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Dana Thomas, Author of Fashionopolis

Dana Thomas, Author of Fashionopolis

 

This is a transcript of Dana's interview on Heart Stock Radio, hosted by Carole Murphy, founder of Purse for the People. You can also listen to the audio recording of this program HERE

Carole

Good Evening, you're listening to Heart Stock Radio, and I'm your host Carole Murphy. Today, our guest is Dana Thomas. And this is an especially wonderful episode as Dana is speaking with us from Paris. So, big deep breath, first adventure overseas here, and it couldn't be with a better guest. So, I'd like to remind you that you can find us on Facebook. You can also email us at heartstockradio@gmail. In just a moment, Dana Thomas will be with us and tell us all about what she is up to. Thanks for listening, this is Heart Stock.

Carole

Hello, this is Heart Stock Radio. I'm your host, Carole Murphy. Clark Grant is in the studio and today, our guest is Dana Thomas. She is an author, and fashion editor at British Vogue. Dana, hi, how are you?

Dana

Fine. Thank you. Thanks for having me on the program.

Carole

Oh, it's a great pleasure. So this is your third book, if I'm correct. And I'm wondering if you can just give a little intro for our listeners and tell them a little bit about what drew you to fashion and your journalism in the field of fashion.

Dana

Well, I became a journalist, I've always wanted to be a journalist. I knew since I was a kid that I wanted to be a journalist. We visited the Philadelphia Bulletin, which was the evening paper for Philadelphia when I was a kid. And we visited when I was in Girl Scouts. And I thought this was just the coolest thing I'd ever seen. And I wanted something that I wanted to be a part of it. So we had journalism class in high school. And I took it and we went to visit the New York Times. And that's when I really knew that that's what I wanted to do. And we read all sorts of books by journalists like Tom Wicker, and James Reston, and Hunter S. Thompson, about covering the campaign trail, and I thought I wanna be a political reporter. And then when I was 18, my father organized for me to be a fashion model to pay for my college education. And I was sent to Paris by my New York agency, and fell in love with Paris and spent three years there making money to go back and get my journalism degree. But I always thought that fashion was sort of like a means to an end the thing that I was going to do, just so I could become the political writer I wanted to be. And I got back to Washington and went to university and landed a job very entry level at the Washington Post as a copy eight, as bottom of the rung as you can get in the newsroom, and worked my way up a bit. And that summer, that first summer while I had just finished college, the fashion editor needed a new assistant. And she'd heard that there was this copy eight up and then on the national news desk, who spoke French and had lived in Paris and worked as a model and knew how to say, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. And so she tapped me, you know that well, that was in the newsroom where they were they were still wearing suede patches on their blazers. Oh, those Yeah. So. So in lots of tweads there were still a lot of tweads in the newsroom back then. So I, I she tapped me to work for her that summer. And it just sort of seemed to click that I thought that fashion was like this individual thing that I'd done, you know, compartmentalize that that was something I'd done, and it was finished. And now it's going to be a journalist. And she showed me that you could write about fashion as a serious journalist, that in fact, it was, you know, it was as serious as politics and business. And in fact, it was in a sense politics and business. And not just about headlines and heel heights and whatever the new pink is. Especially in Washington, happily, you know, where there wasn't much fashion sense but yet there was fashion business, there was fashion politics, there was legislation that was the home of the trade associations and the Footwear Association in the Apparel Association. There was legislation, you know, things, regulation, so we would write about all sorts of things, not just fashion shows and trends. And it was really fascinating and so I decided, well, this could work for me. And then I fell in love with a Frenchman and moved back to Paris, we met at a friend's wedding. And it just seemed like the right thing to do. I was writing about France and about culture and about, you know, all things as a beat reporter would cover in France. But one of those things was fashion because it's one of the top four greatest, biggest industries in the country. There's agriculture, aeronautics, automobiles and fashion. And so to be a serious reporter, covering France, you needed to cover fashion. It was at a time when there were lots of mergers and acquisitions. So suddenly, I found myself writing a lot of business stories for The Washington Post, and then for Newsweek, where I joined the Bureau in Paris. And, then it just sort of evolved from there. And after 10 years of covering fashion, along with other things I covered, I was the cultural correspondent for Newsweek. So I covered Opera and Ballet and the Con and Venice Film Festivals and all the fun stuff I used to say. I realized I had enough on what had been happening, the fashion industry to put it together as a book. And that was my first book, Deluxe, how luxury lost its luster, which was about how the industry had moved in that 10 years, I've been covering it from small family-owned businesses to global publicly traded corporations.

