"We must examine the human cost of objects,
not just their semiotic resonances"


Opinion column Kieran Long Katy Perry eyelashes

Opinion: Kieran Long argues that while it's fun to be cynical about pop cultural artefacts like Katy Perry Lashes, a recent expose on the conditions in which they're made proves that it's vital for design criticism to move beyond semiotics.

I’ve always felt, in that completely unfair way we tend to judge big stars, that Katy Perry was the most cynical and dead inside of all the questionable female role models in the pop cultural landscape. The Popchips poster campaign she fronted earlier this year is burned into my retina. I saw her every morning at South Kensington Tube station, looking over the top of her sunglasses in a sarcastic gesture of astonishment at just how extraordinary a bag of crisps can be. Her fingernails were like talons and her steel grey eyes were framed in false eyelashes.

"All Katy Perry lashes by Eylure are handmade, 100% natural and each style is reusable," reads the description on the box of fake eyelashes that sits on my desk as I write. This comes just before "Katy’s top tips", the instructions, in the voice of the gazillion-selling pop star, about how to wear the lashes to their best effect.

There may be no more emblematic product of contemporary capitalism than Katy Perry Lashes, the false eyelashes endorsed by the megastar singer. They are made of real hair and the Cool Kitty style (one of three different designs available) of lash has an undulating profile, with longer and shorter hairs alternating and creating an effect that Katy Perry herself models in a photo on the front of the box.

Perry has a self-consciously plasticky, robot-from-the-1950s aesthetic that is always accessorised with false lashes, nail varnish and a comicbook hairdo. With this Stepford/Bladerunner thing, she seems to invite identification. Something about her plain, cybergirl-next-door look makes young women feel that they somehow should be her, or be like her. It’s no coincidence that most of her merchandise is products for the body: perfumes (a whole range of them), body lotion, makeup. By buying these objects, you are somehow transforming your physical substance into Perry’s. The lashes allow young people to get inside Perry’s body, to look out at the world through her eyes. This out-of-body experience is available for the reasonable price of £5.95 in high street pharmacies.

When her partnership with Covergirl cosmetics was announced, Perry was quoted as saying: "In addition to music, I've always considered makeup to be a powerful creative avenue of self-expression." In Perry’s world, you have to design yourself, to draw a new you on your own skin: she’s the perfect articulation of how contemporary pop culture raises narcissism to an art form.

In the end, this is the psychological game for which the fake eyelashes are designed as a prop. In themselves they may not seem like interesting design objects: they derive their fascination for many of us from this pop cultural framing. The material things are simply two rows of hairs, each hair tied by hand and one-by-one onto a tiny piece of string. These are then trimmed and affixed to a small strip that can hold a latex-based glue. The glue fixes the row of hairs to the Perry wannabe’s own eyelid.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed these ephemeral bits of sub fashion design at all before I met Gethin Chamberlain, the journalist responsible for the remarkable expose of the manufacturing story behind the false lash industry, published in UK tabloid newspaper The Sun on Sunday 20 October. Chamberlain participated in a debate at the V&A museum about ethical manufacturing in the fashion industry, but just a few days before the event he published the story of the false eyelash industry. In it, Chamberlain traces Eylure’s production to small villages in Indonesia, where women weave the tiny lashes. He describes how many workers in the lash industry (which is worth £110 million in Britain alone) do earn the legal minimum wage for that region (£50 per month) but that some factories outsource the work to homeworkers in more remote locations: many of these earn less than half that paltry wage.

As designers and critics, we can always enjoy being cynical about pop cultural artefacts like these lashes and idly patronise the industry around figures like Perry. I guess there’s a whole office devoted to selling Perry’s name, plastering it over merchandise from body lotion to perfume to iPhone covers to T-shirts. There’s even something reassuring for prospective businesspeople that it’s still possible to make money in this day and age selling fridge magnets with pictures of Katy Perry in the buff on them. If capitalism is that easy, I wonder why we aren’t all making more money.

But the story of these objects and their making is a sleight of hand, a trick that consumerism plays on us. So remote are we from manufacturing today that a company can celebrate the making of these objects as a positive marketing story ("handmade, 100% natural"), while indirectly employing workers in exploitative conditions. Thanks to journalists like Chamberlain we are all aware of this. If we are serious about design in the expanded field, we have to inquire after not just the semiotic resonances of these objects, but the human costs too.

