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In Search of Ethical Gladrags

Is a locally manufactured wardrobe possible?

By Vanessa Richmond 17 Mar 2006 |

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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While reading the 100-mile diet series, I got to thinking about my other material indulgences. If food typically travels between 2,500 and 4,000 miles before it ends up on our plate, clothes are even farther wanderers. Hong Kong, where many of BC's clothes are made, is 6378 miles (10,265 km) from Vancouver, and that's not even counting the distance the fabric travels to get from the mill to the factory, or the distance the fibers travel from their source to the mill.

Sure, the fossil fuel use (never mind chemicals, dyes, resource consumption and manufacturing conditions) should have been what made me want to go local. But I have to admit, that came later (more on that in a minute). But it did cause Dorothy Woodend and I to set ourselves a challenge. This spring and summer, we'd outfit ourselves entirely in locally designed and manufactured clothes.

Wearing Vancouver's local designs isn't a difficult plan. Sarah Murray a local fashion PR, says there are easily over 300 local designers in her database. But she certainly paused for a moment when I said we wanted them manufactured locally, too.

Even though I'm a fan of many local designers, I knew that by adding the "locally made" rule, the list of possibilities was quite a bit shorter, so I had some apprehensions: would the clothes would be very time consuming to find, more expensive, a strange fit?

Slow clothes movement

So I was relieved to find company on my quest. Angela Murrills, the fashion writer for the Georgia Straight, coined the term "slow clothes movement" to describe it. "We Slow Fooders like to shop at the U-pick source or at farmers markets not just because that's where we find the freshest possible produce but because we can be sure where it comes from. We usually meet the person or people responsible, and we get the glow that comes from knowing we're actively supporting the local economy by paying our money to nearby producers rather than large transglobal corporations. It's exactly the same with clothes."

For me, there's another reason that makes me want to shop small. A phobia, actually. I'm cringing, but I'll explain.

When I was little, I had a dream I was trapped in a mall overnight. I think I was actually wrapped up in a roll of carpet, but that's another story. But now, when I go into those airless, windowless spaces, and get overheated and disoriented, I start to wonder what would happen if I never got out. It's not a far fetch - where are those darned doors to the street and why do I always have to go through an over-perfumed, blindingly bright department store cosmetics section to get to them?

Unpleasant, mass shopping experiences are why I often stick to vintage clothing stores, and I've met an increasing number of people who feel the same way. But while nothing can compare to the thrill of the hunt for good used items, and despite my guilt, I can't give up new clothes.

Until grade school, my mom used to handmake most of our clothes out of natural fibres, so of course I took these for granted. But my grandmother's closet was full of hundreds of shiny polyester blouses and pants (she loved the mall). I used to run my hand along them and wish I, too, could enjoy the endless visceral pleasures and vanities of cheap clothes.

Instead, when my sister and I were given small clothing allowances, my mom would always suggest we get one item we'd never tire of. When we came home with it, we'd have to put it on, and she and my dad would make a big fuss. So clothes for me are about enjoyment, socializing and performance.

My other excuse is that clothes, trendy ones in particular, are about participating in culture. This season's whimsical white lace Victorian blouses are partly about reaction against the grungy, bohemian sensibility of last summer and all it stood for. While l might not be discussing that specifically when I wear lace, I like the dialogue. But I'd rather be discussing that locally.

Alone in my shirt

I'm in good company, apparently. There's an increasing number of locally made lines available and increasing demand for them. "A few years ago, people didn't want handmade or locally made," says Stephanie Ostler from Devil May Wear who makes each item in her line herself. ("It's insane," she says, rolling her eyes.) But now, after demands from clients, she's put the words "handmade" and "local" on her tags. Soucie's line, among others, reassured me that locally made clothes can be as affordable or even less expensive than their competitors on Robson Street.

Like Soucie, Jenny Yen from Hylas & Nymph manufactures locally, partly because she doesn't produce the volume to manufacture overseas. In a local factory, minimums are low: only 100 of each style. Overseas factories usually require at least 1000. And there's an advantage to that. "Anything where you're producing more than 100 means you won't see anyone else around town wearing one. Aritizia might make 1000-4000 and you'll definitely see someone else on Robson wearing it."

Yen likes that with local manufacturing, she can respond to trends faster and also produce more of a certain style if it sells well. That means there's less cost and less risk, and therefore young designers like her can survive.

But some designers want to stay as small as possible. Nathalee Paolinelli of Parade Around works full time as a tech support clerk in a high tech firm and designs clothes at night and on weekends. She creates tailored shirts and also t-shirt silk screen patterns. "This summer, my plan is to do only one-offs," she explains, "it's fun to have a shirt no one else has."

Control freaks

Erin Templeton makes a line of handbags and has more than enough volume to contract out, but doesn't. Instead, Templeton makes each of her bags herself on an industrial Singer machine, in a tiny room in Chinatown. "You lose a lot when you send it out. They go 'If you do it this way instead it saves 10 minutes,' which is a lot of time over 100 bags. But then suddenly, it has no personality. It also makes it much easier to rip off the design, because it's more generic." She says her relationships are "all suffering," but she can't give it up.

But despite the fact that she can't keep up with demand, it's hard for her to survive due to Vancouverites' thrifty natures. Here, retailers mark up her leather bags by 100 percent (the standard fashion retail mark up), selling them for between $150 and $400, which is the most the market will tolerate. That's quite a low hourly wage, believe it or not. In New York, retailers mark her bags up 250 percent, in Tokyo, 300 percent and they sell easily.

Jason Matlo doesn't make his own clothes, but uses a local factory. Tanya Kim from eTalk daily just wore one of his dresses to the Academy Awards a couple of weeks ago and he's sometimes considered Canada's best young designer. For him, local manufacturing is about control and quality. He's been happy with the factory he uses here. "Really happy."

But unlike with many local designers, the fact that he manufactures locally isn't important to his clients. "If they're buying a $2000 coat, what matters is quality." Does this show local manufacturing is here at the highest level?

Denim discords

Just when I was feeling euphoric, I hit my first snag: jeans. There are several local designers, but no local manufacturers. Jeans would only make a 25-35 percent gross margin if made locally, but a 50-75 percent gross margin when made overseas. Translation: "No jeans company could survive," says Jodie Uyede from Fidelity Jeans which uses Japanese denim and manufactures in China.

Another local jeans designer, Jennifer Shah from Pimlico which makes the Dish line, says that while their jeans sell for $88, they could cost as much as $400 if they manufactured locally (that is, if there were factories that could sew them).

Why? "If you make a little fashion top, we're taking about four operations. With jeans, there are 62 sewing operations. With automation, that takes 12 minutes, but you need very specific equipment, and no one in Canada has it. Then what really takes the time is finishing: that can take one to five hours by hand for things like hand-sanding and whiskering." They do some of the finishing here, but none of the sewing.

After speaking to about thirty designers, I've been frustrated at times with not being able to find the types of items I was looking for (like that lacy Victorian blouse), but surprised by others I wasn't expecting (like some silk screened, handmade t-shirts). I've chosen two tops and a handbag. Now, I need to decide if I can compromise my rules to get the most local pair of jeans possible or if I'll need to strike my mainstay from my wardrobe. Can I be a slightly guilty ethical clothes horse?

Vanessa Richmond is the assistant editor of The Tyee. For more information about locally manufactured clothes, visit Fashion High, BALLE BC's non-profit network of local and sustainable designers.

The Gladrags series will run every two weeks on The Tyee. Still to come: the politics of overseas manufacturing, sustainable fabrics, and the psychology of fashion.  [Tyee]

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