Carole

Yes

Dana

And that's it.

Carole

Major, big business indeed.

Dana

Major, big businesss.

Carole

I'm, I'm very curious and would love your inside view of being a fashion model. What was that like? Is it as glamorous as it's portrayed in magazines? And in media?

Dana

Well, yes, and no. I mean, there was, there was certainly glamorous times, lots of fun parties, lots of interesting travel to exotic locales that would have never gone to otherwise and still haven't been back to, you know, I went to Sri Lanka in 1985 before the Civil War, I went to Cyprus, Greece, and I went to sort of, you know, like, really, I've got to stay in the Bahamas for a month. That was kind of fun. But at the same time, you know, there you were wearing fur in the summer and bikinis in the winter, because you were shooting six months in advance, and so you'd be shivering or you'd be sweltering, you'd have hairdressers, you know, cooking your hair with the hair dryers, you'd be exhausted from too much travel. You had lecherous photographers chasing after you and lecherous agents chasing after you've had to learn how to fit and luxurious playboys chasing after you. So you'd had to sort of learn to fend for yourself and fight them back. And, you know, it was and it was, it was a time, you know, we think now Oh, it must be really easy and great. But back then there was only one flight to Paris a day out of New York and I lived in Philadelphia. So I had to take a van to Philadelphia for four hours to get on this plane and fly by myself, which was a little spooky. And, you know, I'd have to wait for letters from my mother that came, you know, in dribs and drabs because we didn't have email. And if I wanted to ever call home, I had to go to the bank and get a roll of, of five Frank pieces and then find a phone booth that worked and then dropped them in like a slot machine, you know, so it was it was there were times where I was very lonely. And it was very far away from home. And it was very foreign. But it was, there were other moments where it was kind of great. It's it's much different now. We live in a much more global society. The models are looked after far more carefully. You can't get away with the bad behavior that was that men, you know, put a son through when I was when I was doing this in the early 80s. I think there's less drugs in the scene as well. I mean, it was really bad in the 80s. But that was everywhere. And you had to really work hard to sort of keep your keep your sanity in a way that I don't think you have to anymore.

Carole

In Fashionopolis. Tell us what brought this on? Did you always know that this book was up and coming? Or what was the moment you knew you had to write it?

Dana

Well, it was something that I've been noodling for some time. And I actually started working on the proposal back in 2009 or 2010. But it just wasn't quite coming together. And then, in 2011, John Galliano imploded at Christian Dior, with his racist, anti-semitic tirade drunken at a cafe and was fired. And I had covered John's career since the early days. And I saw that this was, sadly a trend a year after McQueen's suicide and a few other cases of nervous breakdowns by fashion designers, and that the pace and the demand of the business was really just putting these designers on the precipice of they were having mental breakdowns of various sorts. So, I decided to put this book aside and write that one which was a double biography, Gods and Kings, the rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, really looking at the war between art and commerce and the impact this was having on the creative side of the industry, the globalization of fashion. When that was done, that took a long time to do that took five years to finally finish and get out. I turned back to this book and in that time, what wasn't working and the proposal was coming together better, that in fact, I realized that my idea was too early before and it needed that five years to catch up, like I could see what was coming, but it hadn't come yet. Now we're starting to, but I growing up in the 1970s, you know, where we had our student teachers were hippies. But I remember the very well, the very first Earth Day, we planted a bunch of trees to make a forest and we'd have classes outside. And then there was the whole Consumer Reports Movement, and don't let you know, big business take you for a ride and that I've been always very aware of two different, you know, or three different ideas, one of them being you know, Mother Nature and being we used to say ecological, and now it seems environmentally aware, with climate change, but back then it was just, you know, the ecology movement that really did, you know, I was at an impressionable age where it really made a profound difference in my, in the way I looked at the world. We always had an organic garden, we always, you know, we're careful about waste and taking public transportation and doing things to do right. And then for the, for the planet, and then also just all those Consumer Reports, kind of programs and things. And my parents got the magazine and don't buy a lemon made me question big corporations, that they weren't perfect that they weren't penetrable that they did actually snow us and sort of look at us, like a suckers buying their products, and, you know, gave me kind of a skepticism towards business that, you know, really did stick with me. And then, you know, with my reporters training at the Washington Post in the late 1980s, that really sort of helped those two ideas come together. And show me how to pursue finding out if you're getting ripped off seeing it when it's happening, when they are telling you like when they're when they're greenwashing you, or when they're trying to snow you with their corporate spin, these were all sort of things that were very deep inside me, and I just could see, I could see what was truly happening as a reporter in the business versus what they were telling you, they were doing. And I thought, you know, we aren't that ignorant as consumers, we are actually as smart as they are. And they shouldn't keep us in the dark. So I'm going to unveil all this and tell the consumer, this is how it really is.

