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Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing

This I Wear | Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing

I brought along the book, Let My People Go Surfing, from my Summer Reading List to the beach, and it quickly became covered in sand. After reading the book, however, I’m convinced that Patagonia’s founder (and the book’s author), Yvon Chouinard, would have wanted it this way as he is perhaps the most adventurous (and outdoorsy) businessman you might ever meet.

The outdoor industry of which Patagonia is an important leader does not view itself as part of the fashion industry and vice versa, even though both industries make clothes. So I can’t tell you how surprised I was that this book challenged my ideas of trends, quality and beauty, but it did.

Chouinard started off as a blacksmith making climbing equipment. At a certain point, he realized that the high quality, effective and popular climbing gear he was making was destroying the very mountains the climbers wanted to enjoy. So he got rid of the destructive model and improved on and then popularized a different, less damaging technology, and it sold like crazy.

He was also responsible for popularizing brightly colored outdoor clothing instead of the gray that dominated the market. But many years on, they realized those neon colors were full of damaging chemicals and so out went the neon colors and in came safer dyes (and absolutely no orange since no safe substitute could be found).

What if all of our trends came out of the pursuit of better technology, improved functionality and environmental stewardship? What if trends were about what is better and simpler rather than what is new and full of unnecessary frills? This idea is not just for climbing equipment but can apply to what we wear everyday. Perhaps the idea of a “timeless trend” is an oxymoron, but what would it be like if the latest thing was simpler and better in quality/design/sustainability than the previous version and that was somehow “trendy”?

Patagonia’s list of values includes the pursuit of product quality “as defined by durability, minimum use of natural resources, multi-functionalism, non-obsolescence, and the kind of beauty that emerges from absolute suitability to task.”

We don’t usually talk about beauty in that way, but I got a few goosebumps when I read that line. For Patagonia, that kind of beauty is the baselayers that save your life because they keep you warm and dry in the freezing cold. In fashion, this kind of beauty could be the perfect linen top that keeps you cool while you’re out on that summer date, the versatile dress that takes you from work to an evening out, the shoes that let you work a long shift without leaving you in pain, or even the suit that gives you confidence in a job interview. It’s beautiful not just because of the aesthetics but because it supports your lifestyle. It’s also beauty that comes from not worrying about whether your swimsuit will fall apart as you get out of the pool.

After what sounds like an intense debate, Chouinard and his chief designer decided that quality is objective and can be defined. This means that for Patagonia, quality does not refer to subjective taste and preferences but instead is a very tangible and objective state. The company’s list of criteria for a high quality product is extensive but a few of the most universal components include:

– Is it functional?
– Is it multifunctional?
– Is it durable and able to be repaired?
– Is it as simple as possible?
– Is it easy to care for?
– Does it cause unnecessary harm?

Chouinard quoted one of his own inspirations who believes that “to make a high quality products is a way to pay respect and responsibility to the customer and the user of the product.” And honestly, I’ve never thought of a high quality item as being particularly respectful, but I really liked this idea. If this is true, then it would be easy to say that Forever21 has no respect for their customers (or their suppliers) by producing such poor quality products. Obviously their goal, unlike Patagonia’s, is not the pursuit of quality, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that they disrespect the customer by negatively impacting the environment and world in which the customer lives and by selling her knowingly insufficient products.

And if we’re willing to buy such insufficient products, what does that say about respect for ourselves (and the environment)? I could write a whole post about just this.

Overall it is a great book and a fairly quick read. And more surprising than any of this is that the book itself is an incredible resource if you are thinking about starting a company that makes products, whether apparel or otherwise. If you read it, I hope you’ll share your thoughts here too.

What does beauty from functionality mean to you? How would you define quality if you were (or are) making products? Share your comments below or tweet @ThisIWear.

Book Review: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

This I Wear | Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Welcome to 2014! Lazy days spent with family offer the perfect time to catch up on reading, so we’re kicking off the New Year with a new read! Enjoy!

“In the world of Cheap, ‘design’ has become a stand-in for quality.”

