On Monday, May 2nd, six celebrities donned H&M for the annual Met Gala. On Tuesday, May 3rd, people in over forty cities across the globe protested unsafe conditions for garment workers in H&M factories, which H&M pledged to remedy back in 2013.
Editor Nicola Fumo, reporting on the Met Gala for Racked, writes,“The jury is still out on how H&M’s ‘couture’ holds up next to the likes of Givenchy and Valentino on the red carpet, but it does seem fitting that a modern heavy hitter whose success is predicated on speed and innovation should be so heavily represented at an event examining ‘fashion in an age of technology.’”
Each year the Met Gala is held to mark the opening of the Costume Institute’s exhibit, with this year’s being “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.” As usual, much was written about celebrity beauty routines leading up to the gala, what celebrities wore during the gala, and where celebrities partied after the gala. Very little attention was paid to “fashion in an age of technology,” or technological advances in the vein of sustainability, with a few exceptions.
In this month’s issue of Vogue, Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, says one of his inspirations for the exhibit was a Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dress, which he initially assumed was hand-sewn, but later discovered the iconic garment was mostly machine-made. Bolton says, “I began thinking that, in actual fact, the gap between high-end ready-to-wear and couture is getting smaller.”
With the arrival of H&M at the Met Gala, the gap seems to be shrinking.
In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline writes, “Fast fashion is certainly an industry innovation and not possible in the globalized fashion industry without technological progress. […] Fast fashion’s true secret to success does not lie in advanced technology of close-by factories—it’s in selling an unprecedented amount of clothing.”
We live in the most technologically advanced age, but instead of coming up with more innovative methods of production, multinationals have chosen to shift manufacturing into overdrive. An unprecedented amount of clothing has resulted in an unprecedented amount of waste. Cline writes, “All those blends of wonderful low-maintenance Frankenfabrics we’re now buying—the polyester-viscose blends and the wool-nylon-acetate blends in my own closet, for example—aren’t recyclable, as the technology does not exist to separate the fibers back into their original state.”
No one understands this better than H&M. In 2015, the retailer offered a one million dollar prize for a new technique to recycle clothes. “Closing the loop” is all fine and well, an admiral goal, but whether it can be done on such a scale is questionable. Ultimately, waving a million dollar wand seems to be a distraction from addressing root issues: namely, overconsumption driven and promoted by brands, often at the expense of the environment and the garment workers. Three years after a factory collapse in Bangladesh claimed over a thousand lives, 55% of H&M’s supplier factories still don’t have adequate fire exits.
Yet the brand isn’t going anywhere. In The First Monday in May, Vogue Editor Anna Wintour is shown arranging the seating chart for the 2015 Met Gala. With both index fingers on the table labeled “H&M,” she glares at the magazine’s events coordinator and says, “We shouldn’t bury this table.” There is a long, blink-less pause before she adds, “Seriously.” The moment stands out from the rest of the film as one where much goes unsaid while much, much more is understood—that there is an inclination to bury this table, with its reputation, and yet one “seriously” “shouldn’t,” given the amount of revenue generated, and the power associated with that revenue.
Though accepted into prestigious circles like the Met Gala, it seems the prejudice against fast-fashion remains. Andrew Bolton, in this issue of Vogue, says, “This idea of fashion 24/7—it’s not a good thing, I think. It doesn’t encourage designers to step back and have original thoughts.”
One can only hope that H&M’s shift toward couture—alongside their one million dollar prize for innovative recycling technologies—signals a larger shift in the company’s trajectory. However, if anyone is going to take H&M seriously in spaces like the Met or in celebrations of “fashion in an age of technology,” the company needs to stop shirking their basic responsibilities to the environment and human rights.