Carole

So once you pick the book back up and started working on it, again, how long before you actually finished it?

Dana

It was actually three years from the time I got the contract of publication, two and a half years of writing and then and editing. And then you sort of have a quiet time when they're putting together the campaign and you're waiting for it to come out. And so the whole thing got put to bed two and a half years after I started working on it.

Carole

And just like all aspects of business, technology's having its huge impact on fashion. And I think it's kind of apropos like you said you had those five years of technology kind of catching up and changes in the business catching up to what you saw coming down the pike. Did anything change in those five years as far as what you were writing about? And the orientation of the book?

Dana

Well, yes, it was a bit of a moving target. Things were advancing very quickly, you know, the lot of the startups that I just barely, you know, I mentioned, as starting up then sort of came together that where they were about to come together and get their get their money and start, you know, commercializing what they were just trying you they were piloting or prac, you know, setting up some of the things that I when I started writing the book didn't even exist. And by the time I was wrapping things up, I was like, Oh, this is a really cool company. I should spotlight. There was one I talked about, I gave it just one paragraph called Medallia Denim Mills that were just, you know, it just broken news that they were going to open this new denim factory in Vidalia, Louisiana. And they were going to pick up some of the machines from Cone Denim, which had just announced that it was closing. And I was like, I need to stick this in here, even if it's just a little mentioned, because I can feel that this is going to be a big thing. And sure enough, since then, now, Medallia Denim has become a very big and prosperous business in just 18 months. And they're using indigo from the woman I write about who's the indigo farmer from Tennessee, and they're sourcing cotton from you know, so they kind of very quickly came together and I thought I need to drop this in there, even if it's only a paragraph because this, you know, part of the title of the book is the future of fashion. And this company is obviously the future of fashion.

Carole

Yes, and I'd love to talk more about that. There's so much information in your book about just what you're touching on there as well as things that are coming down the pike technology wise. So, we're gonna take our little midway break here in just a moment. We will be right back with Dana Thomas. This is Heart Stock.

Carole

This is Heart Stock Radio. I'm Carole Murphy your host. And today our guest is Dana Thomas. She is the author of fashionopolis as well as several other books. And we were just talking about sustainability and changes in the fashion industry. You were just Dana touching on reshoring. We've lost so much ability in the United States to produce anything, it seems. Can you tell us more stories and I guess reveal to our listeners, what's happening in this regard the United States?

