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The future of fashion: Complex, diverse, and more vocal than ever
Few readers will recognize the woman on the cover of Business of Fashion's print edition this month. She's not a model, she's not a designer, she is not the leader of a luxury conglomerate. Kalpona Akter is a former child worker from Bangladesh.
Akter, now an activist fighting for what she calls "jobs with dignity," began working in a garment factory aged 12 after her father (the family's sole earner) suffered a stroke. She remembers her first day vividly -- the sound of the machines and shouting voices were frightening. On a video call from Dhaka, she recounted having "never seen so many people in one place before."
Fast-forward a couple of years and her fear had evolved into activism. By the age of 14, she was campaigning on the factory floor. By 17, it was her bosses who were the fearful ones. They fired her for being a troublemaker and tried to get other factories to blacklist her. This move proved to be short-sighted -- on their part, at least -- as it only served to propel Akter into a far more powerful position. The 42-year-old is now the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
By her own estimate, she represents some four million people at the bottom of the fashion supply chain -- many of them whom labor in conditions that would shock those working in the industry in New York, London, Paris or Milan.
Minimum wage for garment factory workers in Bangladesh is currently around $68 per month. She is campaigning to get this up to $200 by the end of the year, while simultaneously battling issues around economic freedom for women, violence and mistreatment on the factory floor.
Fashion's complex ecosystem
Akter is one of four people to appear on the front cover of Business of Fashion's (BoF) cover this month, which reveals the title's annual BoF 500 list. Now in its sixth year, the list has come to serve as the definitive guide to the people shaping fashion today.
Akter and her fellow cover stars provide a snapshot of where the industry is trying -- slowly, but perhaps more surely than in previous years -- to go. As a set, they attempt to offer a more accurate picture of the global fashion industry's complex ecosystem.
Completing the line-up are: Francois Henri-Pinault, CEO of Kering, a luxury group that owns brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga; the young Yara Shahidi, an actress, model, activist and student in her first year at Harvard; and Virgil Abloh, the first ever black artistic director at Louis Vuitton.
In a note announcing this year's cover stars, BoF founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed described 2018 as "harrowing," referencing sexual misconduct (allegations against photographers Mario Testino, Bruce Weber and Patrick Demarchelier have all surfaced this year) and ongoing gender inequality issues, as well as the conditions and pay of workers in the industry.
Speaking from his office before the list was announced, Amed admitted that the selection process was troubling this year.
"In such a difficult year, what was there to celebrate?" he said. "In previous years, the BoF 500 has been a huge celebration for the fashion industry. But this year, in particular, we wanted to put our lens on the people who are attacking and addressing some of these issues head on.
"And so it's a celebration, but it's a celebration of the people who are emblematic of the change that we need to see in fashion."
The other BoF cover stars have different, but perhaps no less pressing, concerns about the state of the industry. At the other end of the supply chain, Pinault sees an inability to look ahead as a major threat.
"The biggest risk for the luxury industry, as for many others, is short-term thinking," he said. "It's good to run a flourishing business now, but what about tomorrow?
"As business leaders, we have a responsibility towards our shareholders, clients and other stakeholders -- as well as to the planet -- to consider long-term issues and to try to anticipate possible risks, even if they seem extremely hypothetical. For example, what if one day we could no longer use leather? Or cotton?"
BoF 500 veteran Alexa Chung (she was added to the list in 2013), a model who recently started her own label, has similar fears about the sustainability of fashion.
"The most pressing issue for me right now is the environmental impact of fashion on the planet," she wrote in an email. "I believe we have reached a stage where companies can no longer blithely plough on doing what we do without educating ourselves about how our businesses could run in a less harmful way.
"We need to advocate a circular economy by informing and engaging with our customer base and encouraging them to reconsider the consumption of a garment or accessory. We should search for solutions to collect items back, for materials to be re-used, for customers to find and use platforms to re-sell their used garments... the list goes on."
But the problems facing the fashion industry are vast and complex. Action that furthers one cause -- such as reducing consumption -- may hinder another. When asked about the messages she wanted people to hear the loudest right now, Akter said: "Keep buying clothes!"
After the Rana Plaza disaster five years ago -- where more than 1,000 workers lost their lives after a nine-story factory building collapsed suddenly in Dhaka -- it's easy to understand how consumers might feel conflicted. Should they stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh? No, said Akter. Her message is to buy responsibly, and to demand more from brands. In her opinion, the power of the consumers' collective voice must be deployed.
Visibility, voice and sustained positive change
There are countless other challenges for the industry to address. Racism, unconscious bias and the use of fur and other animal-made materials are just some of the issues at play. It's also widely believed within the fashion world that we can expect more painful revelations to contribute to the #MeToo movement. So back to Amed's question: What is there to celebrate?
Visibility. The fact that Akter features on one of BoF's covers is powerful, as is the notable number of non-white cover stars featured across major fashion magazines, from Vogue to Elle, this September (a fashion magazine's September issue is traditionally regarded as the most important of the year).
Virgil Abloh's outlook is also gently uplifting. The 37-year-old Ghanaian-American certainly has reason to be positive about the year so far: In June, he presented his debut collection for Louis Vuitton (aptly titled "We Are the World"), having been named the brand's artistic director of menswear in March.
"I'm an eternal optimist," said Abloh during a phone interview on the day his cover was announced. "A lot of the things we didn't believe were possible, in terms of access, design and voice, proved to be possible this year."
Abloh, a trained architect, practicing artist and creative director of his own label, Off-White, is the first black designer to hold such a position at the French fashion house. His appointment was another promising step towards greater diversity and inclusion within the industry, and his debut post-show runway walk, in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris, had everyone in attendance on their feet. Some -- including Abloh himself -- were visibly overcome with emotion.
The drive for diversity stretches beyond race. At 3 feet 5 inches tall, Sinead Burke, who recently became a contributing editor at Vogue, joins the BoF 500 list for the first time.
From a young age, Burke saw how powerful fashion could be, in terms of building confidence and empowerment. But she consistently felt left out. In order to address the difficulties faced by disabled people who want to engage with fashion, Burke advocates for the inclusion of more voices. In her opinion, the solution is not to "design for" but to "design with."
"When we're trying to build solutions to the challenges that exist within product, or within architecture, or fashion, often the assumption is that those in power still have all the solutions," she said during an interview in London. "But actually what we really need is collaboration. (We need to bring) those who are most affected, who have lived the experience, to the table."
Abloh, seems determinedly focused on youth. His most pressing issue is giving more young creative people a voice. He wants to see more people trained and supported so that they can help "modernize the system."
This year's BoF 500 list appears to reflect a similar sentiment, with less of a focus on established talent, and more emphasis on the "new vanguard," as Amed put it. Three scientists are included on this yea's list (Ingvar Helgason, Andras Forgacs and Dan Widmaeir), recognized for using technology to find solutions to fashion's sustainability issues. Musician Troye Sivan also made the cut. The 23-year-old singer-song-writer has become a Gen Z queer icon, talking openly about gay sex in his latest single "Bloom."
Much like Abloh's outlook, the list -- and the atmosphere around it -- feels cautiously hopeful. If 2018 was a year of ups and downs, a year of reckoning, perhaps the next 12 months will be defined by increased visibility and inclusion, more demand for accountability from business owners, and a sustained trajectory of positive change.