In Conversation With

"Louis Vuitton is like McDonalds"

Dana Thomas talks to Object about the harmful effect of fast fashion and what we can do to mitigate it.

Words by:


Fast Fashion

April 13, 2023

We have enough clothes on the planet to dress people for centuries to come. If we stop making clothes today, we won’t run out of clothes for a couple of generations.

Dana Thomas began her career at the Style section of The Washington Post in the late 1980s, back when the great fashion houses were still intimate and family-owned. Her three books, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano; and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster trace the transformation of these companies into multi-million-dollar giants with questionable practices, and take readers beyond the glitz of the runway to the Chinese factories employing children. Thomas talks to Object about fashion’s connection with the environment, the enduring appeal of Chanel and why most luxury today is “mass-produced junk”. Excerpts:

The fashion industry is a horrendous polluter. To what extent do you hold petroleum-based synthetics like polyester responsible?

More than two-thirds of our clothes today are either made of plastic or contain plastic, which is what polyester and nylon are. It’s an enormous problem. Companies are sourcing so much polyester to keep costs down and make more profits as opposed to using noble fabrics or natural fibres such as silk, cotton, wool, linen, and hemp that biodegrade. [These] are not made by pumping oil from the core of the earth, giving rise to enormous pollution in their processing, and then never biodegrading.

While there are plenty of circularity solutions for existing polyester and nylon, at some point we need to stop making new polyester and nylon. There are a lot of petroleum companies who say we have to stop fossil fuels by 2050 but they’re starting new drilling fields when we have enough now to last us until 2050.

JoB Shop

fashioned anew

When the looms in Govind Ram's village shut down, he developed a new product using scraps from Surat's fast fashion factories.

Object's chindi rugs made on a handloom in Kota, Rajasthan
No items found.

How is fast fashion connected to fossil fuels?

Fossil fuel materials are the cheapest materials. Everybody is trying to cut their costs to the bare minimum so that they can squeeze as much profit as possible out of every item sold. That’s why they pay their workers pennies or source their workers from Ethiopia where they pay twenty-eight or thirty dollars a month. They use the cheapest fabrics possible, they use the cheapest thread possible. If polyester costs two and cotton costs twenty-two, of course you’re going with polyester and you’re still going to sell for hundred. That’s why Bernard Arnault [owner of Louis Vuitton] and the family that owns Zara are amongst the richest people in the world. There is a lot of polyester at Dior, too, including the thread.

Can technology reverse the damage?

Well, it is solving [the problem] we have with existing petroleum-based fabrics. But the perfect solution is taking pre-Industrial Revolution ideas and melding them with technology. So you can use beautiful cotton but sew with a sewing machine; or use beautiful silk but manage to create the silk without having to kill all the silkworms; or grow hemp and linen in a really responsible way. Take these old ways of doing things and work with them, as opposed to replacing them.

Do you see a solution in the farm-fabric-atelier model?

I do. In fact, the whole slow fashion movement is based on that idea.

Traditionally, India followed this model. You’re still able to trace the farmer, spinner, weaver, block printer, and tailor. But the craft industry is dwindling, as workers don’t find it socially or economically rewarding. With the Western push towards sustainability, can Indian artisans and crafts be elevated?

Everybody is trying to cut their costs to the bare minimum so that they can squeeze as much profit as possible out of every item sold.

But most of it, if you look at Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger, it’s all made in Bangladesh. The same factories that make H&M. So what are you paying for? You’re paying for Tommy Hilfiger’s fifth house.
The chindi rug, elusive in the picture, framing the Bombay Stock Exchange building on Dalal Street. Shot by Hunar Daga.

It’s a great point. In America, there has been a [cultural] pivot with young people returning to handicrafts and farming. They are tired of sitting in cubicles, in badly lit rooms staring at computers. They thought it was a cool modern life, they spent their money going to the gym to stay in shape because they were sitting at their desk staring at a computer. Now they’re saying "No. I want to be outside. I want to work with my hands, and I want to do meditation." People are going back to needlework and carpentry. They can also charge a much higher amount for this kind of work and make a better living.

Where do you see these changes?

In farming heritage organic vegetables and fruit or making beautifully crafted beer and wine. There is definitely this movement in the US, and it is finally coming to Europe. I’m hoping this will elevate the [demand for] craftsmanship which will then support countries like India, where it still exists though it is not as plentiful as it used to be. Maybe this trend will keep carrying on around the world and we will return not only to a backlash against globalization but a backlash against the tech revolution. Part of that might be sitting around doing needlework, which is great.

Back in the 1980s, Taroni made gorgeous silk in Italy for houses like Versace and Gaultier which, when they ran advertisements, always bore the name of Taroni as well. With the corporatisation of fashion, artisans disappeared from the picture. Today, a lot of Western embroidery is done in India with little to no recognition.

That’s why Chanel is so great: they bought these purveyors and they’re helping them continue. When they do their show in December, it’s all about celebrating those companies – Maison Michel’s hats and embroidery by Lesage – on their credit sheets. They are one of the few who are doing that and that’s also because they own the companies.

So yes, it’s true. It’s just about branding now. It’s not about credit for what work’s been done. They just want to be seen as omnipotent global brands like McDonalds. I remember when I compared Louis Vuitton to McDonalds, the CEO [of LV] got furious and I said: ‘But listen, your approach to branding is exactly the same. McDonalds doesn’t talk about the farms where it sources vegetables and meat from, and you do not talk about your artisans and where you get all your beautiful materials from.’ 

