The emergence of a fashion ‘maker’ industry in Argentina

From a report by Ethan Zuckerman, which appeared in Worldchanging:

” it’s extremely cool to be dressed in locally made clothing. Hand-printed t-shirts are ubiquious on men, often featuring the logos of bands who would happily sue the designers into penury, if they could only find them. (The Ramones logo, refigured with Hunter S. Thompson in the place of the baseball-bat wielding Eagle. Lots of Beatles shirts on guys too young to remember the Beatles.) Colorful dresses on women, often asymmetric, looking both home-sewn and carefully tailored. Supremely funky shoes and handbags, and not a Coach, Gucchi or Dolce and Gabbana in sight.

Our friend Sophia, who’s been leading the expat life in Palermo Viejo, explained her interpretation of the phenomenon over a predictably lucious steak and bottle of Malbec. “Salaries are really low, so everyone’s looking for a way to make a little extra money. So people started sewing, or knitting, or doing metalwork, and selling it to tourists on the weekend, as the tourists are the ones with the money. But because Porteños really like fashion, it’s become at least as common to sell to each other.”

When your currency is relatively strong, it’s inexpensive to buy mass-produced fashions from The Gap. When it gets weak enough, you might be better off buying a locally designed and sewn pair of jeans that’s been custom fitted for you. This isn’t unfamiliar for those of us who’ve worked in developing countries – one of the projects I try to undertake every time I go to Ghana is to bring clothes I really like to my tailor, and ask her to make me copies of those garments, which tend to come out nicer, cheaper and far funkier than anything I could buy in a store. But it’s pretty unfamiliar to see in a high-development country.

“The designers are figuring out the whole idea of exclusivity,” Sophia tells us. “Someone will be wearing a cool pair of shoes, and you’ll ask who made them, find the shoemaker and ask for a pair. And now the shoemaker will tell you, ‘I only made six pairs.’ In other words, while she could make you more, she won’t, because the six pairs that exist out there in the world are cool in part because of their exclusiveness.”

The result is something that would make Etsy devotees very happy, a whole youth culture based around the idea that handmade is cool. What’s fascinating me is the idea that this may have been less about cultural trends – the rise of “maker culture”, the desire to hack and understand the means of production – and more to do with simple economics.

It also suggests we might see an expansion of maker culture in the US if – as some economists predict – we see our currency weaken after the markets start to recover and it’s clear that we’ve flooded the economy with new dollars as part of various recovery plans. Stagflation isn’t a pleasant economic trend to live through, but if it means we’ll see wallets made from old Wonder Woman comic strips on the streets of Boston, well, that would be a partial consolation.

It’s possible that the rise of handmade as fashionable requires a certain population density. If everyone in your neighborhood decides that handmade shoes designed by your neighbors are cooler than Manolo Blahniks, it’s easier for you to think globally and shop locally. While Etsy benefits from the fact that somewhere, out there on the web, there’s someone who’ll pay $200 for your Star Trek corset, Palermo Viejo merchants benefit from local concentration – it’s pretty clear that young fashionistas are looking at each other and contemtuously thinking, “My god, is that machine-made? How gauche!”

If it’s true that Argentine economics have a major effect on diet and fashion, it raises questions for those hoping for the rise of creative economies and hyperlocal agriculture in countries like the US. I’m a big proponent of local agriculture, not because it makes environmental sense (because often it doesn’t), but because local food tastes great and supports my neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s really expensive – self-interested economics suggests that I’m going to buy factory-farmed chicken when push comes to shove instead of local, organic alternatives.”

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