Fashionopolis or Fashionflopolis? A review of Dana Thomas’ “Fashionopolis”


Dana Thomas’ “Fashionopolis”: The Price of Fast Fashion and The Future of Clothes”, reads as an exposé of the fast fashion industry. Written in 2019 in the unmistakable voice of a fashion journalist: technical and industrial knowledge mixed with the personal enthusiasm of someone who has devoted their life to the fashion world, this style translates well into a book. Eye-catching infographics burst on the inner cover, listing the fast fashion facts we all know and hate —“fewer than 2% of workers in the clothing industry earn the living wage”, “the clothing industry is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution”, “the average garment is worn just 7 times”.

Thomas doesn’t pretend to be perfect — she writes that she is wearing a tunic made in Bangladesh, ordered from a Facebook ad a few days prior. Exploring the hot topics associated with fast fashion, Fashionopolis also sheds light on pressing issues that aren’t in the mainstream discussion, such as the environmental impact of artificial indigo dye for denim, and the token value of safety regulations in factories, which flagrantly violate them. It opens with an account of Melania Trump’s infamous “I REALLY DON’T CARE DO U” Zara coat worn when visiting migrant children in a Texas detention centre, presenting this as a metaphor for the greater fast fashion system — sleek exteriors with their backs turned to those who suffer making garments.

Thomas tells the story of how we got to this point with succinctness and respect. She addresses the systems that allowed fast fashion to flourish — the overextended effects of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the common market aspirations of Reagan’s NAFTA, Arkwright’s devious creation of the mass production model from stolen patents, which kickstarted the Industrial Revolution.

She explores the glamorous and affordable appeal of offshoring at a time when the modern fashion industry was just beginning to toddle, and revisits it now, where, like a sour, arthritic elder, it’s past its prime. So many global giants were once family business, and Fashionopolis gives credit to the few, such as Levis, who are trying to scale back, through sourcing natural indigo for dyes and reshoring both production and innovation. It’s difficult, but it’s a start.

We follow Thomas from Ho Chi Minh City to the heart of Los Angeles, where she draws attention to the reality of illegal factory practices. She finds particular poignance in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory incident of 1911, the worst workplace disaster until 9/11, 90 years later.

She covers sustainable start-ups tentatively, with hope, but not without a level of separation and rationale. She writes wryly on Reformation, the trailblazer-turned-traitor of ethical clothing production, paying attention to its commendable yet suspicious aspiration to be “a sustainable fast fashion brand”.

Visits to high fashion traditions such as Première Vision (PV), expose how the fashion industry isn’t just fickle with its seasonal styles, but with its traditional structural makeup. When mentioned at the beginning PV seems like a fashion Mecca, but when Thomas visits in person it feels like everything is happening elsewhere. Thomas explores the new materials (like ECONYL, a regenerated nylon) and technological advancements in the fashion industry, such as Jeanologia, a three-step system of lasers, non-chemical fading and reduced-water washing invented as an alternative way of producing the most environmentally damaging item of clothing: the not-so-humble distressed jeans. She interviews Dita von Teese about her experience designing and modelling a 3D printed dress, who tells Thomas that it “did wondrous things for [her] boobs”. Who said sustainability can’t be sexy?

Perhaps writing a book on an issue is the most obvious way to increase your own consciousness and that of others, but Thomas’ exploration remains weirdly blind in places. As the book comes to a close, the investigative fabric of Fashionopolis begins to unravel like a cheaply made hem.

Thomas acknowledges the fashion industry’s immensely damaging effect on garment workers, and the creative and financial hurt felt by independent designers going to court to reclaim their stolen designs from megacorps, but her sympathy seems to lie with those struggling against the economy to provide the industry with organic materials. She does little to delve into the psyche and situation of the majority of consumers, writing reams about supply, and little about demand. She mentions, but doesn’t interrogate the idea of the “democratisation” of fashion, and in an entire chapter on cotton, there’s only one sentence on cotton-picking slaves. With regard to shopping second-hand, she talks exclusively about TheRealReal, an incredibly high-end website outside of most budgets, and ignores eBay and Depop - more pedestrian sites, but arguably the ones that have been the most revolutionary.

On her experience renting a Stella McCartney suit (the book itself reads as a Bible for a McCartney-based religion), she remarks that its retail price of €1750 is far beyond her budget, but renting it at €255, “was doable”. Maybe for her, but probably not for the majority of her readers. She expresses sadness at returning it after the rental period, but the final words of the book reassure her that “There would always be another”. I couldn’t help but feel that this misses the point. A want for more is part of the issue, and though clothing rental helps alleviate the slew of fast fashion, a more important lesson to learn is to look after the garments you own, and buy longer-lasting items if possible.

Criticism aside, I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone. It’s accessible, and chock full of statistics that illuminate an overwhelming global industry. It's hard to write omnisciently about such a gargantuan topic, but I think it does a good job of covering most bases. Though imperfect, it’s a start.

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