Tag Archives: fashion

Who really pays for cheap clothes?

Welcome to 2018, when shopping is so cheap and convenient that it’s literally entertainment for the privileged. The fast fashion industry produces a staggering 150 billion items annually and leading brands in the industry, such as Topshop, spit out over 400 new styles per week. Online-exclusive brands like Asos are the new behemoths of apparel, skyrocketing in popularity and sales. While customers might enjoy having access to runway looks for low prices, the shorter turnaround times for manufacturers come at incredible costs. 

As the apparel industry outsources much of its labour to developing countries and is the second highest polluter of clean water, the impact of constant consumption cannot be overstated. We’re sacrificing more than just quality to satisfy ever-evolving and ever-increasing demands. 

Fashion itself has undergone a makeover in the past few decades. What was once a game of forecasting trends is now a race to replicate styles the quickest. Fast fashion brands are less interested in investing in design, and are instead inspired by popular fads. Not only has this shortened design and consumption times, but it has shortened the lifespan of each piece. On average, items are worn for around a month before being forgotten or tossed for the next round of styles. Fast fashion legitimizes and reproduces the mainstream attitude toward clothing as disposable. This leads to novelty items that wear out quickly — nothing is made to last — and consumers are hooked on retailers, increasing profits. 

What was once the fulcrum of fashion — originality, artistic value, and luxury — has been replaced by a culture of obsolescence. But most critically, we’re allowing bargains to supersede morality. This newfound world of ‘disposable’ clothing turns a blind eye to exploitation. 

 Where do our clothes come from?  

In 1990, most clothing for sale in the United States was locally made, but in 2015, 97.5 per cent of the United States’ apparel was imported.

While the garment industry has been the site of significant labour abuses since the Industrial Revolution, outsourcing labour to developing countries has allowed corporations to regularly escape from regulatory frameworks that were established to protect workers and the environment. The pressures of this accelerated pace to get clothing from design to shelf trickle down to labourers, resulting in poor working conditions, abuse, and child labour. 

Sexual and physical abuse in factories are often the norm, and victims have little to no safe avenues to report abusive incidents. The International Labour Organization estimates that roughly 170 million children are engaged in child labour, with many working in the nooks and crannies of the fashion supply chain. From cottonseed production in Benin to the long, intensive hours spent harvesting the plant in Uzbekistan, there is no limit to the dangers that these minors are subjected to. Employers are rarely held to account for these abuses — and when they are, consumers don’t always pay attention. 

Factory workers put their health at risk every day, but the industry equates absence of injury with health, failing to examine how workers’ physical, social, and mental well-being is held hostage by their dehumanizing employment. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, labour standards are so skewed that wages only amount to less than three per cent of the cost of most clothing items.

Even when labour stays local, manufacturers absorb immigrant and refugee populations who have no choice but to accept pay below minimum wage. In a report on Los Angeles garment factories, 42 per cent of surveyors revealed that exits and doors were regularly blocked, 49 per cent noted that there were no first aid kits on site, and a shocking 82 per cent of workers said that they had never been provided with any health or safety training. Evidently, the fashion industry isn’t good for anyone other than those who profit directly from it. 

 Morality in the closet      

While the Global North revels in the postmodern phenomenon of trying on temporary identities with endless supplies of garments, the Global South pays the price in suffering. A perpetual sense of urgency and drive for increasing profit forces employees to work at ridiculous speeds, leaving little time, space, and energy for them to assert their legal rights or to address violations of their rights.  

How can we change our consumption patterns? 

Ethical, sustainable brands have difficulty gaining traction, in large part because the sticker price is often significantly higher. Why bother shelling out more when something similar can be found at your local Gap? Ironically, it is the same capitalist system that pushes consumers to scrape for the ‘best deal’ that also oppresses the workers producing the goods. These workers, strangled by low wages and poor conditions, don’t have the resources to support ethical brands themselves. 

