing, China. The Olympic Games are the most effective international corporate marketing platform in the world (Playfair, 2008).

In September 2008, international Fashion Weeks will take place in Milan, Paris, New York and London.

What unites these seemingly unconnected events that span continents and decades, and speak of both death and celebration, the individual and the crowd, labour and leisure? The answer 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 clotheshanger 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 ever to come to fruition, to the under-paid and over-worked shop assistant in Primark, 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.

Framing fashion geographically

But why does fashion matter geographically and why might we as geographers be interested in it? It is undeniable that fashion has had a difficult time breaking into the discipline of geography. The icon of shabby non-style, the geography teacher in his (for, traditionally, he was a man) corduroy jacket with patched elbows and 'practical' footwear, was always rather more rivers than River Island, more meteorology than metrosexual. The preoccupation of a largely male collective of economic geographers with the 'real' business of industry and finance meant that the geographies of fashion and consumption were neglected, pushed to the intellectual margins and deemed trivial, superfluous or even wanton. Those geographers who did engage with questions of fashion typically framed their enquiries in terms of retail geography, looking at catchment areas, drive-times or the modelling of store location. Argued to be an introverted, under-theorised segment of economic geography, retail geography was blinkered and seemingly oblivious to developments outside its selfcontained, applied and largely descriptive or predictive loop (Blomley, 1996, p. 238).

But there are signs that this is changing as academics acknowledge the economic, political, cultural and symbolic significance of fashion. …

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