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Marion Hume on how Fashion fakes fund fanatics

04 April 2012

Across a crowded room full of Sydney fashion mavens the statement rang out. You could have heard a pin drop on plush carpet following it. Apart from the unethical nature of buying fakes and the effect funding that industry has on the jobs and professionality of crafts people, designers and artists alike, the audience members, hear to listen to journalist, writer and chronicler Marion Hume speak on the world of fashion, really weren’t the sort to be seen dead carrying one – a fake that is.

Once the implications of the commercial connection between the fakes industry and terrorism began to sink in, a twitter of disbelief and anxiety ran through the seated lunch guests as they pondered the other more possible unexamined actions they may have perpetrated in the pursuit of rampant consumerism – or just keeping up with the Joneses.

Had buying the latest runners made somewhere in Asia meant a child now remained in slave labour? Was buying cotton resort wear from a third world nation in Africa going to mean the continuation of environmental practices that would curl your genes (and definitely those of your children) for years to come?

According to Marion, the list of horrors fashion has the potential to commit is endless but the collective ‘we’ can do something about it by exercising our buying power might judiciously and forcing companies to be and remain accountable for their production, the provenance of their goods and labour.

The fakes comment was the sort of sit-up and take notice statement for which Marion Hume is well known. Her use of chattily casual, engagingly written and spoken communications delivered with a sting is her trademark.

At a towering 6-feet 4 inches tall (Marion happily embraced Australian citizenship some years ago now, but wouldn’t deny her ‘British Imperialist’ roots), she is a born raconteur unafraid to speak out critically on the names, the games, the ethics of fashion and the dilemmas for its consumers. 

When she first settled in this country in 1997, as the newly appointed editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, Australian fashion buzzed over what this woman with an international career in fashion reporting, writing and industry analysis might bring to our shores.

For anyone working in fashion back then – like it or hate it, and many did hate it – her fashion shoot featuring spiders and other indigenous species remains memorable. It left no one in any doubt that someone with very different sensibilities had landed on our shores. Any lingering doubts about how different were quickly blown away when Marion turned her critical eye on the local fashion industry following its second Australian Fashion Week.

She questioned the “talents” of top design names, many of them had close ties with the prestige fashion titles and had never endured such scrutiny. It earned her enemies and fans. Her public criticism of the industry practice of copying overseas designs did little to help the situation with her critics. Marion found herself banned from shows. Others said they thought she damaged the fledgling Australian fashion industry with her commentary. She remained unrepentant, telling Adelaide’s Sunday Mail in the aftermath of that Fashion Week wrap up, she did not see “how it could be helpful to consistently pat designers on the back.”

Marion herself would be the first to admit that you don’t learn much avoiding risk and dodging criticism and might even argue, following the recent launch windows at Sydney’s new Louis Vuitton megastore in Martin Place, which used iconic LV bags sculpted into kangaroos, goannas, etc, that her Huntsman spider shoot all those years ago in Vogue was just way ahead of the game. 

Certainly, she’s been ahead of the wave as a trend spotter. Something she modestly explains happens because phenomena, such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen; Zara, the ‘fast-food’ label of fashion; Akira Isogawa or aussieBum, the online underwear and swimwear label, come up on her radar early and if she didn’t follow them then she wouldn’t be doing her job. She also admits sometimes she’s missed the early potential of a trend: the online fashion store ‘net-a-porter’ springs to mind. When the idea was first floated it was the latish 90s and online was still very much the domain of tech nerds and Star Trek fans.

Her scorecard on the forecasting front aside, the topics close to her heart revolve around fashion’s sustainability on an environmental and ethical front, and the power each of us has to make a difference by exerting our commercial muscle when it matters. 

After all: “Many of us,” says Marion, “check the provenance of the food on our supermarket shelves why not the labels on our backs?”

Speaking to her after the Australian Financial Review sponsored lunch for the Inforum Group, a women’s networking site aiming to expand the knowledge of business and professional women as well as inspire them, it was immediately apparent that the lunch’s success marked the beginning of something much larger. In fact the AFR and Inforum have plans for a three city tour here next year, and Marion, who consults for Ethical Fashion Programme of the International Trade Centre, which is the joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, is even now provisioning to bring more blood-pressure-raising opinions to the table from her work with the likes of designer Vivienne Westwood.

The programme, she explains, is about harnessing fashion “as a vehicle out of poverty, connecting the world’s most marginalized people to plugged-in designers” as well as making fashion a means of exacting environmental change. Sounds like a big call from something that was once described by another short-lived fashion-editor-in-chief as ‘hardly brain surgery’.

However, there are those, Marion among them, who would beg to differ: “Fashion’s aspirational aura allows the industry to punch above its weight when it comes to getting notices. Consumers who want to get involved and be part of doing something about it can and do.”

With characteristic good humour and a deft understanding of her own very human ability to fail, Marion admits though that people make the effort to make a difference to a point: “I don’t sit down to lunch every day and ask questions about the origins of my chicken burger. Similarly, I couldn’t tell you where the shirt on my back was made. I do know exactly where my shoes and underwear are made but, you see my point?”

We do.