In today’s shopping world, the middle ground is gone. Our options seem to be luxury goods that cause us to be suspicious of price and discounted (but “designed”) items that give us suspicion of quality. As consumers, we often feel manipulated when we shop, because we don’t actually know what we are buying. In fact, according to Shell, “we believe that merchants habitually overcharge us just because they can, and the difference among products represents not a difference in quality but in the varying ability of salesmen to fool us.”

Why are we so suspicious? And is our suspicion warranted?

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, indulges our greatest consumer fears that retailers are taking advantage of us. Starting from the history of the department store and down to the invention of the price tag, she follows the growth of our cheap-obsessed American culture.

Honestly, after reading this book, it feels like unless I buy all of my clothing from that price-transparency movement starter Bruno Pieters, I may never know if the cost of my clothes is the result of the price of the materials, the skill of the labor, the import tax, or some concept of “good design” (which in the case of “cheap” is design for disposability).

So why the pursuit of “cheap”? Well, it’s a long (well-researched) history, but this is what’s going on behind the price tag:

Prices are influenced by emotions, not just concrete numbers. And since human beings are pretty irrational, our emotions get a lot of attention from retailers. According to Shell’s research, “a fair price…is one that is ‘emotionally okay’ with the person doing the buying.” Some of this is pretty visible in stores, hence why $2.99 is more common than $3.00. But what about the fact that humans have a really hard time predicting the needs of their more rational future self? Well, we might not be so conscious of that, but it’s why a deal feels so good now. We don’t necessarily know what things are worth or what will make us happy or fill a need, but we do know how we feel when shopping. And a deal appeals to those emotional highs and lows. Our emotions get played to and suddenly, we’ve bought what the store wanted us to buy rather than what we truly needed.

We assume getting a discount “involves a trade-off of quality for price” whether it’s true or not. Even though we’re chasing deals like alcoholics going after their next drink, we actually don’t like the stuff we buy on sale as much. HUH? Think about it: if we buy something that has been marked-down, we start looking for flaws. Of course, something is wrong with it if no one else wanted it and it’s been left on the shelves. And that means that even something on sale that is of good quality has a lower perceived value, which influences how we treat it. According to Shell, “the less we pay for something, the less we value it and the less likely we are to take care of it, with the results that cheaper things – even if well made – seem to wear out and break more quickly.”

We like brands because we are looking for markers of quality, something (anything!) to explain the price. Most of us have no idea what we’re buying when we’re shopping, but a brand name has historically been a reference for quality. In fact, the idea of a brand or marker of quality is the only thing that overrides the previous point: “Once quality is assumed – as it is for many branded products – a lower price is a plus. When quality is in dispute, as it is when we buy things we know nothing about at flea markets or eBay, low price can be a negative.” So we don’t mind buying our Polo shirts for 75% off, but that Persian rug on eBay better be freaking expensive, otherwise it is obviously no good.

And speaking of discount goods, outlet malls are complete crap. Yes, they started off as a mechanism for getting rid of unsold, damaged or irregular merchandise, but now, most chain stores are designing and producing lines for their outlet stores. Yet, we’re still willing to get in our cars, drive hours, and spend an entire day after the pursuit of a deal. Why? Because we think that because it’s no frills and inconvenient, we’re EARNING a good deal. It is not a deal, guys. I REPEAT: IT IS NOT A DEAL. Don’t fall for the trap. And whenever you’re tempted by the distant glow of the outlet mall, consider the Simpsons reference Shell includes in this chapter, straight from Homer’s mouth at the outlet electronics store: “I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s a Magnetbox and Sorny.” (Don’t be Homer…)

And what is the result of all of this? We’ve been conditioned as consumers to look for markdowns, so retailers are now scared to stop putting things on sale. Oh well. I guess we’re all just human.

But Shell ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note that we as consumers can set our own standards for ourselves, demand transparency, and set ourselves free from this low-price death spiral. This optimistic conclusion was surprising given how far I felt pulled down the “all retailers are frauds” tube, but if you are a paranoid consumer or into behavioral economics, this book will have you turning page after page. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks to the folks over at Well Spent for putting this book on my radar. While it’s more consumer goods focused than just fashion specific, it is hugely helpful in understanding why we buy what we do, and how the market got to where it stands today, which hopefully will inform on how we can make a change in the future. Or God help us, we’re going to run this ship into the ground.

