Some of the biggest names in the fashion and luxury industries descended in Singapore on the 21st and 22nd November for the "S.E.A. Of Luxury" conference, the first international luxury conference to focus on Southeast Asia.
Hosted by internationally renowned fashion editor Suzy Menkes, "S.E.A. Of Luxury" is part of the International New York Times Luxury Conference series, and was held in Capella Singapore.
At the press conference, Suzy Menkes talked about why Southeast Asia was chosen to be the conference's focus, the key themes that would be discussed during the conference, and answered some questions from the media present.
Much of the focus on growth in the luxury market in Asia has been on China, the "holy grail" of the luxury industry, as Suzy puts it.
However, especially with the economic slowdown in China, the luxury industry ought to shift its focus to Southeast Asia. Menkes said the thing that struck her was the "tremendous difference between these various [Southeast Asian] countries", and "the fact that they each have a strong culture of their own". She also lamented the loss of Chinese culture in the Cultural Revolution.
The first key theme discussed was the rising power of the male Asian consumer. Menswear in Asia has developed into a form of self-expression, where a young man is able to proclaim to the world that he has made his mark.
Suzy Menkes asserted her point a few times throughout the press conference, pointing out some journalists in the front row as proof and asking rhetorically "why are asian men so well dressed?"
At the end of the press conference, a few of us were standing around Suzy, some intending to ask her questions personally, some just wanting to soak up her presence.
I didn't have a question in mind.
When Suzy had finished answering someone's question, she looked over at me and said, "Well, there's a well dressed man!"
And guess what I did?
I said nothing.
I stared at Suzy.
Exactly how I stared at Suzy.
I think she was expecting me to follow her compliment with a question, but I had none.
So I smiled and hid behind my friend next to me.
And.. that's my story of meeting the legendary Suzy Menkes.
The second was the potential of the accessories market. She pointed to Malaysia as an example - where a majority of its residents are Muslims - Suzy noticed that though women were covered up, their clothes were very colourful and joyous, in stark contrast to the Middle East.
The last key topic Menkes talked about was sustainability, which she said is "something that we've built into all of our conferences" and something that she really cares about deeply. There are many issues with sustainability in fashion - the first affecting human and workers rights - the recent Rana Plaza accident in Bangladesh is a notable example (among others).
The second is the irresponsible production of fashion, which has contributed to pollution of rivers, even poisoning our bodies, harming our environment and depleting its resources.
I had a personal encounter not long ago when a friend and I met a young man who'd moved to Singapore from India at a bar. He asked us what we did, and we said we both worked in fashion.
He asked us questions about fashion, and as we got to talking, I brought up the issue of sustainability and ethical fashion - and how tragic its been to see accident after accident happen because of the abhorrent ways fast fashion companies are taking advantage of low working wages in developing countries and their need for work. He seemed to take issue with what I was saying, and told us we as westerners or Singaporeans don't understand how it is there. Living conditions are so bad, and even having a factory job is a step up in quality of life for them.
A garment factory job might still be a step above the average wage (which at 14 cents an hour in Bangladesh, really isn't even much at all), but wages are just one issue. There's also the issue of workers rights - abusive bosses are common - and building and fire safety.
I talked about the numerous accidents that have happened, the fires and collapse in factories, and he seemed to be unaware of them - expressing incredulousness that accidents have happened, much more so fatalities.
Which led me to think - are these workers even aware of their rights? Do they continue to work under such deplorable conditions because they simply aren't aware that this isn't acceptable?
Recent events indicate that they are aware, and have had enough. Garment factory workers in Bangladesh have been rising up, with violent protests in September calling for a minimum wage of $100, and a new wave of protests just this week, after a previous protest left two dead.
So, what are we to do?
I personally think responsibility lies in both the companies and the consumer. Brands are driven by profits of course, and will seek out the best ways to minimise cost and maximise profits. Corporate greed, we see that across industries, globally and all that. However, we as consumers also contribute to the problem when we buy into cheap fashion.
This brings in the fashion lesson of quality, not quantity. Think in terms of cost-per-wear. Yes, those Forever 21 shoes cost $15, but how long would you wear them for?
That's not to say that you can't get something cheap and have it last - I've had pieces from Zara that have been in my closet for a long time, but instead, resisting the call of that $10 top because "well, its only $10!".
Like Susan Scafidi, a professor of fashion law at Fordham says, “You have to bring your conscience with you into a store. It’s worth
dragging along because in the longer term it’s better for everybody.”
Check out free live streamed sessions from the conference here.
Image Credit: Getty Images