The fashion industry is unique from other fields of manufacturing in that it is ruled largely by the same intention as its end product: change.
What defines the fashion industry is largely based on the functions of the individuals who comprise it-designers, stores, factory workers, seamstresses, tailors, technically skilled embroiderers, the press, publicists, salespersons (or “garmentos”), fit models, runway models, couture models, textile manufacturers, pattern makers, and sketch artists. In simplest terms, the fashion industry could be described as the business of making clothes, but that would omit the important distinction between fashion and apparel. Apparel is functional clothing, one of humanity’s basic needs, but fashion incorporates its own prejudices of style, individual taste, and cultural evolution.
The notion of fashion as solely fulfilling a need is past, as the modern apparel industry finds its purpose in the conception, production, promotion, and marketing of style on the basis of desire. It reflects the changing wants of consumers to be defined by their attire, or more commonly to be accepted, which has precipitated change throughout fashion history-from iconic silhouettes referred to in the patronizing language of the early twentieth century, the Gibson Girls and Floradora Girls, to the enlightened New Look (a term coined by Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, in 1947) and evolving right on through an ever-changing lexicon of haberdashery. Changing styles always necessitate change through industry, notably in the ever-specialized fields of manufacturing and merchandising, as well as through the promotion of designs and designers, expanding their scope into what are known in the early 2000s as “lifestyle brands,” encompassing more than just fashion-incorporating the vernacular of fragrance, accessories, home furnishings, automobiles, jewelry, and writing instruments as well.
Even limited to the business of making clothes, its components have continually adapted to the changes of fashion and prevailing consumer demands, whether for casual clothes or formal suits, American sportswear, or celebrity-endorsed street wear. Over the decades, crinoline makers have become bra manufacturers, suit makers have adapted to the rise of separates, and textile mills have discovered the comfort of stretch. Meanwhile, new advancements in fabric development, manufacturing, and information management have become as important commodities as cotton and wool in the ever more complicated and competitive field. Throughout it all, the industry has developed classifications of pricing and style to facilitate its basic functions of designing and selling clothes along the traditional dividing line of wholesale and retail, one that has become much less distinct in recent years.
Following the traditional view of fashion’s infrastructure, as referenced in the textbook The Dynamics of Fashion, there are four levels of the fashion industry: the primary level of textile production, including mills and yarn makers; the secondary level of designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and vendors; the retail level, which includes all types of stores and distribution points of sale; and also a fourth level-the auxiliary level-which connects each of the other levels via the press, advertising, research agencies, consultants, and fashion forecasters who play a part in the merchandise’s progression to the end consumer. While the relationship between the levels is more or less symbiotic-they need one another to survive-historically, the competitive spirit of capitalism has also created a tension between retailer and manufacturer, where the balance of power is usually tipped to one side in the race to capture profits and margins. The degree to which each side benefits financially from the sale of apparel has changed gradually over the decades, subject to many factors from social advancements to economic swings to cults of designer personalities to wars-both between countries and conglomerates. Over the century, the retailer, in many cases, has taken on the role of the manufacturer, and manufacturers have become retailers of their own designs.
The mass production of clothing began roughly in the mid-nineteenth century, when some manufacturers began to produce garments that did not require fitting, but fashion did not become an established industry in the institution sense of the word until the twentieth century, when networks of neighborhood tailors casually evolved into manufacturing businesses, factories grew from necessity during the world wars, and the ensuing social and cultural changes signified the dawn of less restrictive and unilateral codes of dress. Changes in the business of fashion, and the establishment of designers as arbiters of taste, began to take shape in the early part of the century, although largely led by European houses. As the French designer Paul Poiret said during a presentation at the Horace Mann School in 1913, “Elegance and fashion have been the pastime of our ancestors, but now they take on the importance of a science” (quoted in Women’s Wear Daily in its ninetieth anniversary issue, 16 July 2001).
Just as French couture houses were beginning to gain an international reputation in the late nineteenth century, following the styles introduced by Charles Worth, Jeanne Lanvin, Paquin, and Poiret, the fast rise of garment factories, meanwhile, was largely an American phenomenon. It was most visible as an industry in New York City, where more than 18,000 workers were employed in the manufacture of blouses by 1900 at the time of the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), a precursor to the modern-day apparel union UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), formed in 1995 with the merger of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The rapid shift of custom-made to ready-made clothes during the industrial revolution was stimulated by the growth of the middle class and a large increase in foreign labor, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who brought their tailoring skills from Europe and first organized themselves in tenements on the Lower East Side. However, the immigrant connection and overcrowded conditions generally associated with the industry led to zoning restrictions that quickly pushed production from apartment buildings into lofts and away from increasingly sophisticated showrooms. For twenty years, manufacturers continued to migrate north and west, often driven by law, such as when the Save New York Committee campaigned to move apparel factories out of the neighborhood known as Madison Square-where Broadway and East 23rd Street converge-because of fears that the factories would be a detriment to the atmosphere of nearby Fifth Avenue, known as the Ladies’ Mile.
