Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Bitten Pill to Swallow

I have been mulling over this post for some time now, and I can go silent no longer. I have a big problem with Sarah Jessica Parker's Bitten line. The line first came to my attention on the various fashion blogs I read, and its arrival was much anticipated. Don't get me wrong, my problem is not with the woman, but with the business philosophy. I have read so many posts enthralled with the designs themselves and their reflected celebrity status, but the problem I have with them is their price point. $19.98 and less for EVERY piece in the collection. You read that right, not a clearance price, an introductory offer or a teaser, but a price point that is touted as being central to SJP's Bitten manifesto. If a garment retails for $19.98 as full sale price, what then does this mean for the chain of people involved in its manufacture, to say nothing of the environmental concerns?

  • "It is every women's inalienable right to have a stylish, pulled -together, confident wardrobe with money left over to live." Bitten Manifesto

Seriously, WTF! So if I am one of the garment workers making these cheap chic clothes, does that apply to me too? Or does this only apply to those living in the USA. Even then, I'd wager that there would be many a garment outworker who would beg to differ on their meager cents per garment wages.

The Bitten line offers over 1000 pieces in its line, including cashmere sweaters and suits at this price point. While I realise that no-one expects quality for this kind of money, I wonder just how disappointing or otherwise these pieces may be. (If you are wearing any, let me know.)

So when it comes to buying clothes and making ethical decisions I am by no means a saint. While I love the idea of always doing the right things, it isn't always practical. I often chose to make or buy hand made items, but then there is the issue of the materials used in the initial manufacturing process they went through, and the subsequent environmental damage that would have caused. But if I can afford it at the time, I'll mostly choose this option over a mass produced item. And while I love a bargain, I would much rather spend my cash on a vintage item that is a recycled beauty. When faced with the choice of buying something new from a major store or designer, I will always search for what is on sale, where the mark down has been taken from the sizeable retail mark-up of the garment in question.

But in the case of the Bitten pieces, there is really nowhere to go. The average mark up for retail garments is 250% and 350% for accessories in this country according to the government. So when you look at that $19.98 price point, and consider everyone along the chain that must be paid, of which the lowest are the individuals making each garment, I find this kind of retailing unconscionable; and that manifesto like a slap in the face.

*Should anyone from SJP's office like to contact me an explain just what she had in mind to make us swallow this, I'd be deeply appreciative. *

** I could go on about what this sort of RRP undercutting may mean for the fashion industry as a whole, but that's enough of a rant for one day. **


bluejay said...

Factory workers are not slaves: they can choose to accept or reject an employment contract if they think it is unfair or the wages are too low, and find work elsewhere. Manufacturers are, after all, competing with other businesses to secure workers for their factories. Ultimately, how much workers get paid is related to the market value of their work.

Moreover, even if there is no work for these factory workers elsewhere, isn't it better that they can choose to obtain some wage rather than no wage at all (i.e. be unemployed)?

Imelda Matt said...

WTF!!! I couldn't believe what i was reading so I checked it out. Those RRP's are extraordinary! The wholesale cost would be around $6.65, deduct another $2 for shipping and taxes and each garment is $4.65.

I could break it down further (12 years in buying/wholesale will do that) but you've taken a 'bite' out of the important points - ethical trading and environmental damage!

Theresa said...

Bluejay do you really believe that? - Oh dear.
Super Kawaii Mama, great post about an important issue, I wish more style blogs were really about that; style;and not some celeb driven rush to snap up trashy fashion as opposed to cultivating real style. That's what makes reading this blog so refreshing, keep it up, it's much appreciated here in a cold wet British summer.

Heather said...

I own several peices and like them and they are made rather well, I understand your point, but at the same time, you have to understand that not everyone can afford high priced clothing,her line was a savior for me. I can actually afford to cloth myself. And if it makes you feel any better, the company that is promoting her line, just filed for bankruptcy......and you know when they have thier going out of bussiness sale, I will be there, cheap made clothes and all.

Jin6655321 said...

I agree that more people should buy vintage. The environmental and social-economic impact of disposable fashion is sick (even though I'm guilty of being a part of it)

However, I feel it is a bit unfair to pick on Bitten.

It's true that most clothes have markups of around 300%. However, the more expensive the brand, the higher the markup (some as high as 700-1000%) because 1)The market will bear it since people except to pay more for a status brand and 2)The company needs to pay for the posh store front, above average customer service, packaging, advertising, etc. Oh and 3)They needed to pay the research team to scope out the next big trend and "designers" to "pay homage" to statement pieces that was seen on the runway a few months ago.

