WORDS BY ROSILY ROBERTS
Increasingly, the word ‘fast’ has negative connotations. In a world that once heralded acceleration as an emblem of progress and modernity, now there are growing efforts to slow things back down to a comfortable, even-breathed pace.
Take fast food, for example. There was a time when fast food represented the height of progress, liberation from the chore of cooking for many women, formerly bound to the kitchen, granted the ability to work more, have more independence. Now, however, we’re being encouraged to cook more often and shop organic, shop fresh, as fast food comes under constant criticism for its poor nutritional value and the myriad health problems it’s been proven to cause.
Fast fashion and fast food have a lot in common: the lack of substance, the instant cloying gratification followed by a hollow dissatisfaction, the waste. It’s this notion that Channel 4’s 2020 documentary, Inside Missguided: Made in Manchester, touches on, albeit potentially unwittingly, during a pivotal scene inside the Missguided offices. The show documents the day after their summer party, staff nursing hangovers with the familiar cheap warmth of those emblemed brown paper bags, brimming with fast food and empty ketchup wrappers.
Strewn across desks are the greasy remnants of Egg McMuffins and discarded plastic straws. Littered around the office are the vestiges of a company built on a super-fast fashion model: cheap clothing falling off hangers and flung on the backs of chairs, endless plastic packages dutifully clinging to each other in piles on the floor.
The similarities are stark, yet the comparison seems unintentional. In fact, Channel 4’s documentary aims to glorify and celebrate the fast fashion behemoth. One scene shows a member of the design team delighting in the fact that they saw a dress on model Sophia Richie’s Instagram and (she brags) within three days the company have copied the design, had a sample made up and are ready to place a bulk order from their manufacturer. The dress will be available on Missguided’s website within days. No mention is made of the human cost. Later, she’s shown haggling with the manager of the factory who makes these dresses, trying to shave pennies off the cost of a dress that already costs only £7.50 to make. “How fast could I get, like, a thousand units of that? Is there any way we could get it any quicker?” She then giggles about driving a hard bargain.
The low cost of making these garments is even more staggering when seen in contrast with the £350k and Land Rover (worth £80k) offered to the Love Island finalist, Molly-Mae Hague, for a collaboration that she ultimately refuses.
A couple of episodes later, the £200m annual turnover is rewarded with a free bar and ‘rave’ at the summer party. Missguided, it seems, is not a business short on cash. And yet, no mention is made of how much garment workers are paid, and, in fact, very little air time is given to them at all, other than a short section filmed in a UK factory, and the cursory mention of some garments coming from Pakistan.
For a documentary purporting to be about the entire production process, a very large part of the workforce is obviously and painfully omitted. There’s no mention of how much these people are paid, very little allusion to the potential ethical landscape of their working conditions, and it doesn’t take a stellar imagination to work out whether or not these workers are included on the summer rave invite list.
Meanwhile, the employees that do feature extol the empowerment they feel. “We drink pints and we swear and we get our tits out if we want to, because we’re empowered,’ one of them says, proudly, a few minutes into episode one. It’s true, they do all seem to wear an invisible cloak of confidence when at work. Many of them explain that Missguided gave them a route into fashion that they would otherwise have struggled to find, in an industry that tends to be hideously nepotistic. Creative director, Treasure, left school at sixteen, got a job at Missguided and worked her way up. The brand has clearly fostered some inspirational stories of social mobility, which may not have had room to take root in other organisations.
However, there’s something dubious about the esteem these people tend to regard their employer in. “It might be owned by a man, but it’s definitely us that run the show,” the narrator exclaims. The workforce is predominantly female, but all of the highest management positions are occupied by men, and not men who seem to be particularly familiar with feminist ideology, either.
For example, the CEO proudly describes a marketing stunt in which he spent a vast amount of money wrapping his Lamborghini in a pink coating with a swimsuit-clad Pamela Anderson on the bonnet, surrounded by $1,000 bills, which featured his face in lieu of that of a former president. A picture speaks a thousand words, as they say. During the series, a TV advertisement is pulled for being too sexually suggestive. The CEO shrugs it off. All publicity is good publicity.
What’s most problematic, however, is the sheer volume of clothing being produced. Clothes are churned out in a staggering volume and at an eye-watering pace. Two designers are chastised by the CEO for suggesting that only 300 units of a certain dress be ordered. He’s not interested in small numbers, he explains: it’s not worth his time unless things are designed, ordered and made in bulk. He wants to talk about 3,000 units, not 300.
Black Friday is heralded as a day to celebrate, with a huge amount of stock designed and produced specially to satiate the sale-crazed crowds. The employees are treated to a sample sale — a cause for mass excitement – where staff rip clothes off racks and drop them to the floor like children discarding wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
For all the talk of empowerment and how much ‘fashion’, in the broadest sense, is venerated, there is very little care for the actual garments themselves. How can viewers of the programme, and shoppers at Missguided, be expected to care for their garments if the people who design and sell them appear so blatantly not to? It’s entirely antithetical to any rhetoric about making clothes last, and highlights the biggest problem with the fast fashion industry, that of unprecedented and unwarranted volume.
The clothes featured in this programme are designed to be worn once and discarded, and it’s this notion which is so deeply troubling about these business models. It’s irresponsible for Channel 4 to extoll the virtues of fast fashion so highly, when it’s that exact speed and volume which is contributing to the troubling and urgent problem of unsustainable garment production. If we take away one thing from this show, let it be that the stories of these brands are still incomplete, although boasting a seemingly empowered front line of workers, whose hands are truly hardened by producing these clothes? Where’s the rest of the story?