Archive for September 2017


18 September 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 18 September 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
Fashion Week has just finished. I always find it very exciting. Have you ever sat in the front row? More than anything in the world, I want to sit next to Anna Wintour and for her to turn to me and ask, “What do you think?”

As the renowned German model and host of Project Runway Heidi Klum likes to say about the fashion industry, “One day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out”. Fashion is a constantly changing cut-throat industry that creates unusual social phenomena from top to bottom.

The worldwide fashion industry is estimated to be worth US$3 trillion (RM12.6 trillion), employing at least 60 million people. Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest clothing manufacturer with over 80% of its GDP coming from ready-made garments and where women are making their own money, which creates its own social issues in a traditional society. The Bangladesh knitwear sector alone is worth US$31.2 billion and that’s only 40% of the industry total, so the humble cotton T-shirt must be worth a lot more. The machines are humming and the working conditions are probably not so great in Bangladesh, Mauritius, Southern Africa and throughout the world, but China is the behemoth, accounting for over 40% of global exports worth US$274 billion in 2013.

But in fashion, one minute you’re in, and the next you’re out. China’s return as a textile manufacturer for the global market is a relatively recent thing, but its allure as a source for cheap labour diminishes every day as it becomes a victim of its own success. People do not want to work in a sweatshop if they can possibly help it and the world is big enough and poor enough that there will always be a cheaper alternative, but it’s hard to imagine that the rest of the world could supply China’s sheer volume that has helped make the shops awash with cheap clothes.

I was in Shanghai for a year recently because my wife was working there and I was surprised by the amount of clothing shops. Presumably much of the goods “fell off the back of a lorry”, as dodgy London street traders like to say, but there was so much available for people whose parents had lived through the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution. Warehouses and boutiques were filled with clothes that were so affordable that it made people feel richer than they actually were. I grew up in a long ago time when China did not even exist and when cheap clothes were made in Hong Kong, so I am still conditioned to think of clothes as being a major expense that is only made occasionally. But now it’s possible for young people on a tight budget to buy clothes from a reputable global brand, even if the goods were pilfered from the factory. I recently went to some economically deprived parts of Britain far from the London that makes the nation’s money (until it leaves after Brexit). Many of the High Street shops were boarded up, several were second-hand charity shops and one would sell things for a pound. The British retail sector looked grim and threadbare, but standing out like beacons of civilisation there would always be recognised clothing brands with affordable clothes, courtesy of China.

I was in Venice recently and I kept seeing Chinese people who looked very settled. There were two very cute little Chinese girls happily pushing their scooters along the crowded alleyways eating gelato and nattering to each other in Italian. What were they doing in Venice, I wondered. Over the last ten years, a lot of Southern Chinese have moved to Italy to work in the garment industry, with 50,000 in Prato near Florence alone. They have supplied the cheap labour that has made it possible for clothes to be labelled as “Made in Italy”. Many of the companies are Chinese, so are these Italian clothes, or Chinese?

It looks like the Chinese in Venice have graduated from the garment industry and are now running restaurants. I went to one by accident. The waiter was Italian, a rarity in Venice where most of the waiters were Bangladeshi, and the food was Italian, but then the chef and owner came out, and he was Chinese. The food was okay and I don’t know if it was my imagination but it tasted kind of Chinese. I think my spaghetti was cooked in a wok. I love Chinese food but, heck, I was in Italy.

Sixty million people work in the globalised garment industry in grubby, noisy and sometimes dangerous conditions and unusual new communities are constantly being created. It is an unglamorous world but standing at the industry’s apex is the absolute epitome of glamour: Fashion Week, where twice a year, eyes turn to Paris and Milan as the new season’s new clothes are unveiled on the flashbulbing catwalk. This is it. The industry will not collapse if the collections are rubbish because people will always need clothes, but this is where designers fight for their slice of the US$3 trillion. And at the apex of the apex are the handful of seats at the foot of the catwalk. Who will be sitting in the front row next to Anna Wintour and her enormous sunglasses? This will be a starlet’s brief moment in the sun as the legendary editor of Vogue ponders who will be in and who will be out.

But even illustrious and ancient Vogue magazine finds itself in difficult times as it struggles for readership in the internet age where a 16-year-old YouTuber could find herself carrying more influence, if only for one season. Just as clothes are no longer made in Hong Kong and China might lose its manufacturing edge to Vietnam, it is always possible that a seeming mainstay such as Vogue could lose its power. It’s hard to imagine and I have no idea what could ever fill that vacuum, but it is possible because in fashion, one minute you’re in, and the next, you’re out.

Reprinted with the kind permission of