The wholesale price for a discount line like Bitten might not be that different from wholesale price for most of the brand that can be found at your local mall.

Bitten is exclusive to Steve and Barry, a crappy little discount retailer (who recently filed for bankruptcy). The atmosphere is very bare (to put it politely) and sales associates are none existent. They operate on a very slim margin of profit. It wouldn't surprise me if Steve and Barry were selling the Bitten line close to their at cost price as a loss leader just to drive traffic into their store.

Bottom line, unless you shop from a company that's known for paying a fair wage (like American Apparel), regardless of if you're paying $9.99 or $49.99 for a shirt, the person who made it is probably only getting paid a dollar an hour to make it.

Kelly said...

The thing that rubs me the wrong way completely is the slogan "Fashion is not a luxury." What? YES IT IS. Fashion is awesome, and great, and I after I feed and house myself I will spend my money on it, but it absolutely a luxury and a hobby. Clothing has practical purposes; fashion does not. And to say that fashion is someone's *right* is just as absurd as to say that eating candy is someone's right. It's not. Candy is what you get after you eat everything else you are supposed to. Fashion is the clothes you buy after you've bought the essential underwear and socks. And if you don't have the means or money to afford that luxury, it stinks. But it is still a luxury.

Of course, this is only on top of all the other concerns this line brings.

bluejay - are you serious?

WendyB said...

No need to worry about it now! As Heather said, Steve and Barry has filed for bankruptcy. They were all hype and no business plan, like so many others before them. In general, the problem is that human beings are damn hypocrites. Everyone is holier than thou about the environment and labor as long as it doesn't affect him/herself. When it comes to opening their own wallets, though, people want the lowest possible price. God knows I've seen all kinds of terrible behavior when it comes to buying jewelry. It makes me sick of society.

Hammie said...

Wow. Good on you Super K for addressing this. I have not had the pleasure of seeing SJPs bitten line but I read an interview in an inflight mag and saw her point; but hello? Reduce. re-use, recycle. I do buy in to the SJP-as created-by-Pat Field style, but I enjoy doing it myself in thrift andebay. Because the good clothes that make it have been built to last. Better seams, better stitching, better fabric and good design does not date, hell I even wear 80's stuff. (and pretend to be Melanie Griffiths in Working Girl)
The problem in the U.K. at the moment is that pile em high and sell em cheap stores like Prim*rk are selling high fashion that gets dumped the following week; and the charity shops cannot even cover their overheads on re-sale. Before you do the maths Imelda, that is on zero cost. The stuff is crap. Fashionable crap. They cannot give away all the handbags and plasticky shoes. You cannot make dishrags out of those, or send them to Africa so they end up as toxic landfill.
Twice a year I set aside a carers cheque to buy something really special; New. Everything else I pick up as I find it in thrift and ebay and I love it all the more for the chase.
I am so passionate about this. You are a Super brave blogger Super K!
ps. Blue Jay. I used to work in Textiles and the stuff we brought in from china to have "finished" in Australia (ie. hemmed so they could call it Australian made in B*g W and C*les) was being sewn by middle eastern refugees working in factories on peice rates that would not feed a pensioners cat. The stuff was sold as loss leaders. Those women were being exploited. They needed a social worker and australian citizenship. Not Ali Baba and his rice cooker. (he fed them each day)
Think again.

Anonymous said...

Oh great post! I too wondered about this line and its very low prices. Someone, somewhere has to pay. Great additions by all the comments above and even Bluejay - your point is valid, many people think like that (& it makes them feel better) but look a bit deeper into it please.

Amy G said...

Great post. This has always been a concern for me with cheap clothing, and a reason why I don't like to buy it--when it has "made in Malaysia" etc on the tag, I am sure it's not in an airy, cool, sanitary shop with well-paid workers taking regular breaks and driving home in their Volvos. In fact, I can't imagine how third-world garment workers work and live, and I'm sure the fashion industry prefers it that way.

Better to take my grandmother's advice: spend some money on high quality, own less, love what you have and wear it to threads.

enc said...

You have said many things I've thought. Thank you.

I went into the shop where they're selling this line, and was not surprised to find low-end, weak pieces. You're right, the quality's just not there. Even if I liked the pieces, I couldn't buy any in good conscience. It's just not right for me. I've already got too many clothes that could be deemed "unethical" in some way or another. I don't want to add to the pile if I can possibly avoid it. This may be a pipe dream, but I'm trying.