But for the privileged, each purchase becomes a vote. Opting for vegan shoes over leather boots is a vote for animal rights. Buying less and investing in responsible retailers is a vote for ethical values. While we may not always have the funds to throw our support behind every conscious brand, we need to recognize that what we dress ourselves in is a message to the retail industry. 

It’s easy to be swayed by the Amazon package of 25 per cent off items, or a $20 H&M dress that looks just like your favourite Instagram model’s, but saving a couple of bucks doesn’t mean that a price was not paid — we’re just not the ones paying it. 

The clothes that made me

A long chiffon dupatta that can’t quite decide whether it is red or dark pink. It is simultaneously a comforting talisman, a fun, shapeshifting toy, and a way for my three-year-old self to imitate the women around me. I drape it on my head to mime a dulhan, drape it across my chest to mimic an aunty, tuck it closely around my neck and become a larki, and then reverse the larki-tuck to become a dulha or a dancer. If I feel particularly fancy, then I wrap it around my torso as a makeshift sari. 

My dress-up is punctuated by coos, cheek pinches, and exclamations of “cute!” I revel in both the possibilities it holds, the protection it offers, and the positive attention it brings.

I want to hold that dupatta and absorb the warmth it offers one more time.

A white cotton shalwar that Mama gives to me to wear with my white uniform frock the first day of third grade. In a sea of bare legs, both male and female, my shalwar-enclosed legs reflect the strong, sweltering Pakistani morning sunlight rather than absorbing it. 

“Why are you wearing a shalwar?” boo the boys and girls. “It’s not part of our uniform!”

I shrug, stammer, “My mom made me,” and suffer the distaste and disgust that third graders heap on someone who dares to go against the status — or uniform — quo. The white shalwar is a white flag for my legs. They, cursed with coarse black hair and even coarser thighs, have surrendered to the demand that they never be seen in public again. 

All the dupattas that I use to play an odd game of push-and-pull with my brother. The game comprises of us holding either end of the dupatta and pulling the other where we want to go, be it up the stairs, out to the garden, or to our Baba’s study. 

Suddenly, I can’t play games of push-and-pull with those dupattas anymore, because I have to wear them, Mama tells me. Properly, she emphasizes. And my chest is like dough in an oven — rising and expanding. Any time an older male, related to me or otherwise, comes over, I have to drape the slippery-slidey nuisances across my chest, lest it burn their eyes when they look at me. I don’t think to ask Mama why older men would be looking at the chest of a nine-year-old. 

A cotton shalwar kameez suit tinged with hues of orange, yellow, and green that my nano — Mama’s mom — sews for me. Mama forgets half the clothes I am supposed to change into for my uncle’s Eid party at home. I alternate between sulking and shouting and silence.

Then Mama presents me with the labour of love that is the shalwar kameez that Nano made for me. I forget the shape and shade of the clothes I am supposed to wear. I flow into the shalwar kameez, float out of the room, and flout rules by asking everyone for Eidi first. Nano doesn’t need spells; she has a SINGER machine. I wish I learned to sew. 

A baby-pink, half-sleeve Gap t-shirt with a small rhinestone on its top-left corner that my tayi — Baba’s older brother’s wife — buys me a week into our family vacation to Canada. My family and I come back home after having spent the day at a family friend’s house when my tayi shows me the t-shirt. “It’s a little big for a nine-year-old,” Tayi says, “but why don’t you try it on?”

I am in the midst of modeling the shirt for my tayi and Mama, when my brother stumbles into the room. “Dado died.” Disbelief tinges his voice. My paternal grandmother back in Pakistan is no more. Tears wet my cheeks, slide down my neck, and seep into the pink t-shirt as I struggle to take it off in the bathroom. The t-shirt accompanies me to Pakistan for her funeral ceremony, and it returns with me to Canada when my family immigrates. I keep the t-shirt long after I stop wearing it. 

