“Why does Bluestockings stuff cost more than Target?”
This is a not uncommon question that ends up in my inbox. I know of indie lingerie designers who’ve been called anti-feminist for charging the prices they do, which are certainly inaccessible to the poorest Americans but which reflect the value of an ethically made garment.
In some ways, ethical consumerism is a vicious cycle: it costs more to produce goods ethically, so it requires more startup capital. Then, the goods cost more. But people’s wages aren’t changing to reflect their efforts in ethical consumerism; minimum wage still won’t pay for 1-bedroom rent in any major American city, let alone allow someone to buy a pair of $50 underwear.
I have customers who save up for their Bluestockings purchases, who tell me that it matters to them to buy ethically, and it means even more when they can save to do it.
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s worth paying for or saving up for ethically made underthings, this post is for you.
Here are three simple reasons why your bra costs more.
Reason #1: Someone was paid for the design of the item
When we talk about ethical manufacturing, we are usually talking about who’s getting paid for their labor -- or, the next point on this list.
But ethical manufacturing actually starts way before then. It starts with the design process: the lengthy, exhaustive, painstakingly detailed design process.
Put another way: design is the invisible labor that goes into your underwear.
It’s easy for Forever21 to charge $5 for underwear when no one had to sit in an office designing and drafting, thinking about the ideal Forever21 customer. They rip off indie designers who do the hard work for them. Case in point: their recent copying of Knickerocker’s iconic designs.
Same goes for Urban Outfitters, who has ripped off more indie designers than probably even they know. See this article from 2011 and this one from 2014. (I refuse to step foot in any Urban Outfitters, p.s.) Check out their copy of Toru & Naoko’s Kelly Wrap Bra, which we sold here at Bluestockings last fall:
[image courtesy of Toru & Naoko’s twitter]
Or Nasty Gal, which recently ripped off Karolina Laskowska:
[image courtesy of Karolina Laskowska’s tumblr]
Even other, established lingerie brands aren’t immune. Check out Ann Summers ripping off Hopeless, just earlier this year:
[image courtesy of Hopeless’ twitter]
Thoughtful, innovative lingerie design requires experience and expertise. It also requires time.
It’s not surprising that these companies, built on fast fashion and demanding production cycles, choose to take unethical, morally despicable short-cuts and steal from designers who care about their craft.
As a note: Part of why I feel strongly about stealing (or plagiarism, we might call it) is because I taught college writing for four years. I’ve done my damndest to educate hundreds of college students on the importance of doing research and forming their own arguments.
Fashion might come in cycles, and might often be similar. Hell, writing can be similar, or inspired by something else. (How many Twilight-esque novels have we seen at this point? How many Bridget Jones books and movies are there, which take inspiration from Pride & Prejudice? Exactly.)
I’m not the first person to write a blog post about ethics in lingerie. But I didn’t copy/paste this post from another blog. You know what I mean? That’s the difference.
You need to know that sometimes, the reason your underthings are cheaper is because a company stole someone else’s intellectual property.
Reason #2: Someone was paid for their labor
The next piece of the puzzle is the actual, physical labor that goes into making your underwear (and everything else you wear). At this point, major corporations’ grotesque human rights violations are well documented.
The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. The deadliest garment-industry accident in history. Death toll: 1,130.
But making a point to buy things that are ethically made, by which many of us (myself included) generally mean that folks were paid for their labor, can be hard. Consciousness about labor rights doesn’t equal a proportional increase in your own income. It can be hard to support ethically made brands when you’re not making a living wage yourself.
And what constitutes morally sound pay for someone’s labor in this industry, anyway? Holly Jackson, an industry consultant who I recently chatted with about plus size lingerie, offers the following insight into the paradoxes of advertising lingerie as “ethically made”:
Ethically made lingerie costs more, since living wages are always more expensive than cheap factory production. In many cases, designers are taking the hit themselves and paying others a living wage while taking minimum wage or less as part of their take home salary. Keep in mind that many lingerie businesses are by necessity housed in larger cities, which would require a higher living wage to keep up with local costs.