Robo said...

A-ha someone already mentioned the bankruptcy filing, but for a line that's supposed to be fashionable, it was disappointing to see that it was...not. Tapered pants? Crappy fit? Shabby suits? Check, check, and check. The only redeeming part of Bitten were the jeans, which my mom will still have to help me fix.

As far as the employment practices, as jin said, Steve and Barry's try to be ethical where ever possible, but price is the final driver. Also Bluejay has a valid point, but at the same time, an alternative "choice" in many of these third world countries is either worse than working in a factory for meager wages or just nonexistent, especially if the workers didn't have access to education, which is usually the case.

Super Kawaii Mama said...

Bluejay: I am hoping that you are only playing devil's advocate with this comment. On the chance that you aren't, let me refer you to Hammies comment. I can also add that my impressions of the garment industry, (and I'm not referring specifically to Bitten here as I don't have enough information on their factories) comes from time I myself spent in China. I worked and lived with people employed in these jobs, and let me tell you there were no employment contracts happening. Unemployment did not mean welfare, but starvation, as often the only employment around was piece work for these manufactures. Also, some of the factories with better reputations were still sending work out to be done by children who were supporting their families. I don't want to come over all high and mighty, because as we all know I love fashion and many of my choices could be called into question on the ethical front. I just think it is important that when choosing to make our purchases we do so with our eyes wide open.
Imelda: When I first started reading reviews of these pieces I too couldn't believe the prices. If this line was to be successful (although it sounds like their are some financial problems), what indeed would this mean for the fashion industry at large?
Theresa: Thank you, I just try to call it like I see it.
Heather: Thanks for the extra info, it will be interesting to see how it pans out. I certainly understand you point about being able to afford to cloth yourself, but I'm concerned that when you think about the mark up here, you are still paying too much ( on a retail percentage) relatively. For $20, I could take you thrift / Op shopping, and find you an entire killer outfit. (As an aside, maybe I should do a post showing just how little I spend on all my outfits.) But as I said, so long as you are buying them with your eyes wide open, that is totally fine by me.
Jin: I totally agree with your points. The reason I am particularly "picking on" Bitten here, is because of the manifesto. To me, that is like rubbing salt in the wound.
Kelly: Yes indeed. A bit rich I think. Far too many things are now believed to be an individuals right as opposed to what they really are - a privileged. I am not saying by this that fashion should only be the realm of the "privileged few", but perhaps when one takes a wider world view, that the definition of "privileged" becomes much broader.
Wendy B: I see nothing wrong with bargain hunting or negotiating for a good price, so long as the negotiator understands that what they are trading involves more than money. I imagine people are always after you for a better price on your jewelry, those pieces you've poured your heart into. I wonder if it came to it, how they would feel being asked for a better price to sell you their children? (people - don't email me, I am being facetious.)
Hammie: Thank you for adding your most excellent and well informed comment. It is indeed a huge issue. I'm not trying to be a one woman crusade, dressed in home woven sack cloth, but I do think awareness should be raised. I think that what SJP was trying to do, and the point she was TRYING to get across is a good one. It's just the execution that is flawed. And her manifesto just SO got my back up!
Cybill: How could those prices not be a head scratcher?
Amy G: Our Nana's had a good take on things, but if I'm honest, I'd say I live somewhere in the middle.
Enc: Ah the pipe dream. When I first came back from China, (read a little about it in my response to bluejay) I couldn't enter a shopping mall. It turned my stomach. Clearly, I have gotten over that. But I guess I now take a somewhat more consumerist Buddhist (now there's an oxymoron for you) approach to shopping, and try to make my purchases more mindfully.

Lady Melbourne said...

Whoa, look out, SKM is on her soap box- fantastic!
I love posts like this!
I don't know much about her line, I'd heard it was pretty cheap(cost wise and production) so I hadn't bothered to check it out.
I obviously need to be more informed, so thank you for such a great post.
I live in vintage clothes so I see that as fairly ethical.

smife said...

first i'd really like to let amy g know that Malaysia is not a third world country. contrary to "popular belief", while it might not be considered as a first world country to some, it is not on the same level as places such as africa, where people really do work in sweatshops. let me assure you, living in Singapore (which is right next to malaysia) and thus having gone up there many, many times in my life, and having visited actual factories there, that the conditions in most factories there are similar to perhaps what you would find in your own country (i'm assuming america here).