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Block printed in Bagru, Rajasthan, on pure cotton, this JoB product is an ode to geometricism and modern art. The striking shades of red incorporated within semi-circles and bold lines break the flowy silhouette of the robe. Shot by Hunar Daga.

The shorter production times enabled by technology allow Zara to offer twenty-four new collections a year. H&M refreshes its collection weekly. Shein promises to outdo both. But it takes four days to make a few meters of cotton on the hand loom. How can the two industries compete?

They can’t and they shouldn’t. It’s like comparing haute cuisine with McDonalds; they’re two different products and markets. The problem is that the [fast fashion] rhythm has made bigger global luxury brands really nervous and they’re trying to keep up because they say consumers are used to seeing new clothes in the stores. The luxury fashion industry is far too obsessed with what the competition is doing. They see H&M and Zara as competition when they’re absolutely not. They’ve fallen into the trap of trying to keep up with fast fashion when they should be saying, ‘We’re better than them, we’re not going to do that.’

The apparel industry in India is booming. Surat, which can be likened to Manchester, churns out so much material and promises a cloth-led industrial revolution. How short-sighted is this for a crafts-rich country?

It is short-sighted. We have enough clothes on the planet to dress people for centuries to come. If we stop making clothes today, we won’t run out of clothes for a couple of generations. The resale market is becoming so big so quickly that it will overtake the fast fashion market by 2030. Overproduction is false hope. It is important to keep craftsmanship alive, as it is to create jobs, but to work at this pace and churn out this volume is a dangerous and wrong-headed plan. It’s like tourism. In Venice, they are talking about really limiting tourists. [Already] you have to pay to come into Venice but they are now starting to think they might need quotas. It’s like the Grand Canyon -- once it’s full, it's full.

The global supply chain is inherently unethical, seeking the lowest cost for labour and so on. Will change come through politics and legislation?

Yes, that’s the only way we’re going to get it. Because why would these companies change if they don’t have to? It’s like the airline industry, they won’t treat passengers better unless they have to. Legislation and lawsuits are coming. I was just writing about the class action lawsuit in New York accusing H&M of false advertising regarding its conscious collection. And there is legislation, like in France, that you can’t overproduce and if you do, you can’t throw away the clothes.

You’ve reported a lot on the clothing industries in Bangladesh and Vietnam. What positive changes have you seen? What are you hopeful about?

A whole generation of creators is completely [against] the existing model and is going for slow fashion, craftsmanship and staying local instead of going global. Also, [it is] appreciating the beauty of natural fibres and dyes, and trying to source those whenever possible. These creators are really concerned with the negative impact of fashion on the environment and will do whatever they can to not contribute to it. There is a whole generation of young people who are coming out of fashion schools who really believe in that. And yes, many of them are the sort who want to go work for a big corporation and have a reliable job and retirement benefits. But I think they can also do what Stella McCartney talks about, which is infiltrating from within.

Stella McCartney’s conscious collection isn’t as soft as her main line. Have we become too spoilt to wear something pure?

I had a cashmere shawl I bought in Scotland years ago and everyone said it’s like wearing cream compared to bad cashmere from H&M. 

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JoB's handmade chindi rug and the yoga mats, shot by Hunar Daga.
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Object’s vibrant chindi rug made in Kota, Rajasthan along with the journey box.

That’s an affordability debate.

Yes and no. Because I bought that cashmere shawl in 2007 and it’s still gorgeous and solid. It may cost more but it’s lasted so long that in the long run it costs less, because I haven’t had to replace it. While the H&M version would have been replaced years ago because that is their business model. They want it to wear out so you have to replace it.

When I was a teenager, we had to save up to get our Levi’s because they were expensive. My rent was 500 dollars and my blue jeans were 30 or 40 dollars. That’s a lot of money. We saved up to buy them and I still have them and now my daughter is wearing them. That’s money well spent.

Denim is a great example. You called it the original sustainable garment.

It was meant to last.

But now there are 6 billion pairs of denim, 99 percent of the cotton isn’t organic, neither is the indigo, and very often it’s made in Bangladesh. What role did the growth of Levi’s play in this?

Levi’s was a family-run business that believed in corporate paternalism and made decisions based on morality. They looked after their workers. Then in the 1990s, they brought in a new CEO, just after the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed, and threw all that out the window. They got out of the business of making blue jeans, they just sold jeans. That’s basically the business model for most of the fashion industry. Fashion houses don’t actually make clothes anymore, they design clothes and sell clothes but other companies make the clothes.

With Levi’s, when they did that, they lost their integrity. They are clawing to get it back. They have lines that are made with organic cotton, they are working with a natural indigo producer to introduce natural indigo to the global industrial supply chain, which is awesome.

But you can’t scale that. There are villages in India making the finest natural colours, from madder root to indigo, but these aren’t scalable operations.

The problem is that we’re always trying to scale things up to unreasonable levels because we’re driven by greed. That sustainable level is a much smaller business model, smaller goals, smaller turnover. Integrity is what’s missing and that’s what we need to scale up. When I spoke to Giorgio Armani, and this was 20 years ago, I asked him: 'Is there a moment when you feel your company has reached its growth point?' This was when he was just introducing his home line, and I said 'What is that limit?' He said one million euros a year. And, of course, he has passed that [number] now. It’s all about growth. [He’s] introduced other things like beauty and hotels. He has a mega yacht, he has houses all over the place, and he would have had most of that when he was doing a million dollars in sales. Wouldn’t that be enough Giorgio Armani for the world? And if you are producing millions of dollars of stuff, is that luxury? No, it’s just mass.


Dana Thomas

DANA THOMAS is the author of  Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, and the New York Timesbestseller Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.

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