Curiosity about apparel and fashion have become something of a hobby and I'm putting together some thoughts for a talk to people with a lot of background knowledge. In thinking about possible trajectories, I've been spending some time looking at how we got to where we are - not only has their been a dramatic move to mass produced apparel, but there has been a dramatic shift towards very low cost production, low quality clothing and shrinking delays between design and delivery. I won't go into much of that, but something really interesting happened during the 70s - a period when several forces conspired to rapidly accelerate change in both the industry and the consumer. But first a bit on metastable states.
Consider a landscape that is flat on the left moving towards some hills as you move to the right. An object under the influence of gravity will move to the lowest point. A ball that finds itself on the plain won't magically move up the hills. If the ball is in the valley labeled b it won't move to the plain or the valley c unless you give it a kick. Even though being on the plain is theoretically more stable, it is stuck in a stable stable. If I get it a kick to the left it can roll up the little hill and then zip downward. Likewise a harder kick to the right could land it in valley c. a, b and c are all stable - the overall system has three metastable states. The ball can only move from one to the other if some outside kick is applied.
In the early 70s Richard Nixon was faced with several trade issues. Cheap imported clothing from Taiwan, Japan, Korea and a few other countries were on the radar screen as American apparel companies folded under intense competition. Nixon had positioned himself as a hero of the American worker and ginned up multinational support with European countries that having similar problems and a massive trade agreement - the Multifiber Agreement or MFA - was signed.
South Korea and the others suddenly had a big problem. Enormous factories and production capacities far beyond the trade limits. The MFA was killing their business. But it was a very complex and targeted agreement and, in that focus, came a way out.
About this time a few people in Pakistan were frantically looking for new businesses to pull the country out of total poverty. A chance meeting took place with Daewoo in South Korea and an agreement was hammered out. The MFA quota was specific to South Korea, but didn't say anything about Pakistan - after all - Pakistan was a basket case.
Daewoo set up a facility in Pakistan and trained Pakistani managers. Problem solved. Similar agreements were made between other pairs of countries and the spiral to the lowest cost producer ramped up.
Nixon, in trying to focus so tightly, had supplied just enough energy to kick the ball up the hill so it could roll into another valley. The system had been perturbed and settled into a new metastable state. And other influenes were being felt.
Container shipping was emerging as as a way to move massive amounts of goods to ports around the world at very low costs. It was often more expensive to ship clothing within the America than from Pakistan to an American port. People began to get used to cheap apparel - it wasn't made very well, but cheap trumped all and closets began to fill.
The impact of the shift started to take its toll on American firms, but now Reagan President and he had little appetite for protecting union workers. Buying patterns were changing. Companies like Daewoo moved upscale, but did so with high production and lower quality. What was being marketed as mid-quality wasn't built to the standards of a decade earlier. Vintage boffin Jheri notes you don't find much that is newer than 1980 - the quality had dropped so much that little of it is worth repairing.
Clothing had become an expendable. There is an interesting connection between this and the notion of what fashion is. Fashion was now being dictated more than assembled and marketing changed instep.1 This continues to accelerate and now we are in the era of fast fashion - where a design can move to production in a few weeks and to the shelfs in six weeks by boat or almost immediately by air. There are so many rich threads (pardon the pun) and now, with entry of a few new technologies and rich "word of eye" communications on the Internet, we may be on the edge of a new major change. It will take time to move a $1.7T industry ($350 to $400B in the US), but there has been massive change in the recent past.
Perhaps the industry will get excited to the point where a new metastable state (or states) will be found...
1 The history is much more complex and interesting than this - consider this a 100 mile view. There are a number of fascinating books on the subject. For the current state I recommend Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline and for the current state of production and a bit of history try The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Petra Rivoli. Jheri thinks about this quite a bit and has a guest post here.
A winning pecan pie that isn't as supersweet as those made with karo syrup. I realize good pecans are nearly unobtainum this year. A friend sent me a nice supply, so I'm set for the season. I love to bake, but tend to give things like this away as I don't want too much of this sort of indulgence.
Maple Pecan Pie
° an unbaked pie shell (use whatever technique you prefer. I like a good graham cracker crust or a convention flour/butter crust for this one)
° 215 g (about 2 cups) of coarsely chopped pecans
° 55 g dark brown sugar
° 25 g tapioca
° 3/4 tsp salt
° 240 g (about 1 cup) grade B high quality maple syrup (the dark brown grade)
° 60 g heavy cream
° 1 tsp vanilla extract
° 2 large eggs
° preheat oven to 425°F
° lay the pecans in the pie shell
° whisk together the sugar through salt in a medium sized bowl. Then whisk in the maple syrup and cream. Finally whisk in the eggs one at a time.
° pour over the pecans and pop into the oven
° bake for 20 minutes and then drop the heat to 350°F for another 30 minutes.
° let the pie cool on a rack for at least an hour before serving
° top with a good ice cream or whipped cream if you want something over the top