the problem with this sweatshop conundrum is that while it is infringing on human rights and it is absolutely horrible for them to treat human beings literally as cattle, paying them barely more than the minimum wage (if they even meet the minimum wage at all), it is unfortunate that these people, contrary to bluejay's grossly misjudged comment, do not have a choice in terms of employment. for many of them, it is either work at the sweatshop and gain at least some income (no matter how minimal), or not gain any income at all. and so begins this vicious cycle. they need work, and so you have disgusting global corporations who will take in these desperate people and, in order to gain as much for themselves as possible, will pay these workers barely anything, and then proceed to sell their goods to consumers at prices that many of us can barely afford. it is the disgusting system i'd like to call capitalism, which was pioneered in the west afterall, tagging along with the industrial revolution.

so really, the only true way to get rid of such gross manipulation would be to get rid of capitalism and, indeed, employ a system where everyone will be equal in terms of financial status. then again, the communists tried that, and we all know how that turned out for the people - horrendously.

so really, if i were to attack anyone on such issues, i wouldn't pick at the small fish like SJP's line Bitten, but i'd look to the much bigger market players. it is highly more likely that big brand names make use of these "cattle factories" than SJP's line.

also, i'd just like to point out that in the UK there is a chain store, primark, which sells clothes at dirt cheap prices, and while they recently discovered that some of its factories were employing child labour, it immediately terminated all contracts with said factories, retracted all garments from stores supplied by the factories, and issued a statement declaring its strong stand of employing factories that do not use child labour. what the conditions in its other factories are like we don't know, but one can only hope for the best.

personally, i'm at a loss to take a true stand on this issue. obviously people need to stop being exploited in such a terrible way, but until the day comes when greed stops invading man's heart like it always has, this sort of exploitation will continue to take place. and so one really has to wonder which is the lesser evil: not to employ these workers at all and so cause them not to make any money at all, or to continue to put them through such cruel conditions, but still give them their meagre pay. there is truly no ideal choice, for both options are cruel.

the question is whether we as consumers can sway these brand names and all to make sure that we don't have to choose between either situation, but can give these people a third choice: fair pay with fair conditions.

one can only hope.

Heather said...

go thrift shopping in Austailia!? I would LOVE that!....Now if I could only afford a ticket down under :(

Super Kawaii Mama said...

LM: Vintage really does help to balance it all out.
Smife: Thank you for taking the time to make this important comment. And thank you for clarifying that Malaysia is indeed not a third world country. (I often forget that people not in Australia don't have quite the same acquaintance with our Asian neighbors). This really is a huge issue and I couldn't possibly hope to tackle the whole thing in one post. The reason I singled out bitten was the manifesto. While I find fashion and its origins can be a real Catch 22, SJP's statement just set something off in me. To say that, " It is EVERY women's inalienable right to have a stylish...wardrobe with money left over to live." and clearly having these garments manufactured at such a low price point, made me wonder how the women making them would feel about their "inalienable rights".

the likkle girl who wurves pwetty things said...

Dear Mama,
I've missed the bus again, havent I? A few days too late...

But I'd like to say that even if we want to, it is very hard making a decision on what is ethical or not ethical to buy when there isn't much information available at the point-of-purchase.

Offhand, I can only think of America Apparel - it is the first mass-produced-fashion company that comes to mind that loudly proclaim, whenever and wherever they can about their non-sweatshop stance in production.

Yes, very low retail prices might give us an indication of dogdy production practices but how do we know that expensive designer labels do not abuse their employees (there have been rumoured and reported cases)?

And it gets more difficult to judge when it comes to the high-street chain stores and mid-range labels where we often can't help but cave in to the attraction of fast disposable fashion at not low but reasonable prices. We know that their products are mostly made in Asia but how can we tell, for sure, that they are not made in the worst of working conditions imaginable?

While there is a handful of us who are aware of what goes on and would like to make a stand, in our own small way, there is also the huge majority of the fashion-buying public who are happy to just buy buy buy without thought. And we know that as long as these people keep buying, manufacturers will keep producing in, sometimes, cost-cutting conditions.

I think consumer education is key, and maybe some sort of legislation down the road. Look at the what the "cruelty-free" campaign has done to the cosmetic/skincare industry. It took a while for everyone to get it but now, they can't look at a beauty product without thinking if some poor cute little bunnykins had been subjected to torture. Is it naive to hope that maybe one day, it will be mandatory for all swing tags and labels on fashion items to carry the "cruelty-free" line?