Until last week, I had never heard of ‘Gormies’, a self-dubbed moniker for the intensely devoted fans of wildly successful Australian fashion label Gorman, responsible for the rainbow-spotted raincoats and the recent proliferation of brightly coloured, wide-legged onesies across the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.
This is a rather strange oversight, because it turns out that I am prime Gormy material. For a while there, when I was earning significantly more money than I am now (although not enough to justify the strain on my debit card), I had a rather pronounced Gorman habit. At least a quarter of the jumpers, half the dresses, skirts and pants, and quite a few pairs of shoes and socks in my wardrobe bear the Gorman label. For the past four years, gift vouchers to the store have been a staple of my Christmas present haul. The company’s marketing emails are so regularly opened and perused in my inbox that Gmail now automatically marks them as ‘Important’ and shuffles them to the top of the pile. I have purchased online enough times to be regularly invited to VIP customer pre-sales and offers, and I’ve even (rather shamefully) entered competitions which required spamming all of my Facebook friends with Gorman marketing materials. When I KonMari’d my wardrobe a few months ago, sending a grand total of sixteen garbage bags’ worth of clothes to the op shop, the Gorman pieces firmly stayed put. Every time I held one to my chest and asked, ‘does this bring me joy?’ the answer was inevitably, reverently, ‘yes’ – even the jeans that I bought online and swore had been incorrectly sized. (No, I’d just incorrectly estimated the size of my arse.)
Gorman clothes are not cheap. Basics like t-shirts and camisoles regularly start around $80. Full-priced dresses and skirts are about $250–$450, sometimes up to $600. Yet in the homogenous blur of fast fashion, and particularly amongst the monotonous grey, black and red that characterises so much of Melbourne street style, Gorman stands out for its colourful designs and off-beat shapes. Gorman fans are thus devoted – even those of us who generally refrain from mentioning as such in polite company but would recognise the brand on the street in an instant – and it takes a lot to convince that level of devotion to engage in critical self-reflection. Still, Gormies had been increasingly feeling like the prices were out of step with the quality of the product they were purchasing. So when Baptist World Aid Australia released their 2016 Australian Fashion Report last month, giving Gorman a big fat Fail for transparency on labour rights management in their manufacturing and supply chain, thousands of Gormies began venting their frustration on Facebook fan pages and buy-sell-swap groups.
The Baptist World Aid report focuses on supply chain worker’s rights in the apparel industry, rating companies from A+ to F on things like wage improvement projects, transparency of supply-chain data, and whether or not they know anything about the conditions under which their raw materials are produced. The report was launched on the eve of the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which 1,137 textile workers were killed after management forced them to enter the building to work despite the clearly unsafe conditions. Forty-one people, including the factory owner, were charged with murder after the incident, though not one person has yet been convicted.
In 2010, Lisa Gorman, the designer behind the Gorman brand, sold an undisclosed share of the business to Melbourne-based company Factory X, which also owns Alannah Hill, Dangerfield, Jack London, Claude Maus and Princess Highway. It is Factory X as the parent company which is listed in the Fashion Report (there goes the rest of my wardrobe), and it is their refusal to respond to requests by Baptist World Aid to supply audits, policies and other information for the report that resulted in the F rating. A spokesperson later said that they had chosen not to be ‘affiliated’ with Baptist World Aid because it did not know the organisation’s ‘real processes’. Given that this is the third time the organisation has issued the report, and the sheer number of global companies involved in the survey, including American Apparel, Kmart, David Jones, Lululemon and Inditex (more readily recognisable as the Swedish conglomerate behind Zara), the excuse seems flimsy at best.
Gormies were similarly unimpressed, arguing that if the company had nothing to hide there was no reason for them not to take part in the report. In an attempt to control the media narrative and head off further backlash, Gorman posted an Instagram shot of ‘Liao’, a factory worker in China, with the hashtag #whomademyclothes and a blurb in which Liao extolled the virtues of Gorman knits. But this only added further fuel to the fire, with reactions ranging from terse disappointment to Gormies swearing off the brand forever. Gorman have since updated their website to include a social and ethical compliance policy, and updated their Instagram post to state that their audits will be published online in the coming months. But it’s hard not to feel cynical about the PR spin.
Indeed, what is most illuminating about the World Aid report is the difference on display between company policy and company practice when it comes to the rights of production workers. Almost all of the companies evaluated by Baptist World Aid had supply and production policies in place, and 64 of the 87 companies (73 per cent) received an A rating or above for those policies. Despite that, only 4 companies received a rating over a C+ for ‘worker empowerment’: a rating based on workers receiving at or above a living wage. Auditing in this area is patchy at best, and the pages of the report detailing company efforts to establish what a living wage might mean, efforts to implement it, and transparency about their actions in this area, are decidedly dismal.
It’s a stark reminder that no matter how pretty a company’s policies might be, they mean fuck all to the workers at the bottom of the food chain without third-party scrutiny and active public opposition to exploitation. This is, partly, inevitable: short of fundamentally changing the structure of the economy and the relationship of ordinary textile workers to the means of production (what a good idea!) corporations are always going to attempt to maximise profits by reducing costs associated with that production, which inevitably means driving down the cost of labour.
That said, consumer boycotts have resulted in significant successes in the past. It’s easy to be cynical, particularly if the object of your cynicism is wearing lobster-print (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it), but if Gorman fans are willing to pay up to $600 for a second-hand dress from three seasons past, they are hardly likely to abandon the brand for a subtle shift in price structure, particularly if there’s clear evidence of more profits heading towards workers. They may, however, abandon a brand that underestimates how much its core constituency care about things like the labour rights of adults and children overseas. Successful political action requires a strong community, capacity for organisation, and an awful lot of energy to devote to the cause. From what I can see, my fellow Gormies have three out of three, and are thus in the perfect position to be able to mount a campaign that could substantially change the way the company operates.
I’m all for it. It will be the best-dressed action on the planet. Plus ‘Gormies united will never be defeated’ would make a great rally cry.