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Nina Metz: Fast fashion and retailers like Brandy Melville face documentary scrutiny

Nina Metz: Fast fashion and retailers like Brandy Melville face documentary scrutiny


Fifteen years ago, clothing retailer Brandy Melville opened its doors in Los Angeles, and since then it has become the tween and teen fashion brand aimed at specifically thin, white girls. When some customers complained about the tiny, one-size-fits-all approach, the company did not expand its range of offerings but opted to change its labels to fit most products.

But according to the documentary Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion that premiered on HBO this week (and can be streamed on Max), that was the least we could do. Retail stores are said to be a toxic workplace for their teenage employees, and filmmaker Eva Orner speaks with them and experts about the broader issues of fast fashion, which has increasingly become an environmental problem as unwanted and unusable synthetic clothing accumulates.

Lakyn Carlton is a Los Angeles-based virtual stylist and sustainable fashion educator who has long been an informative presence on social media. She provides insight into the clothing industry itself and why it's worth rethinking the quantity over quality mentality when it comes to amassing a wardrobe. We talked about Brandy Hellville and other documentaries that are worth checking out if you want to be more informed about the clothes you buy and potentially throw away. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: The documentary tries to cover a lot, but not everything. What did you think of the film?

A: The Brandy Melville parts and the fast fashion parts seemed disjointed because they don't tell you why they are related or what fast fashion is. I think this is a problem that many fast fashion documentaries fall into, which assumes viewers already have this understanding.

Fast fashion is fast, that’s its main identifier. It's not a question of price. It's not even necessarily about looks or price. It’s the fact that a brand creates new designs every week, in some cases every day. Even if it's every month, it's much faster than 10 years ago. It's about having hundreds and thousands of styles, making thousands of units of those styles, and selling them to the tune of billions every year.

Q: Why do companies do this?

A: Because they want you to keep coming back. It's a constant turnover and people are browsing these sites every day and want to have something new for you so you're more likely to buy. It's about selling as much as possible, because margins in fashion are mostly very low. Even if you only make a dollar or $2 per piece, if you sell a million, that's great.

But they don't create new designs for every part. They don't fit every part of a human. They don't make a sample and see how it works. They don't even conceive of many of these things; he finds out what's already popular in Brandy Melville's documentary, they talk about how sometimes it was an item of clothing that one of the retailers already had and copied it and made 10,000 of it.

Q: Since the 80s or even before, every generation has had brands that teenagers coveted. It is therefore a constant phenomenon of seeking validation through clothing. How is Brandy Melville different?

A: This is the worst form of natural progression of all of this. It's not just: If you can afford to buy this thing, you'll be fine. Now it's: if you can fit in, you're cool and beautiful.

It's crazy how much this looks like children's clothing. They have a lot of little spaghetti strap tank tops with a little bow in the middle, or little shorts and little dresses with these floral prints. They even have shorts that almost look like bloomers.

Q: Oh interesting, the film didn't really analyze that or the tension of a brand leaning towards an infantilizing aesthetic that becomes provocative on teenage bodies. There's a quote in the movie that I want to talk about: There's no escaping the truth, which is that there are too many clothes. I don't know if this idea is accepted in the culture at large.

A: And it’s a struggle. You can show people pictures of the Atacama Desert (in Chile), where you can see from space this pile of clothes which is a mixture of unsold clothes or discarded clothes and it doesn't really have an impact . One thing I think people don't realize is that these big piles, especially in a place like Ghana, when they collect rainwater, can attract insects and other disease carriers, which harms people who live near these piles of clothes.

And to those who say we can just recycle these clothes, you can't recycle a pile of clothes big enough to see from space. Even if there was enough infrastructure and the desire to do it, we simply couldn't do it because these companies keep creating new things! I think 20 years ago recycling would have been great. It's no longer viable simply because of the volume of clothing we're talking about. It is estimated that we produce around 70 billion items of clothing per year. We cannot recycle as quickly as we throw away.

Q: Fast fashion has changed the way people think about why they buy clothes.

A: But also social networks. I hear so many people say: I can't wear the same outfit twice. And my question is always: or what? (Laughs) I think as we move towards even more financial instability, anything that people can hold on to that makes them feel like they have some sort of status or wealth or just a little treat in the form of six dresses that they will wear once becomes harder to let go. We have shopping apps on our phones, so some people shop because they have nothing else to do.

Q: The film covered much of the same ground as 2022's White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch on Netflix and I was wondering, what do these documentaries add up to? On the one hand, it’s good that such an exhibition exists. On the other hand, they look like one-offs that focus on one brand or another and I wonder how useful that is.

A: I agree. So you’ve crossed that one off your list; Now what? You just move on to the next store and the larger system remains intact. But let's say you have a movie that explains how all these brands are part of the system, then people raise their hands and say: So where should I shop? And they say forget it, place another order on Amazon and move on.

But I have a few documentaries that I like.

There's one called The Machinists (on YouTube) that follows these three women working in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and shows children working in these factories, it shows people having their wages cut for no reason. I think it does a really good job of showing how fashion in general is a human rights issue and a feminist issue. It's primarily women of color who work in these factories, but people don't understand what that really means or why they are so ripe for exploitation.

There is another documentary called Udita (on YouTube) which also talks about a factory in Dhaka, where a group of well-known brands produced their clothes. There were so many machines and weights in the factory that the building collapsed and 1,100 workers died. The film follows a woman who lost two of her daughters in the collapse.

The True Cost (on Tubi) also focuses on fast fashion. There is another film called River Blue (on Vimeo) by an environmentalist who assesses the water in these countries where we produce textiles and clothing and how polluted it is, which is another angle that people don't think specifically about water use and water pollution in fashion. we don't talk about it enough.

There is another documentary about recycling discarded clothing called Unravel (on Vimeo), but unless you understand that it's not the solution, it may lead you down the wrong path. I say watch for it, but with the caveat that it won't happen on a large scale. One thing the film does well is show what the workers who care for these clothes think of us. They both admire Western culture, but are also somewhat disgusted by it.

I think of films that talk to the people who make our clothes about how they are forced to work and live, just so we can have new styles every week and making it clear that there's more than just a single brand is more effective and more meaningful.

Q: Perhaps what's missing are programs that help consumers make different decisions. On social media, I've seen you say some version of: OK, if you want to change the way you spend money on clothes, I have some ideas. Hire me, that’s what I do. Because that's probably a barrier for people: I'm informed, I feel bad, but I don't know what to do next. Maybe we need a show like What Not to Wear that helps people understand how to embrace the concepts of slow fashion. I think sometimes television and film can open your mind to ideas that you can incorporate into your own life.

A: Should I introduce Netflix? (Laughs) But it's true, giving information without concrete advice, as these documentaries do, is frustrating at worst, and at best it can feel like people are scolding you. And no one likes that.

But I want people to go further. I think lately my work has shifted to: How does the slow fashion mindset and being more thoughtful in your purchases benefit you? Well, you know all those grievances you have with your clothes? What if I told you that there is a world where these don't exist? Because there are brands that want you to have something great and that suits you. There is a world where you love your wardrobe and there is a world where you don't feel the need to go shopping. Rather, this is the direction in which we must go.

So yes, I would love to see a documentary or series following someone who takes the journey from a wardrobe full of fast fashion to adopting a slower fashion mindset and then building of a new wardrobe from there.




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