Can Connecting the Dots of Women in Fashion Empower Women?

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If we could connect the collective dots of feminism sprinkled throughout the the fashion industry, what would that look like?

The past decade’s cultural conversations have offered a rich and nuanced dialogue around the lives of working women. Controversies around whether leaning in really works against systemic and structural issues aren’t just the stuff of wonky blog posts and best-selling books; the fashion industry is taking note and responding in a variety of ways. We’ve seen the rise of countless blogs speaking to the needs of millennial+ working women and providing fashion advice, from Corporette to Sharp Heels. Successful corporate women are also entering the fashion industry and creating innovations and products arising from their experiences as lawyers, bankers, MBAs, consultants, and as Corporette writes “otherwise overachieving chicks who need to look professional but want to look fashionable” From the “bento box” of MM LaFleur to the luxury backpack of P.MAI.

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MM LaFleur’s Bento Box

And while some of these businesses are working towards sustainability, think Eileen Fisher partnering with artisan groups to create elegant and versatile basics and business casual attire, many businesses are unfortunately banking on a lack of transparency to sell to women.

Enter Ivanka Trump, the fashion model turned Executive Vice President at her well-known family company. Ivanka aims to make her mark as the spokesperson for #WomenWhoWork, including a book on the topic coming out in 2017 as well as an entire clothing line marketed to working women. Her speech at the RNC made waves not just for its content but for the beautiful light pink, sleeveless sheath dress that she wore which sold out almost immediately. Ordinarily, a huge spike in sales like this would be a wonderful thing for any brand. However, the backlash against the values behind the dress shows that all publicity is not good publicity. Stateside, Ivanka Trump is under fire for not fairly compensating the #womenwhowork for her company, including hiring a contractor to create their designs that does not offer their employees a single day of paid maternity leave and not paying interns, the latter of which is legally questionable at best.

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Criticism of Ivanka Trump doesn’t stop with their corporate office’s policies around contractors and interns. The Ivanka Trump line is manufactured in China and Vietnam with incredibly limited supply chain transparency, with some pieces simply labeled as “imported.”

This push for transparency isn’t just limited to prominent working women associated with the RNC. Beyonce is a proud feminist closely connected with the Obamas. This summer she made headlines not just for Lemonade but for her Ivy Park clothing line. Similarly to Ivanka Trump’s company, Beyonce’s line promotes women’s empowerment and has also come under fire for its sweatshop labor where Sri Lankan women sewing $200 leggings for the celeb’s line are making $8 a day, working more than 60 hours a week, and won’t speak out because the positions to make Beyonce’s clothes are highly prized in the developing country. While most people scratched their heads wondering why Beyonce, a feminist, promoting women’s empowerment through clothing hadn’t considered the women making the clothing, considering women as a major part of a larger global manufacturing system is still a new concept.

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Ivy Park campaign image

Yet the conversation about women’s empowerment and women supporting other women shouldn’t end at the front lines of political parties or the U.S. border. Agriculture and craft work are the two largest employers of women in the developing world. Eighty percent of the global garment industry is comprised of women, however the vast majority of supervisors are men. Garment workers’ rights are women’s rights. Just as we wouldn’t tolerate sexual harassment or pregnancy discrimination in the U.S. we shouldn’t allow it in our global supply chains.

With every challenge there is also opportunity. Instead of a lack of transparency we can build relationships and connectivity. If working women see their lives connected to all women who work around the globe, perhaps we can take the exploitation that is all too common and turn it into some valuable form of empowerment. Imagine the collective power of the millions of women working in the garment industry and around the globe? Now those are the dots we need to be connecting more.

To learn more about how brands are taking on human rights, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.

Rebecca Ballard is a lawyer, advocate, and the founder of Maven Women, which creates socially conscious, elegant workwear for women thoughtful about people and the planet at every step. She encourages you to check out their inaugural collection and vote on your favorites at http://maven.style. Feel free to contact her at Rebecca@mavenwomen.com.

Image: Unsplash