A pair of flared Gap jeans that I bring back to Pakistan as a souvenir of my vacation to Canada, a sign of my modernity, a symbol of my coolness. I never wear them.

But then, there is a party at school and everyone is wearing jeans and if I don’t I’ll be uncool, so I tell Mama that, but Mama tells me to wear a shalwar kameez suit. I can’t say no to her, so I stuff the jeans inside my bag and change when I’m at school, but change back before I come home. “You took the jeans anyway, didn’t you?” Mama asks.

I brush past her. I wish I hadn’t lied.

A cotton black shalwar kameez suit with grey flowers printed on it that my 11-year-old self wears during the 14-hour flight to Toronto, my new home.

The thin shalwar kameez is no match for the cold tone that the airport immigration officers speak to my mother in, the dismissive stares that punctuate my journey through Pearson International Airport, or the icy wind that greets me outside it. 

The shalwar kameez is a symbol of everything my family and I bring from Pakistan: experience, education, and culture. I must distance myself from it to succeed in the Caucasian, colonial country of Canada. I bury the shalwar kameez deep in my closet in our two-bedroom apartment that houses four. I bury with it my penchant for desi music and movies, my propensity to mix Urdu with my English, and my preference for biryani over burgers. I water these buried seeds of shame with self-hatred until they bloom into a plant of whitewashing. It is only seven years after the bleach has burned Urdu off my tongue, the sounds of desi music from my ears, and the smell of masala from my nose that I realize that I will never be white. 

I wish I was brave enough to wear a shalwar kameez in public.

A ready-made white hijab adorned with sequined black diamonds that Mama forces me to wear when I start school in Canada. The white emphasizes my brownness, the black brings out the dusting of dark hair above my upper lip, and the combination of the two underlines the fact that I am foreign and fresh off the boat; it undermines my every effort to fit in.

“People need to be able to tell that you’re Muslim,” Mama reminds me when I ask her why I must wear a hijab. People need to be able to see that they should avoid you is what I interpret when I observe the wide berth people give me.

Mama doesn’t yet understand that Muslims inspire mistrust, microaggressions, and misgivings. I don’t have the Urdu words to explain this to her, so I lie instead. I lie about wearing the hijab at school when I take it off once I get there, and I lie awake at night worrying about her finding out. I wish I was brave enough to tell my mother how I really felt.

A ready-made black hijab that Mama buys me when I decide, two years after my deception dilemma, to wear a hijab for good. I suddenly represent an entire group of people. I must answer every day whether it is really hair I’m hiding under there. I automatically stand out in a room and I can never feel safe in public again. Sometimes, I think I made the wrong decision.

A pile of pastel Forever 21 dresses that don’t fit me no matter how hard I tug. “Do you need a size?” The floor assistant’s helium-infused voice mocks me from outside the changing room. “No,” my lie is muffled by layers of lace and tulle wrapped around my face while I struggle to shoulder one of the dresses off. “I’m okay.” I shove the dress off, take in the angry red marks that it and its predecessors cursed me with, and alternate between cursing the fashion industry and my fitness levels on my way home. 

“You wouldn’t be sad if you were just a little bit skinnier,” I berate myself. “I wouldn’t feel the need to be skinnier if society didn’t value and make clothes for thin bodies only,” I return. 

I wish I was happy with myself.

A quilted black winter jacket that I wear one winter day as I walk to my bus stop. The cold Canadian winter wind stopped bothering me a long time ago, except on this day. On this day, it carries to me catcalls from a troupe of teenage boys as they drive past. 

Shame and shock paint my cheeks a damning hot red, infuse an itchiness at the back of my neck, and shrink the previously comfortable jacket so it scratches and scrapes me.

“What were you wearing?” I imagine people asking me, if I relayed this instance of harassment to them, just like they do if anyone reports a similar incident. 

I wonder if my answer of being covered hair to toe would shut them up. 

