It looks so charming

Tom Vanderbilt

  • No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers edited by Andrew Ross
    Verso, 256 pp, £14.00, September 1997, ISBN 1 85984 172 4

Just east of Fifth Avenue on 57th St in New York City there is an archaic, gymnasium-like building with the legend ‘PS 6453’ engraved on its peak. First you wonder how a public school ever got built in such a tony shopping district, then you realise the structure is actually home to Nike Town New York, the Manhattan version of the ‘entertainment retail’ boutique Nike has opened in a dozen other cities. The building, it turns out, is not the gym of a Thirties public school but a reconfigured department store. The ‘6453’ spells ‘N-I-K-E’ on a New York telephone keypad.

Nike Town, with its spiralling floors of merchandise rising around an atrium (dominated by a 200-foot video screen that beams out adverts), is not a store built to make money – it doesn’t pack enough luxury items per square foot. Instead, as the practitioners of entertainment architecture like to say, it exists to tell a story: the story of the Nike brand. Hence the myriad wall displays of early Nike shoes; the designs of Nike shoe cushioning in alcoves under the glass floor; the scoreboards and pennants and other faux trappings of an era before Nike existed; the grainy photos of amateur athletes engaged in some metaphysical quest in a dingy gym.

Despite several months of publicity surrounding the working conditions of the vast labour force employed by Nike in Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian countries, there is an absence in Nike Town of any information as to where the products are actually made. One would hardly expect a Rodchenko-style mural depicting proud Vietnamese women standing boldly with sewing needles in hand, but it does seem ironic that a place so full of directives on how to work out should have no hint of the energy expended making the clothes and shoes worn in the gym.

One placard shows a fierce-looking woman bathed in sweat sitting in a gym, and underneath the words: ‘Doing this routine every day can seem like grunt work.’ I thought of a photo I saw in the Portland Oregonian of Indonesian women toiling at one of the country’s many sports-shoe assembly plants. The women were arrayed in a line, each wearing a T-shirt with a Nike swoosh on the sleeve, stitching shoes for wages so low they wouldn’t cover the cost of buying one pair. This is real grunt work.

The athletic shoe industry, and the fashion industry as a whole, traffics in images. A Nike as depicts Michael Jordan as a corporate CEO who takes time in between games to inspect the shoes bearing his name. The figures of athletes and supermodels flash everywhere. ‘Because beauty has something to say,’ is how Esquire announced its Christy Turlington cover, as if beauty didn’t have its say every day. The veneer of beauty and style is buffed to such a shine that it’s impossible to see anything beneath – where, for example, the dress draped across the heroin-chic waif or the underwear peeping strategically above the waistline on a musclebound jock were manufactured. This is the question asked by No Sweat, an edited volume that grew out of a conference held, appropriately, in New York, centre of the fashion world. The book is full of photos of Honduran sweatshops and the dirt-track Haitian shanty towns in which Disney products are made. Alongside them are the high-gloss advertising portfolios of fashion companies – Prada’s peasants; Guess?’s trashy noir blonde lying sprawled and ostensibly dead down a set of stairs; Jean-Paul Gaultier’s tattooed, arm-wrestling sailors plucked out of Genet’s Querelle.

The power of these images (in this un-glamorous context they look even more grotesque) is such that the US Government has felt obliged to discuss the ethics of depicting models who are (or aspire to be) junkies, the damage that anorexic and beautiful models inflict on the consumer’s self-image and, on the other hand, the social progress fashion is making by giving stylistic space to those not usually represented in ads. There is comparatively little discussion of the self-esteem or health of the workers who stitch the clothes for some far-off sub-contractor, however. In true Post-Modern fashion, the battles are over ‘representation’, and are restricted to the image itself, as if that were the final arbiter of social justice: ‘positive’ representations equal ‘positive’ social change. Even the editor of No Sweat, Andrew Ross, slips into this thinking. Commenting on the black models who have begun to appear in ads for Hilfiger and other companies, he notes that ‘such images, presented as the epitome of beauty, are a notable breakthrough in a history of public aesthetics which has either denigrated or exploited the look and physique of black males.’ Yet isn’t it exploitation to use a certain ‘look and physique’ in a model to sell clothing? Did Benetton advance the cause of Aids sufferers by running a picture of a dying patient?

Thankfully, most of No Sweat eschews discussion of socially liberal advertising and issues of representation. Its brief is the return of the pre-modern sweatshop in the fashion industry, not just in the developing world but in the heart of Western capitals. In 1996, the TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford was alerted by a labour rights group to the fact that sweatshops in Honduras were manufacturing her mass-market clothing line; shortly afterwards, she found similar conditions down the street from her midtown Manhattan television studio. As befitted her occupation, she quickly took to the airwaves for the ritual process of apology (in a Fellini-inspired moment, her husband doled out $100 bills to frenzied workers at the Manhattan sweatshop), and vowed to stamp out the ‘cockroaches’ in the garment industry. Cockroaches, as everyone knows, can survive nuclear war – so, despite the succeeding flurry of anti-sweatshop publicity, in which Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich also took part, it came as no surprise that, a year later, New York labour officials raided a sweatshop (producing Kathie Lee Gifford and other lines) that was paying workers less than the minimum wage.

The garment industry’s darkest days are being revisited. If the workers are now young Asian and Hispanic women instead of Poles and Slavs, the rows of sewing machines and the cluttered factory floors are unchanged. In 1900, a New York inspector described a typical scene: ‘Workers toiling in dark, humid, stuffy basements on Division St, children of eight years and women, many of them far from well, sweating their lives away in these hellholes.’ In 1995, labour officials investigating the El Monte neighbourhood of Los Angeles found 72 Thai immigrants living in virtual slavery behind barbed-wire and under armed watch in an apartment complex that served both as living quarters and sweatshop, in which workers produced clothes for labels such as Tomato and B.U.M.

