Real Leaders

Is it Time to Put Meaning Back Into Our Clothes?

When we were young a lot of what our parents did was about avoiding new purchases. Clothes were mended, shoes got repaired, toys were handed down; every item of daily life was used until it became unusable. Today our stuff is disposable or obsolete before we know it: it’s meaningless.

When I was growing up in Spain, Zara was this miracle business fairytale: once upon a time, a poor young man rode his bike past a fancy lingerie shop window. He decided to copy the luxurious robe displayed in more affordable fabrics for his wife. Then he and his wife invested every cent they made in the constant improvement of logistics and technology.

Zara became a worldwide leader in the fashion industry, whose entire business model has been radically transformed. Fast fashion pushes new collections and styles to our stores and homes in weeks or even days. Amazing websites with beautiful pictures promise to make our dreams come true if we’d only buy those shiny new dresses with one click.

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But when you finally run your hands over the fabric every fantasy disappears. Cheap, synthetic materials, careless sewing and missing buttons awake you to the reality of what it takes to wear a new outfit to work every day. Even if the garment is genuinely outstanding today, it is doomed to come apart as quickly as it came to be. It’s built to be worn once or twice, soon forgotten among plenty others in the darkness a wardrobe filled with yesterday’s trends.

So many hands worked their youth away to bring this one piece of clothing to you: Trendspotters traveled far to take pictures of Paris fashion parades. Designers sketched many variants to finally arrive an acceptable design. Farmers grew cotton, and blue-collar workers maneuvered machines to make fabrics or buttons or threads. Women cut materials into shapes and then sewed them together. Sailors and lorry drivers carried tons of clothes around the world. Store employees folded, arranged and tagged thousands of items.

All these lives, all these hours of human endeavor, all these resources, for what purpose? To what end? Where is the meaning of all this? Human beings have always felt an innate need to find meaning in their lives. We need meaningfulness like we need water or air. Without it we become grey, depressed, souls lost in infinite crowds of bored buyers.
Somewhere along the way, we started to look for meaning in the wrong place: in a fantasy, in the future, right behind our next one-click purchase.

Every time I wear my twenty-five-year-old run-down purple check shirt I recall all the memories it holds: Amazing anecdotes, funny stories, sad endings and exciting beginnings. When I find my mother’s old clothes in her cupboard I remember special afternoons in my childhood. Just like the smell of our old baby clothes reminds her of what it meant to become a mother. Beautiful, intense emotions come flooding to the surface as the clothes and objects of our past bear witness to what we have lived and how we became who we are today.

Zara and the fashion industry need to remember what makes fashion genuinely memorable. We need to remember how much we need profound meaning in our lives, and not only because we have a global trash crisis, but because we have a global crisis of transcendence. We won’t find it in future purchases or new dresses. It’s in our closet, in all the old coats and scarves and t-shirts and torn jeans that string together the memories of our lives.

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