Dana

Well, yes, during the era of globalization in the mid 1990s, when the market really opened up because of the internet, but also because of trade agreements with countries like China and NAFTA, which we passed in the early 90s. Manufacturing moved offshore, it moved offshore really fast, it moved Mexico because of NAFTA, it moved to China because of the opening of the Chinese market, it moved to Southeast Asia because we could chip and have communications easily with the internet to places like Bangladesh and Vietnam, which just opened up its market after years. And we lifted the embargo with Vietnam. And so these jobs all moved offshore. Because, I mean, it was very simple. Say you're making a pair of blue jeans at a Levi's factory in America, as I write about in the book, you know, there was this lovely old factory in an Appalachian town in Georgia, at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. And they closed that factory, but when they had it there they had there for decades and decades. Levi's contributed to the community, they paid their workers very well, they had benefits and paid vacation. You know, maternity leave, leave is also contributed the community what we call corporate paternalism, they bought the new shelving for the local library, they paid for the lights at the high school stadium, they gave little gifts to the elderly in rest homes, they bought the jaws of life for the fire department. They sponsored the little league baseball team. So you know, they really did contribute financially to the community as well as paying workers decently and giving them jobs. But then they found that they could manufacture in China and they didn't have to pay any of that, that they could pay the workers or elsewhere, Turkey or other places. They could pay the workers a fraction of what they were paying these unionized workers in America, like when I say a fraction, they were paying them, not even 10% of what they were paying in America, the worker in America earned $20, the worker in China would be earning $2 an hour or less. And they didn't have to pay health benefits. They didn't have to pay vacation, they didn't have to pay maternity leaves, they didn't have to pay anything because they weren't even owning the factory. They weren't underwriting literally teams or buying spotlights for football fields. They didn't have to pay anything, they just had a contract where they paid the factory, somebody else owned the factory, and they just said make these things for us and ship them back. And they could nickel and dime those contracts because those factories so desperately wanted it. So all these jobs moved offshore. And that's when the profit margins of these companies went you know, sky high. And that's when you started seeing CEOs earning millions and millions of dollars because their salaries were tied to the profit margins. You know, if the company was making gazillions and profits and the CEO got zillions, in salary, and bonuses. So very few people got very rich. And meanwhile, the South of the United States where much of our garment industry, went into complete economic collapse because 98% of garment jobs went offshore in a decade. So only 2% of our clothes in America were made in America in the 1990s and early 2000s, up to like last five years ago. And that 2% pretty much was a handful of blue jeans, you know some like artists and blue jeans and military uniforms. Because there is a law that states all military uniforms must be made in the United States, American military uniforms. And that was about it. You know and some t-shirt factories in LA still churning out t-shirts for like concert t-shirts and stuff, super basic work. And but many of those factories in LA were then staffed by immigrants from Mexico they weren't, and half the factories in LA, as I described in the book are clandestine, illegal workshops filled with immigrants who are off the books. Now you can be anti-immigrant or pro-immigrant, the bad guys in this are the factory owners who are putting up these factories and paying these people $2 an hour and they're so desperate for the work in a state where the minimum wage is $10 an hour and the federal minimum wage is $7.50. They're so desperate for work, they'll take it.

Carole

Right.

Dana

And and it's really just, it's abuse by the factory owners more than anything else. And I recount some pretty horrible stories in the book about some of these clandestine American sweatshops and the brands that sourced from them and contracted them. They're also the bad guys in this because they were putting "Made In The USA" labels in their clothes, because it was officially made in the USA, and passing it off as this breathing were made by union labor, when they weren't.

Carole

So how can we turn this around? Or is it turning around? I mean, obviously, your book is a powerful force in this regard. Do you see us waking up?

Dana

I do I do. And there's two things that really push this wake up. First was, sadly and ironically, the pandemic because when we were sitting at home, we, everything slowed down, including our just mania for shopping, and then we started hearing, you know, we have more time to read, and we were reading stories about how these companies were not paying their bills in Bangladesh, and leaving people high and dry and hungry in Bangladesh, and just general bad behavior. But also, you know, I wrote the book to inform consumers so that they could make wise choices in their shopping habits. And then we have the pressure of Gen Z. And these kids, these kids are just fantastic. They're like, we just don't take no guff you can't sexually harass us, we'll call you out, you can't rip this off, we'll call you out, you can't hurt the planet, we'll call you out. We have no patience for any of this stuff. And they make a lot of noise with their addiction to sell social media. We were cursing it when they were little kids spending too much time on their phones. But now they're using it for the betterment of planet and humanity. And you see the change is happening daily. It's really quite remarkable.

Carole

And in the book, you do talk about what's coming down the pipeline as far as technology and automation. How do you see this impacting us? Is it all robots taking over American jobs once again? Or overseas jobs?

