Toronto Fashion Week 2013 has got everyone talking about Joe Fresh. The Canadian clothing line, designed by Joe Mimran, has been praised for being wearable, inexpensive, and even “cool.” The Star newspaper expresses admiration for the fact that “one of Fashion Week’s hottest tickets is a show about ultimately disposable clothes you can buy in a supermarket.” Apparently Mimran is considered a genius for having figured out how to commodify fashion: “T-shirts are really no different than cabbages and soap when it comes to the bottom line.” Maybe disposable supermarket fashion appeals to some people, but I find it rather troublesome.
The last time Joe Fresh featured so prominently in the news was following the Bangladeshi garment factory collapse last April. Over 1,100 workers died in a building that produced Joe Fresh’s clothing line, but at least the company promised to sign a legally binding accord to improve fire and building safety, provide proper inspections and training, and give workers the right to refuse unsafe work. It was a progressive demonstration of corporate responsibility, assuming everything goes according to plan.
Less impressive, however, was Mimran’s attitude about Bangladesh when he was interviewed backstage on Wednesday. His runway show was one day earlier than the six-month anniversary of the factory collapse, and yet he sounded oddly flippant about it:
“When you’re in this creative mode, you’re in this creative mode. That’s sort of business production and you can’t focus on that, you’ve got to focus on the creative. You can become overwhelmed with thoughts of [Bangladesh]. You don’t want that creeping into your thinking.”
(No, of course not, Joe, because heaven forbid that guilt should impede your creative genius and, by extension, people’s ability to buy cheap new shirts on a whim when passing between the condiments and toilet paper aisles of the supermarket.)
When asked if he has any intention of visiting Joe Fresh’s factories in Bangladesh, Mimran replied, “We have such a big team of people; that’s what they do.” I understand that Mimran hires people to do certain jobs, but when the creative designer and CEO of a company doesn’t show the slightest inclination to visit the scene of his own factory where one of the worst tragedies in industrial history has recently taken place, or even want to think about it because it may interrupt his personal flow of creative juices, I can’t help but feel disappointed.
Mimran’s nonchalance about Bangladesh dishonors the memory of all the people who died. Consumers can also show respect by paying more for better-quality clothes. Cheap goods ride on hard lives. “Our insatiable demand for variety and novelty,” says New Yorker business analyst James Surowiecki, accounts for a work environment in which “safety becomes an afterthought at best.” North American apparel prices have dropped over the past two decades, compared to food prices, which have risen by 82%.
Talking about a human tragedy would definitely ruin the celebratory mood at Fashion Week, but shoving it under the rug is worse. Signing accords is a good thing, but an even more basic step toward changing our currently unsustainable and unethical global clothing industry is to start respecting and acknowledging the people who make our clothes.