Share your thoughts! How does price influence our buying habits in more subtle ways? Is “cheap” addictive? How can we overcome the allure of a deal?  Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your views.

Book Review: You Are What You Wear

This I Wear | Book Review: You Are What You Wear

I realize it is now the middle of September, and I’m just getting through the first book on my summer reading list: Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You.” But better late than never. And well, I have another confession: I made it to page 120…out of 233 pages. So let’s be honest, this is not a full book review, but merely a chance for me to say that given the title and the subject matter (clothing meets psychology), I was extremely excited about this book. In fact, I thought this might even solve some of my own wardrobe dilemmas or help me to understand those of others so I could be more helpful. But the excitement was short-lived.

Here’s where I totally agree with Dr. Baumgartner: Our closets reveal a lot about who we are, for better or worse. After reading on page one that she believes “clothing is an extension of who we are,” I thought we were going to be best friends as we obviously think alike.

In each of the chapters, Dr. Baumgartner focuses on a case study of a “closet therapy” client whom she helped to dig deeper into personal issues that were revealed through wardrobe shortcomings. From the woman who spends beyond her means and doesn’t wear the nice things she buys to the women who reveal too much or cover up entirely to hide themselves, the case studies are of real women with real issues. And it’s pretty clear that they are wearing their weaknesses.

The chapter that may most closely resemble my own problems might be the “Somnambulist” chapter, but as I am anything but bored with my life (only my clothes), even that example didn’t make sense for me. Yet it was enough that I started to wonder what story I’ve been telling lately with my clothing choices. Probably tired. Maybe confused or in transition.

But I totally lost interest in the author’s theories as her strategies for overcoming these closet (and personal) ills became apparent. I am possibly exaggerating but chapter after chapter, I felt like she kept encouraging her clients to throw out everything (where are the strategies for donating or making sure your clothes are given away responsibly?) and continually shop! At a certain point, though she wasn’t advocating for indulging in trends, all I heard was shopping, shopping, shopping.

I wanted it to be more personal. And going to the mall doesn’t feel personal anymore.

So while the book was made up of a fantastic introduction followed by a disappointing episode of “What Not To Wear” hosted by a therapist, I had hoped it would be something different. I wanted her to pull out the personalities of the people she focused on. To Sarah with the stagnated life and wardrobe, I didn’t want her wardrobe just to be freshened up so she could create space for new things to happen in her life. I wanted her wardrobe to become a biography of sorts (“I’m Sarah. I’m from Vermont and I like book clubs.” Or whatever she’s into…). I wanted to learn how to share the positive stories of who we are through our wardrobes.

To wrap things up, I don’t know that I’m recommending you read the book, though there is definite value in the overall theory as well as the “Wardrobe Analysis” section that helps each reader look at her own closet with new perspective.

But that said, it has inspired me to ask myself how the person I want to become would dress – a good question for anyone similarly going through a big transition. Why? Because we truly do get to decide what story is told through our clothes, and that is where me and Dr. Baumgartner are on the same page.

Find yourself telling an unintentional story with what you’re wearing? Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your story.

Book Review: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion

This I Wear | Book Review: Overdressed
The biggest perk of a public transit commute is the opportunity to read more than you ever thought possible. And I have been speed-walking to the train and reading about anything and everything but fashion, because, to be candid, I needed a little fashion break.

But I found that the more I didn’t read about fashion, the more I saw it pop up in the most unexpected places (which reminds me of another book). At the risk of you judging my reading list, I recently finished “The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service” and couldn’t help but focus on how Lady Astor would wear and re-wear and re-fashion clothes into something fresh all the time, even with endless amounts of money, mostly because that’s just what people did at that time. And as I read Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project,” I became surprisingly interested to learn about her own shopping and closet clearing habits and how she believes they affect her (and everyone’s) happiness.

But to really delve into understanding what our culture’s current relationship is to its clothes and to shopping, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion” by Elizabeth Cline is a must-read. I literally have pages and pages of notes I took from this book, because I was blown away by the knowledge she was laying down.

