I’m a big magazine whore. I know that I’m killing trees, but I don’t have an iPad, and I just love picking up a stack of glossies, flipping through them to be inspired and educated. (Then I recycled them.)
Well, mostly. I know to take the spreads in the back with a hefty grain of nobody-actually-dresses-like-this salt. (My hypothesis is that this is why street style has become so popular–women want to see how to dress. Literally, not figuratively.) I read the gushing recommendations of the latest beauty product skeptically. Frankly, I’m searching for the rare glimmer of conscious fashion, a nod toward products that don’t have cancer. Marie Claire covers a different ethical designer each month, which is fabulous. Sometimes Allure will throw in a non-toxic beauty product. The rest of the magazines are like, “What? Slave wages? Carcinogens? Formaldehyde on clothing? Look over there! Sequins!” So I’m kind of used to it.
But I got fed up this weekend, flipping through Elle. They ran a piece on Gap’s new head designer, Rebekka Bay, and it was typical women’s mag stuff. How great she is, oh her vision is so wonderful, a fluffy quote here and there. Fine. The author of the piece is adamant that Gap is moving away from fast fashion. OK, so the next question obviously is whether it will move away from fast fashion manufacturing practices. Right?
So, when I got to the end with nary a subtle illusion to Gap’s stubborn refusal to face its moral complicity in tragedy, I was like, “I’m sorry, did we all forget that Gap refuses to take any responsibility for terrible conditions in Bangladesh? That they won’t sign an accord taking responsibility for any future huge disasters? That they just don’t care?” I’m sorry if I sound a little cranky or shrill, but I’m a little bit frustrated.
Here’s what I know:
- Gap manufactures in Bangladesh, and its garments were found in a fatal factory fire about three years ago.
- A consortium of retailers set up a relief fund for people affected by the Rana Plaza collapse. Gap refuses to participate.
- Gap’s main factory beats its workers, makes them work 100 hours a week and pays them so little they run out of money for food by the third week of the month.
- Gap is part of a group of companies, including Walmart, that is coming up with weak, self-policing safety standards but skirting any real responsibility for the people who make its clothes.
- Just yesterday, Gap was voted the worst corporation of 2013 in the Public Eye Awards.
Seriously, I would have been satisfied with one little question, say, “When asked about Gap’s plans for moving away from fast fashion manufacturing techniques which put workers’ safety at risk–a hot topic since the factory collapse in Bangladesh that claimed over 1,000 lives–Bay said she could not comment except to say that the company is working diligently on coming up with safety precautions and better inspections.” That’s it! I would totally allow a dodge, as long as Elle at least planted that little seed in readers’ heads.
Women’s magazines are often made fun of by the intellectual elite for being out-of-touch and shallow, especially here in New York. Once you meet the people who work at Hearst and Condé Nast, you realize they are not Kate Hudson-like goddesses traipsing around in a fairyland, dispensing fashion wisdom. They’re people like you and me, who have to keep advertisers happy, have not-so-big budgets for shopping, and get free beauty swag with the understanding they will pimp it out to readers. I wonder how reasonable it is to expect a women’s magazine to ask hard questions of a fashion brand or do “real” journalism outside of the basic “women’s issues.” (Contraception, sexual harassment, women in the military, women in politics, women in non-profits, etc.) It’s easy to write a story about online stalkers; online stalkers won’t be taking out a spread advertisement, or inviting you to NYFW.
But whether you think Cosmo is doing a disservice to women everywhere or not, these are influential brands. They determine (or at least try to in the age of media segmentation) what the trends are, what diets are healthy, what women’s issues we should advocate for, what we should wear, what we should look like. And they definitely determine how we should shop.
It just seems old-fashioned to continue to breathlessly celebrate, season after season, an industry that actually kills people, when it’s not poisoning and slowly starving them. Wouldn’t it be weird if a women’s mag ran a spread extolling how lovely the latest season of cocaine is? Fashion issues are women’s issues. It seems weird to gush over Lauren Bush’s Feed brand, and in the next breath gush over a brand that pays slave wages. Two sides of the same coin.
I’m not asking for much. I’m not saying that fashion in of itself is worthless and that we can’t enjoy it. Fashion and beauty bring me great pleasure. But when you are in a position of power, it would behoove you to acknowledge the reality, especially when it is so germane to the topic of the article.
So I wrote a letter to the editor:
I was extremely disappointed in your February profile of Gap’s new designer, Rebekka Bay. While I’m excited by the vision and energy she brings to the brand, you failed to address the elephant in the room: Will Gap ever own up to its role in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh? Swanson says herself she doesn’t want the iconic brand to be fast fashion. A good place to start would be to pay living wages, one idea Swanson could do well to bring with her from H&M, who is at least trying. The fact that the profile never even alludes to Gap’s shameful behavior is, in my opinion, just bad journalism. We live in a world now where looks are nice, but it’s what inside that counts too. Fashion included.