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Fashion's Victims: An Artist's Focus On Garment Workers

Jun 19, 2013
Originally published on June 19, 2013 2:35 pm

On Madrid's posh Gran Vía, thousands of shoppers and tourists visit the flagship stores of some of the biggest names in European fast fashion — Zara, Mango and H&M.

Suddenly, the hordes of bargain-hunters stop dead in their tracks.

Face down on the sidewalk lie the bodies of three women, buried in rubble. Silver stilettos protrude from underneath cement dust and cardboard. Designer handbags and sunglasses rest next to their lifeless hands.

Tourists gasp. A crowd forms. An off-duty nurse rushes to crouch over one of the bodies. Others call 911 or take photos. And one woman hangs back, observing from afar.

She's the Spanish artist Yolanda Dominguez, and the women sprawled on the sidewalk are alive and well. They're models — part of Dominguez' latest art installation, Fashion Victims, meant to conjure images of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.

"The real fashion victims are not celebrities, but anonymous workers in poor conditions, in polluted countries," Dominguez, 36, told NPR afterward. "The images I saw [from Bangladesh] in the media of the limbs of the dead people under the rubble struck me so much, and I wanted to reproduce them."

Worker Safety

At least 1,129 people died when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed outside the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, on April 24. The accident is believed to be the deadliest in the garment industry's history, and reverberations are being felt as far away as Spain — home to some of the world's biggest low-cost fashion retailers.

Clothing and purchase orders from Spanish retailers Mango and El Corte Inglés were found in the rubble of Rana Plaza, and a Spaniard was registered as the factory's director-general. The man, identified by Bangladeshi police as David Mayor, is under investigation and believed to be hiding in Spain.

Rana Plaza was not the first deadly incident. In January, a fire killed at least seven workers at another Bangladeshi factory making clothes for Zara's parent company, Inditex.

In May, Spanish companies and others like the Swedish-owned H&M — the largest buyer of clothes made in Bangladesh — finally signed unprecedented fire and building safety agreements for their factories there.

But the sheer magnitude of the Rana Plaza disaster means worker safety in Bangladesh is no longer only a matter for lawyers, unions and bereaved families. It's now on the radar of shoppers on European thoroughfares like Gran Vía.

"I want to see proof that companies are following the rules and doing right by their workers in third world countries," said shopper Patricia Barrera, 28, as she locked up her motor scooter in front of H&M in Madrid. "I'd even be willing to pay more — though I think the companies could afford it themselves."

Inditex announced record profits of $583 million for the first quarter of this year — much of that from expansion into developing countries. While the company has been heralded as a rare success story in Spain's economic malaise, the Rana Plaza disaster has some consumers questioning the Spanish fast-fashion model of doing business.

"Technically, when we talk about the fast-fashion model, one of the characteristics is local sourcing — not because of cost, but because they are trying to compete in speed," said Philip Moscoso, a fashion industry expert at Spain's IESE Business School.

Inditex, for example, prides itself on speed: 15 days from design to retail rack. That has meant at least half of production is done locally, in Spain and Portugal.

But Inditex is expanding at a rate of more than a store a day, and Mango is close behind, opening about four new stores a week — and increasingly turning to foreign production. Total employment in Spain's garment industry has fallen from 243,000 in 2004 to 136,000 last year.

'Difficult To Keep Track'

Nevertheless, retailers had been resistant to signing binding safety initiatives for their foreign factories, fearing they might be held responsible for sub-sub-contractors whose practices could be beyond their control, said Moscoso.

"You may be working with a company which then — and this happens in Bangladesh but also in China and other countries — itself contracts to even other people," he said. "So sometimes it's rather difficult to keep track of who is ultimately really the producer."

But with the Rana Plaza "wake-up call," Moscoso envisions the start of a fair trade movement in mainstream consumer fashion, similar to what already exists in the food and beauty industries.

"What may happen is that you develop some kind of sub-brand or label, [so] that those people that are interested and willing to support those efforts by companies have an easy identification of which products held up to certain standards or not," he said.

That system could take years to set up. Until then, Dominguez, the Spanish artist, is determined to prevent those images of Rana Plaza from vanishing from the public conscience. She's produced a video of her Fashion Victims art installation, and she hopes to re-create the public spectacle in shopping centers worldwide.

The three models Dominguez contracted for the project on Madrid's Gran Vía all waived their fee.

"It produced a shock in people's daily lives — but a necessary one," said María Sanchez, who wore silver shoes and was sprawled directly in front of the Mango store for about an hour. "It was a new experience for me. When we finished, I felt good about it."

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When well over 1,000 people died in a factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, many consumers in the United States were outraged to learn about the dangerous working conditions in overseas garment factories.

The shock was shared by consumers in Spain, home to some of the world's biggest low-cost fashion retailers. And from Madrid, Lauren Frayer sent us this story.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is Madrid's posh Gran Via, the Spanish equivalent of New York's Fifth Avenue; where the biggest names in fast fashion - Zara, Mango, H&M - have flagship stores. Throngs of shoppers and tourists pack these wide sidewalks - and then suddenly, stop dead in their tracks.


FRAYER: Three glamorous models dressed up in the latest fashions are sprawled face-down on the pavement, buried in rubble, their high-heels askew. Tourists gasp. Some take photos. A crowd forms. And one woman hangs back, observing from afar.

YOLANDA DOMINGUEZ: My name is Yolanda Dominguez, and I am a visual artist.

FRAYER: The models are alive and well - part of Dominguez's latest art project, called "Fashion Victims." It's a commentary on the real victims of the fashion industry - more than 1,100 people who died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Dominguez describes the crowd's reaction to her work.

DOMINGUEZ: Most people was - taking photos. Few people stop; one of them very worried, with tears in her eyes. And others looked up, thinking that they had fallen from a floor. But many people also directly related Bangladesh. Even the police - they asked if it was a protest for Bangladesh. And they thought it was very good, the policemen.

FRAYER: Clothing and purchase orders from the Spanish retailers Mango and El Corte Ingles were found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory. Within weeks, Spanish companies signed unprecedented fire- and building-safety agreements for their factories there.

PATRICIA BARRERA: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: I want to see proof that companies are following the rules and doing right by their workers in Third World countries, says one shopper - Patricia Barrera - outside H&M. I'd even be willing to pay more, though I think the companies could afford it themselves.

Complying with such safety demands means some serious due diligence on the part of retailers, who often don't know which sub-subcontractors they're employing. Philip Moscoso is a fashion industry expert at Spain's IESE Business School.

PHILIP MOSCOSO: You may be working with a company which then - and this happens in Bangladesh but happens, also, in China and other countries - itself subcontracts to even other people.

DOMINGUEZ: Nevertheless, Moscoso calls the Rana Plaza disaster a wake-up call that could lead to the creation of fair-trade labels for certain fashion lines.

MOSCOSO: They start to have both kind of customers at the end of the day: those which are willing to pay a bit more and having the brand of fair trade; and those which somehow, just rather like to think that they can trust when companies say that they fulfill that.

FRAYER: It could take years for fast fashion to become fair-trade fashion. Consumers are outraged right now about the deaths at Rana Plaza. But with $5 fashions and Spain's economic crisis, will they still be in three years?

The artist Yolanda Dominguez wants people to stay angry and keep up the pressure on retailers. She's produced a video of her "Fashion Victims" project...


FRAYER: ...mixing scenes of high fashion with sirens from the tragedy in Bangladesh. And she hopes to re-create her art installation in shopping venues around the world.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.