A cotton grey pashmina hijab with fringes on each end that I wear so often, it might as well be the only one I own. I don’t remember when the day was, why I wore that particular hijab, or where I went wearing it. I only remember boarding my bus home and feeling fingers fondling my neck. I glance behind me to find a man touching the fringe at the end of my hijab without invitation. He stops. I lean away. He starts again. 

I tug the yellow rope above my head requesting the bus to stop, jerk up and away from the man who invited himself to my body, and find a seat beside a girl near the front of the bus. 

I wish I had done something more.

Ode to Kenzo

When someone is looking to capture the essence of an area, they frequently use the term ‘personality’ as a catch-all to describe the unique and charismatic quirks of a space. Personality can evolve through numerous influencers, from individual storefronts and captivating locals to historic architecture and idealistic green spaces. The combination of these components can create a space that is indescribable, yet enthralling. The idea perpetuates itself, attracting like-minded people who thrive on the environment and support the spaces that embody it. 

‘Personality’ is often used to describe the slew of independent shops on Queen Street, or the vibrant, welcoming atmosphere of Church and Wellesley. This concept of personality is what drives tourism, encourages local pride, and makes living in a city truly worthwhile.  

 Toronto is evolving into one of the most economically prosperous cities in North America. With this comes formulaic developments and low-risk architecture erected wherever a plot of land can be zoned. In this concrete jungle, however, one space still stands as an embodiment of personality: Kensington Market. 

It’s only in Kensington that a Jamaican-Italian fusion restaurant can co-exist with a sailor-style tattoo parlour and an off-the-wall kids’ toy store. From cheap eats to Victorian-style architecture and prosperous parks, it’s the ideal space to happily waste away a Sunday. Kensington Market has, for many years, been the personification of anti-corporate sentiment and a pioneer for preserving local integrity. 

But recently, new developments and chains have begun to enter the market, bringing with them a subtler type of gentrification, one that the market has explicitly fought for years. 



History of the market 

Originating in the 1870s, Kensington Market has long been a space occupied by various cultural groups. British and Irish immigrants were the first to monopolize Kensington, giving the area its distinctly British name. By the 1900s, Jewish immigrants had quickly filled the space and begun selling goods in front of their homes. This casual, entrepreneurial environment is what gave the area its distinctive ‘market’ quality. Following World War II, the Jewish community moved to wealthier areas, opening the doors for other European immigrants to move in. Portuguese immigrants established some of the most solid roots of any European community, but they also moved into more wealthy areas around the 1970s. Following this, South Asian immigrants began opening shops in Kensington, which marked the advent of its eclectic design today. 

As its popularity continued increasing, countless efforts were made to change the space in one way or another. Companies such as Walmart and Starbucks attempted to open in the market but were strongly and successfully resisted by the city councillor and community groups. Today, the market is designated as a Canadian national historic site. 

It’s difficult to classify Kensington’s changes in the past few years as gentrification in the traditional sense. Often, gentrification is signaled by rising rents or corporate invasion and confirmed upon the opening of a Whole Foods. But what Kensington has gone through in the past few years has been far more nuanced. Local chains have opened shiny new shops, new condos have quietly been assembled, and the sidewalks seem perhaps mildly cleaner. 

But what does this mean? The market is far from destroyed. In fact, it remains the pinnacle of personality in the city. Despite the implied law of ‘independent shops only,’ the opening of anything outside of that does not inherently ruin the character of the space. These stores are far from incompatible and, in fact, are often complementary. Regardless, with this law in mind, the appearance of a Jimmy’s Coffee begins to feel more than mildly disingenuous. To imply that corporations aren’t welcome, yet embracing a well-funded chain, presents residents with a unique dilemma that they were neither prepared for nor aware of. Is the opening of these stores adverse to the market’s culture? 