Several essays here suggest that the sweatshop never went completely out of fashion; it always existed on the fringes of the garment industry. For decades there was an improvement in wages and working conditions, however. No longer: 860,000 garment workers employed in the US make less in real wages than workers did in 1955. From 1931 to 1933, Alan Howard writes, membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (the men’s counterpart) rose from forty thousand to over three hundred thousand. In the Thirties, the ILGWU established ‘joint liability’ in the industry, making manufacturers responsible for the practices of their contractors, and wages and unionisation rose steadily. As in other industries, what has been called the ‘limited capital-labour accord’ of the postwar years held until the early Seventies, when declining US productivity and increased foreign competition sent domestic garment manufacturers looking for cheaper labour, first in the South and then abroad (often helped by US Government initiatives). In 1969, the ILGWU claimed over 450,000 members; by 1995, there were fewer than 200,000. Over half of the clothing bought in the US is now imported.

In an atmosphere of declining union representation and decreased government regulation, the sweatshop is again flourishing – or at least its media coverage is. Yet, as the economist Michael Piore points out in No Sweat, the definition of sweatshop seems to have expanded in the public perception to include workplaces characterised by low wages, extended shifts and frenetic production schedules. ‘Repugnant as these operations are,’ Piore writes, ‘they do not constitute bona fide sweatshops, at least as conventionally understood.’ His point is that to understand the classic sweatshop one needs to understand the economics of the industry.

Even in its legal sector, it pays poorly: after fast-food and retail employees, clothing workers are the lowest-paid of all US industrial wokers. One reason is that manufacturers have never been able to automate to the same extent as other industries: machines are not adept at handling delicate cloth and performing the intricate motions of sewing. So labour is needed, and preferably cheap labour, since the profit margins for contractors are fairly low – hence the preponderance of young women. This is why the mechanised, assembly-line Fordist system of mass production, with its supposedly proportional climbs in productivity and wages, has never obtained in the fashion industry. Then, too, there is the nature of fashion. Since the Sixties, the cycle of voguishness and obsolescence has gradually intensified in the industry, to the point where producers have trouble dictating the flow of production and consumption. Manufacturers are loath to invest in machinery and other fixed capital that will be out of date in one season. In the Sixties, sneaker manufacturing was a standardised, domestic operation, focused on a handful of models over multi-year production runs. By the Seventies, the established firms had been eclipsed by new companies producing shoes abroad, with a new model every year. By the Eighties, those companies were churning out four new lines and dozens of styles every year. Good news for a company hoping to drum up new customers and avoid over-accumulation in a flexible global economy, but bad news for long-term financial planning.

The risks inherent in the mercurial fashion industry are (inevitably) passed on to sweatshop workers, who are as easily jettisoned as last season’s styles. Since workers are commonly paid by the piece, they absorb the productivity burden as well, and management need not worry about improving conditions or looking after employees’ health. Workers on die piecework system earn most when they are engaged in assembling one product for a long time – they carry the adjustment costs. The ease with which manufacturers can always find new contractors is one of the problems raised by high-minded efforts to close sweatshops. When Guess? was put on probation by the Department of Labor for wage and other violations, it simply moved production to Mexico; the shops that remained were, according to a recent complaint by the National Labor Relations Board, subject to an intense union-busting campaign. Similarly, when Gifford’s crusade led to the closure of the Honduran factory where her clothes were manufactured, the young girls were left jobless. To focus exclusively on sweatshops not only ignores the difficulties faced by those who actually earn the minimum legal wage in decent conditions, it ignores the poverty that brought workers to sweatshops in the first place. In One World, Ready or Not (1997), William Greider describes the dialectic of sweatshop employment among young Malaysian women working in semiconductor factories. Their village backgrounds of ‘patriarchal domination in the household’ made them desirable workers for a non-union, low-wage shop, but ‘they were also the first generation of women from their villages to receive cash incomes of their own, however meagre, and to live apart from their families, single and unsupervised amid the perils and pleasures of a big modern city.’ The young female textile workers of Lowell, Massachusetts once blazed a similar trail.

Cutting-edge style and exploitative working conditions exist simultaneously from Malaysia to Manhattan. In the 19th-century, Britain turned India into an export market by taking over its domestic industries (‘It was the British intruder,’ Marx wrote, ‘who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning wheel’). This process, as McKenzie Wark writes in No Sweat, has now been reversed: ‘It is surely an irony of history that clothing and textile producers in the East now seek the destruction of the remnants of these industries in the overdeveloped world, in the name of much the same ideology of progress and development.’ Robin Givhan discusses the ‘ugly chic’ of thrift-store inspired fashion, from designers such as Helmut Lang and Prada – ‘There’s a certain bad taste,’ Prada told one newspaper, ‘but it looks so charming’ – while real second-hand clothing is exported en masse to sub-Saharan Africa, where it threatens local textile industries. The Financial Times doesn’t report this sort of exchange: wealthy industrialised nations send their cast-offs to the developing world, while their top designers embrace poverty chic and exoticism.

The sweatshop is not an inevitable by-product of a free-market, global economy, nor a ‘stage’ that countries pass through. USAID and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, set up during the Cold War to foster economic development and antipathy to the Soviet Union, have served as vehicles for manufacturers seeking to set up ‘export-processing facilities’ in countries such as El Salvador, where the ‘expansion of labour-intensive investments’ could be achieved at 33 cents an hour (securing, according to one advert, the services of the ‘colourful’ and ‘industrious’ Rosa). Retailers, who in the Sixties would claim a 35 per cent mark-up, now claim more than 300 per cent; they also exert increasing influence over the entire production chain. Why, then, do they insist that they are not accountable?