Here’s a few jaw-dropping statistics directly from the book:

  • “The United States now makes 2% of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from about 50% in 1990.”
  • As recently as 1995, “apparel importers were often able to get their labor costs down to less than 1% of the retail price of their clothes.”
  • “Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 millions tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person…1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.”
  • “The natural resources that go into fiber production every year now demand approximately 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water.”
  • “By one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume.”
  • China has “more than 40,000 clothing manufacturers and 15 million garment industry jobs. Compare that to the 1.45 million garment and textile industry jobs the United States had at peak employment some 40 years ago.”

Cline isn’t writing for the educated ethical fashion consumer. She writes for people who like her have struggled with overflowing closets, the thrill of a sale, and a limited budget. And I appreciate that she shares her own struggle in the book. In some ways, “Overdressed” is Cline’s own Happiness Project: an attempt to clean up her closet, find clothing that made her feel good, and bring some meaning to her wardrobe.

So who should read this book? The reader who identifies with Cline’s quest:

  • “I owned more clothing than I did anything else and probably knew the least about it of anything I bought.”
  • “If I wanted to buy well-made, fashionable, moderately priced clothing, I wasn’t sure where to look.”
  • “I intentionally avoid buying plastic products such as bottled water because they are oil-dependent and not biodegradable, yet here I was with a closet full of the stuff.” (i.e. polyester)
  • “When we entirely gave up homemade and custom clothing, we lost a lot of variation, quality, and detail in our wardrobes, and the right fit along with it.”

So please read it, if only because I really want to talk about it more and I need someone to talk with about it.

What are you reading lately? Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your current reads.

Book Review: Future Fashion White Papers

FutureFashion White Papers Review | This I Wear

“When people are seduced into being thoughtfully and actively engaged with what they wear – asking crucial questions like, Where does this come from? What are its possibilities now? What will happen to it next? – then sustainability will be within our grasp.” – Kate Fletcher

In 2008, when I first became interested in sustainability within the apparel industry, I wasn’t quite sure where to look for information. It was not quite the hot topic it seems to be today. But I did find a wonderful resource in FutureFashion White Papers, published in 2007.

What do you think of when you hear “sustainable fashion”? Organic fabrics, local manufacturing, reduced water waste or pollution, fair trade labor practices? The sheer complexity of the apparel industry is one of the reasons I became interested in it in the first place. Sustainability means so many things to so many different people, so if you are confused or don’t know where to even start when it comes to sustainable fashion, you are not alone.

If you are looking for a one-stop resource to give you an overview of the incredible scope of sustainability within the apparel industry, this book is a great place to start. Editor Leslie Hoffman turned to experts within their respective specialties to explain how they see sustainability in the apparel industry. Contributors include Julie Gilhart, Natalie Chanin (designer, Alabama Chanin), Michael Braungart (author, Crade to Cradle), and one of my favorite voices in the field, Kate Fletcher. This means that you will get the inside scoop on the “side effects” of different materials (cotton, bamboo, leather, hemp), the lifecycle of clothing (have you thought about the impact of laundering your clothes the last time you bought a garment?), obstacles to innovation in the field (from GM crops to intellectual property sharing), and everything in between.

A few factoids that surprised me:
– Cotton naturally occurs in a spectrum of colors, not just white.
– Clothing dyed with natural indigo reaches the optimum color after a year of washing and wearing.
– Textile recycling is extremely lucrative but can’t be added into the typical curbside recycling because natural fibers would mold.
– There are two types to bamboo fiber production – one more mechanically intensive, the other more chemically intensive (i.e. how eco-friendly is that bamboo item you bought?)

All of those wonderful things said, you shouldn’t read this book without a questioning mind. I don’t agree with all of the conclusions, which can sometimes seem shallow or business-influenced. If you do pick up this book, look at who writes each article and question their motives. You might be new to sustainable fashion, but a willingness to question is the key characteristic of a responsible consumer.

Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear with your favorite sustainable fashion reads or a book you’d like to have reviewed here.

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