Working conditions declined as manufacturers took advantage of the increasing pools of immigrants, influencing the rise of sweatshop labor as well as the move to unionize workers. The industry grew exponentially-by 1915, apparel was the third largest in America, after steel and oil. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 workers were killed, had finally led to the regulation and scrutiny of garment industry working conditions.
The industry moved again beginning in 1920, when two sites along Seventh Avenue between 36th and 38th Streets were developed by the Garment Center Realty Co., an association of thirty-eight of the largest women’s clothing makers, sparking the first influx of apparel businesses in a neighborhood that has become the early twenty-first-century home to New York’s garment district. Yet change is still occurring, as most production has moved offshore to factories in cheaper locales and many designers have moved their offices to more “refined” neighborhoods away from the bustle of rolling racks and button shops.
In the 1930s, though, as the unified center for garment production, and the most highly concentrated apparel manufacturing capital in the world by this point, Seventh Avenue from 30th to 42nds Streets began to reflect the need for categorization within fashion. Although the industry can broadly be divided into two primary functions-wholesale and retail-the growing prevalence of department stores necessitated further distinctions. Certain buildings, in a tradition that continues in the early 2000s, house bridal firms, and others specialize in furriers, dress vendors, or coat companies, and within those categories grew distinctions of price or targeted demographic. The modern industry divides its pricing into four general categories of moderate, better, bridge, or designer apparel, from the least to most expensive, and within those categories are even more specialized distinctions, such as the relatively new silver and gold ranges (for prices that are too high to be considered bridge or too low to be called designer). There are also categories geared toward types of customers, such as juniors (a more generic classification for sportswear in the 1960s that is used to define teen-oriented labels), contemporary (geared toward young women and relating commonly to smaller sizes), and urban (reflecting the growing market for street wear).
For much of the twentieth century, the industry continued its evolution along familial lines, as the descendants of poor immigrants who had once operated those small factories along Orchard and Mulberry Streets on the Lower East Side began to establish serious businesses on Seventh Avenue, along with impressive fortunes behind companies with names that were for the large part inventions. Apart from the few pioneers of the first half of the century-Adrian, Bonnie Cashin, and Claire McCardell among them-the personalities behind the American fashion industry operated largely in anonymity compared with their counterparts in Paris, where Coco Chanel, Alix Grès, and Madeleine Vionnet had already become celebrities of international acclaim. Until World War II, it was common for American manufacturers to travel to the seasonal Paris shows, where they would pay a fee known as a caution to view the collections, usually with a minimum purchase of a few styles. They were legally permitted to copy these styles in the United States, where department stores began a tradition of lavishly presenting their copied collections with their own runway shows.
In the 1950s and 1960s, however, a growing number of entrepreneurial designers-many striking out in the business following their service in the war-began to make their way out of the backrooms to feature their own names on their labels, a development facilitated in part by the curiosity of the press and also by the ambitions of manufacturers to capitalize on designer personalities. Licensing a designer name into other categories became a common practice, and by the 1980s, propelled by an economic boom, designers had become celebrities-led by such ambitious and charismatic personalities as Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and Halston. Meanwhile, the advent of the modern designer business stood in stark contrast to the overall industry, which remained largely characterized by independent companies, with as many as 5,000 businesses then making women’s dresses, helmed by a prosperous but aging second generation. Since the 1980s, the apparel industry has come to be defined by consolidation, globalization, and the economics of publicly traded companies, where the biggest news stories have been the rush of many designers to Wall Street and the retail industry’s continual merging into only a handful of remaining department store companies-giants encompassing the majority of retail nameplates.
Change continues to come. The fashion industry of the early 2000s is global, with luxury conglomerates taking stakes in American businesses and production constantly moving to countries that offer the most inexpensive labor. Garments are conceived, illustrated, and laser-cut by computers, and replenished automatically by a store’s data system alerts. Designers compete directly with their biggest customers by opening flagships around the world, and stores compete with designers by sourcing and producing their own private label collections, often based on the prevailing runway looks. Magazine editors and stylists have gone on to become designers, while Hollywood actors and pop stars have gone from wearing designer clothes to creating them. At the outset of the twenty-first century, what defines the fashion industry has little to do with the artisan’s craft of a century ago, but would be better described as the pursuit of profitable styles by multinational conglomerates with competitive technology and the most efficient delivery of timely merchandise.
But change in fashion-or the fashion industry-is nothing new. It seems fitting to refer to the opening line on page 1 of the first issue of Women’s Wear Daily, which was founded as Women’s Wear in June 1910, in response to the rise of the women’s apparel industry: “There is probably no other line of human endeavor in which there is so much change as in the product that womankind wears.”
By Eric Wilson