‘If you were looking at merchandise in stores in the Western world, whether in Europe, the US, or Canada, you began to see more and more labels that weren’t made locally—they were made elsewhere…and we became very cognizant of the fact.’
This is what Myrna B. Garner, co-author of Going Global: The Textile and Apparel Industry (2nd edition, just published), told me in a recent interview on the global fashion industry and Asia’s role in it.
And I remember the exact time she describes here. It was in the early 1990s, growing up on the west coast of Canada, that I really became aware of the term ‘sweatshop’ and the implications of phrases like ‘made in China.’ This is when I properly understood the extent to which clothing was often coming from overseas—and that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
‘People Weren’t Sewing at Home Anymore’
Garner, a former Fulbright Scholar and consultant with the United Nations on developing employment opportunities for women, explained that for her, signs of change came a lot earlier. The first was when she was just starting her career as a high school home economics teacher in the US, instructing students on how to sew: ‘I very quickly found out that people weren’t sewing at home anymore, that they were buying their clothes and I’d better find out how (this now) worked.’
So Garner went into the study of design and manufacturing, eventually moving to university level in the late 1970s, where her research interests then shifted to the global economy and ‘the social and political aspects of global trade in textiles and apparel.’
To underscore just how dramatic the shift in fashion consumption by the West has been over the past few decades, Garner shared an American example: Back in the mid-1960s ‘when President Kennedy was still around,’ she recalled, there was a piece of legislation that went through Congress, which made it so that up to five percent of all apparel sold in the US could be imported. Well, as it stands now, according to statistics from the American Apparel and Footwear Association, that figure is over 95 percent. 'Ninety-five percent of the apparel sold in the United States today is imported from someplace around the world…and over 98 percent of our shoes.’
Big Change for Western Designers, Too
Garner believes that in terms of clothing production, changes had already begun just after World War II, although real and noticeable change began after ‘the opening up of China.’
She pointed out that while North America does continue to import some clothing from South America and Central America, it’s mostly still coming from China and Hong Kong, along also with some from Indonesia. And she noted that the regions growing most in the East in terms of clothing production are Vietnam and Bangladesh, along with, to some degree, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Garner explained that in the end, the reason why Asia has become the hub for clothing production over the past half century is simply because, ‘when it comes to the know-how of putting fashion goods together, and having the technology and the bulk of labour that was trained, it was coming in from Asia.’
And with the introduction of the computer and widespread use of the Internet, Garner explained, the West’s fashion scene changed dramatically again. This impacted not just Western consumers, but producers as well.
For fashion designers in the United States, for example, the picture is a lot different than in the past. Nowadays, designers have to depend on others, based overseas, and their management skills. She explained, ‘You can’t encourage (fashion designers) to design clothes and manufacture them here when the reality is that 95 percent of what people are going to be buying is going to be coming from offshore.’ Sure, the designs themselves might be made at home, but since most of the work is being done in China, Garner explains, a problem designers will inevitably face is figuring out how to ‘find a factory someplace in a country of over a billion people.’
The Fast Fashion Factor
A relatively new but important change in global fashion also is the emergence of fast fashion, a global phenomenon that began to gain momentum in the late 1990s and then which simply exploded in the early 21st century in the West. It's exactly as its name implies: designs that move from the catwalk to the store in the fastest possible time period. (And for the most part, offering much cheaper prices.) Think H&M, Forever 21, Zara.
And now, despite the global recession and many reports calling for its early demise, it’s still going strong and expanding into Asian markets such as Japan, South Korea—even India (another fascinating development which I’ll be writing more about in the near future). In the meantime, there's a great piece from the New Zealand Herald from late last year discussing fast fashion and calling it ‘the popcorn of the garment industry. Or maybe the fish and chips,’ noting that while it’s ‘tasty’ and ‘cheap,’ ‘it's not particularly nutritious and nor is it good for you.’
So what does Garner, a true industry veteran, think about fast fashion? She describes it as something ‘incredible, a whole new world,’ in which turnover went from the traditional calendar of a one-year design-to-delivery retail period to 16 weeks or less for fast fashion production. ‘No wonder this stuff looks disposable. Because making it that fast and getting it shipped? I mean, it takes just so long to get it someplace, to physically move it and get it through customs,’ she explained.
Just as rapidly as the global economy and patterns of consumption are changing, so is the fashion industry. And poised as one of the most dynamic regions in the world, there's likely still much more change to come for Asia.