Dana

Yes, and no. First, there's two, two things really happening that are great. The first one is that we're reshoring jobs, we're reshoring manufacturing. It turns out that after 15, or 20 years of manufacturing in China and in other countries, but particularly China, the cost of labor has gone up because the Labor has gotten so skilled, and they're forming unions, and they're demanding better treatment, better wages and benefits, good on them. So brands are now saying, "well, if I have to pay $18 an hour for a Chinese worker to make my clothes, or I have to pay $18 an hour for an American labor to pay make my clothes and on the Chinese one, then I have to pay for the shipping. And in America, it's already here. Maybe I'm just gonna save money by making it here." And so there's also lots of how do they put it, there's a terminology for incentives. Incentives being offered by local governments, for example, in the Carolinas, where if you build a factory or take an old, empty, long abandoned factory refit, it was hot state of the art new technology and hire local people to work in it and run it. They will give you tax breaks, they will give you money to they will help you fix up the building, they will do all sorts of financial incentives so that you come and start businesses again, in the Carolinas. And this is happening actually throughout the United States and in throughout the South, in particular, where these factories been sitting empty for 20 years. Now, I think that's a great thing. Because we would have you know, think of yourself as a factory owner, would you have ever stopped production to tear out all your machines and update them with really expensive new ones? No, but because we had this rupture where everything went offshore and then all those machines were you know, carted out either sold or scrapped and the building's been sitting empty for 20 years, you can now come in and refit them with state of the art robotic laser, you know technology fantastic new stuff that's safer, cleaner and more efficient. Now, while you won't have 2,000 workers in that factory like you might have 30 years ago, you'll have 200, very well trained and better paid workers because the work they're doing with this technology is a higher skill and therefore a higher pay grade. And they're being taught how to run sophisticated technology and machinery that they can take into other jobs later down the line. You also have management, you have people repairing the machines, so you are creating jobs. They're just different kinds of jobs. So that town might not have had any work there five years ago, and now there's 200 new jobs, 200 is better than none, right? And then you also have, you know, we have reshoring, which is, I call it actually right shoring. And then you also the robots are getting rid of the really crummy jobs. And so again, like I said, in with the reshoring, right shoring movement, the workers aren't sitting there hand sanding jeans, they're putting them in in clean boxes, and having lasers do the work. And they're running the machine, sort of like running a video game with joysticks and having the lasers and the vacuum suck up all the dust rather than these poor people being paid pennies to work in sweltering heat, hand sanding and inhaling all the dust. So they're cleaner, safer jobs. Yes, there'll be fewer jobs. But more importantly, there'll be better jobs. But workers won't be forced to work overtime for free anymore. They won't have to work nights and weekends for free anymore because they have to keep up with all this work, that the robots will be doing it and they'll be running the robots instead, it's a much more sane way of working.

Carole

And you were talking a little earlier. We've got about, oh, three minutes left here. Can we give any additional shout outs to companies who are doing it right, maybe a well-established company who's turning their production around and an up and coming company?

Dana

A well established one would be Levi's, you know, I talked about Levi's offshoring. And they went through this really dark period where they laid off 25,000 American workers in a matter of six years. And meanwhile, the CEO who did that then retired and had a $2 million pension every year for for several years. So, they went through a very bad time where they just really dropped their compass, their moral compass, which they had, you know, a moral compass, that company was one of the most morally correct companies ever it had started as the originally as the most sustainable garment, the blue jeans, they were supposed to last you forever. But they've come back around. And so they're reshoring and reopening factories in the United States, they're adopting technology like laser distressing. They're using regenerated cotton, so that they're reading you know, bringing old garments and regenerating them and making new cotton out of it. So there we are making it more circular. They're using natural indigo and not just synthetic indigo, they're embracing all this cool technology of the startups that I spotlight in the book and really going forward in a nice bright, clean and healthy way. They're doing very well and you know what, their stock market, their stock, has gone up because it's working.

Carole

Yeah. And that's a little known fact that the more sustainable a company becomes the more profitable over the long term.

Carole

How

Dana

It's good business it's just good business. You know, there's less waste it's good business.

Carole

Yep. So how might listeners find you Dana?

Dana

Well, I have my website danathomas.com and I'm on Instagram @DanaThomasParis Twitter @DanaThomasParis. So, all three of those and there's a click through on my website to an email so you know you can just drop me a line.

Carole

I wish you a beautiful day in hopefully sunny spring Paris.

Dana

It is, April in Paris.

Carole Murphy

Indeedy, and thank you so much for being our guest on Heart Stock.

Dana

My pleasure anytime.

Carole

And we will be back as usual, next week, this is Carole Murphy, your host. Peace.

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