Kieran Long is Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He presents Restoration Home and the series The £100,000 House for the BBC, and is currently the architecture critic for the Evening Standard newspaper.

  • Chris Kahrhoff

    What would those Indonesian factory workers be doing if they were not making eyelashes?

    It’s very easy for someone with a cushy job in a museum that doesn’t actually make anything to criticise others for being productive with their lives.

    • pozz

      I think your question is somewhat malformed, I see it this way: importing cheap labour from other countries perpetuates a system that relies on exploitation of children and general inequality.

      To change this, many things need to happen, internally, but a huge chunk of the responsibility is with the manufacturers who buy from these factories. It is exposes like these which stir consumers interests which in turn put pressure on manufacturers to do something.

      • Chris Kahrhoff

        It’s not malformed. It’s a question that needs to be asked. Why do you feel it necessary to label work you’re not willing to do as exploitative?

        Is it possible that 20p a week or whatever these people make is a viable wage to them? Is it possible that they’d rather be doing this for 12 hours a day than toiling in rice field for 16 hours a day?

        You call it “general inequality”, I call it Ricardo’s comparative advantage.

  • PB

    Great article Kieran. It made me think of a conversation I had with a client in Dubai who insisted that infrastructure built by low-paid manual labour from the Indian sub-continent was justifiable based on their actual financial needs.

    To some extent this is now being highlighted in Qatar with the investigative journalism around the build of the stadiums for the football world cup, but once again it seems to be low on everyone’s agenda. (Not so the issue of western fans having to watch football in 40 degree heat). I agree in principle with the thrust of your article – if I understand it correctly – that there needs to be a pincer movement against these products from both a worker exploitation angle and the much easier ‘semiotic resonance’ (that they’re naff). And Chris, your question of what the workers would be doing otherwise is an unwittingly interesting one that we ought to be pondering shouldn’t we?

    • Chris Kahrhoff

      “unwittingly interesting”. Not quite sure how to take that.

      My point remains that no one forces the factory workers to produce these products for what you or I might consider a pittance.

      I would suggest that if they weren’t making these for “20p a day” they would likely be doing something for less or not be employed at all.

      And do you or does the author of this know how far 20p goes a day in Indonesia? Liberal white guilt at its finest.

  • Graham Taylor

    Hey, maybe products should have pictures of the conditions they’re made in, similar to the damaging effects of cigarettes shown on their packaging?

  • Brad Comis

    Chris do you know what the cost of living Indonesia is? According to the site Numbeo, which lets users report the costs of goods (the data for Canada looks accurate and they claim there are 123,000+ contributors to their total database).
    Their stats indicate that the wage of one of these eyelash assemblers could purchase HALF a loaf of bread with one days wage. I have a retail job in Canada and I can buy at least 30 loaves of bread at the supermarket with a days wage. Another source (http://www.expatarrivals.com/indonesia/cost-of-living-in-indonesia) indicates that a meal at street vendor in Jakarta will cost you about 75p.

    • Chris Kahrhoff

      Again, I don’t think using US/Western metrics for income are a viable way to make judgments for other people half way around the world.

      Assuming these people aren’t slaves (and I mean that in a traditional way) these factory workers made a decision to work in this factory for this wage.

      THEY know better than anyone else if their needs are met with their current employment situation. And I find it to be the height of arrogance for a foreigner to be so concerned with their welfare and income that they would consider not buying the product that their income is derived from. Thereby eliminating said income.

      • PB

        I believe that Brad is trying to explain that the answer to your question, “Is it possible that 20p a week or whatever these people make is a viable wage to them?” is no. In the absence of any metrics or evidence supplied in your answers, I’m tempted to go with him.

        Stopping buying these products might not be the answer, but if someone’s daily wage equates to the price of half a loaf of bread in his/her environment, then surely that’s a situation that needs to be addressed by all of us in the rich west? (I assume that’s where you are). It’s called compassion, not arrogance. Simples.

        • bonsaiman

          “These factory workers made a decision to work in this factory for this wage”! Yeah, why are they not working in the stock market and making millions instead? Apparently, people make the oddest choices in life, don’t they?