Ready To Wear: Ethical Fashion?

Fashion, we all know, is about rather more than just frocks. With this in mind, the strange juxtaposition of two events in the British capital last Thursday provided food for thought. On the one hand, a substantial part of London's Victoria was cordoned off to allow the hugely privileged creature that is the core Chanel customer to attend that label's first ever fashion show in this country without having to rub shoulders with anything so unsightly as a member of the general public, say. On the other, outside branches of Topshop countrywide, War On Want were encouraging students - probably that high street institution's core customer - to protest against what it describes as the store's "exploitation of workers" in the developing world. "The 1.2 billion dividend for Sir Philip Green, who owns UK retailer Topshop, was enough to double the salaries of Cambodia's whole garment workforce for eight years," read a press release issued by that pressure group.

Of course, the Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, today the grandest couturier still practising his craft, is unlikely ever to be strapped for cash. His income too would presumably keep a large proportion of the developing world in a manner to which it is not accustomed. Having said that, the more obviously elitist concern is, debatably, more politically correct than the democratic one, particularly in this instance.

Lagerfeld was in London, of course, putting on his annual Maisons d'Art collection, an event specifically designed to show-case the work of the atelier which provide the finest hand-crafted embellishment to all the great names, the embroiderer Lesage, the boot maker Massaro and the feather specialist Lemarie among them. Chanel has what might best be described as a special relationship with these workshops, having bought them outright five years ago now in order to preserve them not to mention the strictly unionised jobs of the skilled craftspeople involved, at least some of whom supplied the late Coco herself.

More broadly, for those bored of the rapacious pace of even the designer fashion industry today, investing in Chanel may be a shrewd move. As the unprecedented number of extraordinarily well-dressed clients at last week's presentation went to prove the label remains quintessentially chic, classically elegant and may be adapted to suit extremely diverse tastes, ages and body sizes.

There must be a downside, surely? But of course. Chanel, by almost any standards, is hugely expensive and there are therefore only very few who can reasonably consider buying it. A single piece from this great Gallic institution may be more precious than an entire high street collection, however. The rest of the world might have to make do with less rarefied designs but that doesn't mean we can't dream or indeed be mindful that these also come at a price.

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