And independent designer Quinne Myers of She and Reverie, who has written about how little lingerie designers are paid, says the following:
Design work is undervalued in the American workforce. And when you combine that with the idea of sewing being "women's work" and frequently unpaid, it's easy to see how designers wouldn't even think to pay themselves. Besides, how can you, when your merchandise costs more than many people are willing to pay anyway?
If a designer is factoring in their own time as one of their costs (which, ethically, they should), or if someone is utilizing ethical factory labor: this is guaranteed to significantly increase the price of your clothing.
Companies that rely on manufacturing in places with little legal oversight or workplace protections capitalize on the fact that they can pay their workers a pittance so as to maximize their profit margin. (I’d recommend watching The True Cost, an excellent documentary on the subject.)
Reason #3: Indie lingerie brands are usually small companies that can’t afford to absorb as many costs and losses
What makes a lingerie brand independent, or “indie”? For me, it means that the brand/company/designer operates independent of a larger corporation’s backing. Claudette is an indie. Freya isn’t (they, among many other brands, are owned by the Wacoal group). Karolina Laskowska makes her luxury lingerie pieces with her “own fair hands,” as she said in our interview; a brand like harMonica Design is indie and utilizes factory manufacturing here in New York City. There are differences in how indie lingerie gets made.
It is worth noting that the indie scene is heavily populated by “one-woman-shows,” or designers who are literally doing it all themselves, maybe occasionally with the help of an intern or another sewer they pay to help them cut down on production time. It’s worth a glancing note that men in the lingerie industry are generally employed at corporate brands.
Anticipating this blog post, I sent out one tweet from the @BluestockingsBo account asking industry folks who would be willing to be identified as a “one woman show” in this post. (AKA: I didn’t put much time into tracking folks down, many designers here at Bluestockings not on this list are still in this category, tl;dr this is not comprehensive.)
But here are just a handful of the women who are literally doing it all themselves:
These are all people who run most, if not all, aspects of their business on their own. What does that mean? Brand strategy, design, materials sourcing, drafting, fitting, manufacturing, marketing and advertising, customer service, bookkeeping, accounting - not to mention customer order fulfillment and website upkeep!
Cora Harrington, founder and editor-in-chief of The Lingerie Addict, wanted to note that she hires contributing writers to help manage TLA’s impressive editorial calendar (but TLA is a business, and all of the business stuff is hers, single-handedly). And I would be remiss in not mentioning that I have hired contractors to help with things like logo design, website development, and accounting.
But at the end of the day… all aspects of the business are on us. The business rides or dies on our health (physical and mental), our motivation, our ability to keep as many balls in the air at once as we can.
I asked Quinne what she thought about costs and losses in these terms: personal health, wellness, motivation. (I know a number of businesses that have either gone under or on indefinite hiatus due to the owners’ chronic illness or mental health.) She said,
This underscores how important profits are, particularly for indies and those of us doing it all ourselves. Huge corporations can afford to cut costs because they have the production (and sales) volume to absorb those costs.
But for us, our businesses survive based on the profit margin, which is basically the amount of money you’re making on an item, say a bra, after you’ve factored in the costs that went into making that bra. Profit margins in fashion aren’t the best, and they are notoriously low in lingerie (hence why we all gripe about having to do sales).
I asked Holly if she could elaborate on the hidden costs of lingerie that people don’t think about, of the things that really affect an indie’s profit margin. She made some great points:
And, we are back to the kinds of hidden costs are why many of us either don’t pay ourselves wages or pay ourselves a pittance.
But when the profit margins off of bra sales have to cover a new sewing machine, or new website development, or a new laptop, or even just all of the bills you have coming in on a monthly basis:
You can see how ethically made = more expensive than Target.
What do you think, readers? Are you willing to pay for ethically made lingerie, or is the price too much of a leap?P.S. Further reading: my Q&A with Quinne about ethical manufacturing