The market’s shops are often highly specialized in their product, and, as such, can avoid inducing competition, instead enhancing each other’s performance. It is because of this specialized nature and wide variety that Kensington has rightfully sustained its ‘market’ distinction. Shoppers recognize the value in going to multiple stores to get the best of what the market has to offer, instead of going to the traditional one-stop-shop. Simply because one store is newer or better funded than the other does not change the nature of the area. 

What Kensington has done so effectively is preserve its integrity by fending off national chains, while simultaneously recognizing inevitable gentrification and demanding that new stores adapt to the established environment. Any new store that can reinforce the market’s style and widen the diverse range of options should be welcomed openly.   



Kensington today

In an interview with Toronto Life, Aaron Levy raised the concern that “the creeping gentrification and concomitant rise in real estate values, many argue, are stripping the market of its eccentric character and driving out the less affluent people who live there.” This is the ultimate concern of a community that has been increasingly difficult to protect. He went on to argue, “But has that really happened? People have been saying the market’s dead for years, yet it’s still pretty much the only place in Toronto where you can fly your freak flag as high as you like.”

 Beyond the storefronts and quirky atmosphere, Kensington is home to many individuals who have been battling to keep their homes, but are faced with insurmountable rent increases from fierce landlords. The universally accepted disadvantage of gentrification is that residents are priced out of their homes. The displacement of locals is a tragic consequence of an environment that is infused with hipster bread and lavish poke bowls. But who is to blame for this? Some point to the city for neglecting the need for affordable housing, while others look to the landlords who ruthlessly capitalize on their appreciating asset. 

William Strange, a University of Toronto Professor of Urban Economics, outlines the true uncertainty of city planning. Although the burden and blame is imposed on the city for an area’s eventual form, Strange explains how “it’s really hard to engineer neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods happen. The coolest ones happen because people make little individual decisions that make them interesting.” Ultimately, the city has far too little power to dictate what landlords will do with their spaces.

Meanwhile, those same landlords are simply replying to a supply restriction in housing. Similarly, in retail spaces, they are often capitalizing on a highly-valuable property. Strange emphasizes that one of the primary issues that the city faces is a dissonance between the universal acceptance of a lack of housing supply and the diversion of possible developments elsewhere. A prime example of this is Kensington Market itself. Currently, the city restricts developments in the area to around four storeys, while the community adamantly refuses new builds altogether. For this, Strange proposes “not a ban on development, but instead encouraging development that allows diverse ranges of income to inhabit a neighbourhood.” Simply put, he suggests generating more affordable housing in the area. Although the market should attempt to preserve its identity as much as possible, new development may not bring all the unraveling that is predicted. 

Strange goes on to explain that, “the people who want to live in a place like Kensington, as it is right now, these are people who don’t want pristine sidewalks, trees, and no people out at night. These are people who are buying into it because they like Kensington-ness. It would not surprise me if the presence of those [new] folks would strengthen rather than weaken inherent Kensington-ness.” This is important to emphasize because anyone buying into a newly built condo in the area could just as easily live along King Street. Instead, they choose to embrace the market for its character and want to support it rather than disrupt it. 

Although the development of Kensington might appear detrimental, its 150 years of perpetual flux should indicate that continuous change is inevitable. The market will evolve, but change is not always negative. 

Tourists and locals alike come to Kensington to escape the drudgery of the financial district or the monotony of corporatized Yonge Street. It’s a pocket of dynamic urban space, ripe for vibrant storefronts and eccentric individuals; it’s one of few places in the city that you want to get lost in and find yourself four hours later, stomach full and hands crowded with vintage finds. This identity and individuality should be collectively upheld and prioritized above the interests of the next big business. 

The importance of diverse and energetic pockets of Toronto cannot be overstated. They dictate the flow of our city and ultimately shape the people who live here. We are lucky to have a community full of individuals who recognize that. In this, I’m simply aiming to curb a catastrophic view of the changing environment. I challenge individuals to support new and old businesses alike, and with the same earnest devotion that led the market to where it is today. For without it, I don’t know where I would go on Sunday mornings.