Why Outsourcing Hurts Beyond the Olympics, or The Selective Memory of Congresspeople Amazes Me

by Honor Vincent

When I was in third grade my class was assigned a piece of homework: go home, check the tags on your clothing, and see how many things you own that were made in America. Then come in tomorrow wearing as much of that in an outfit as you can.

Though the project was rife with opportunities for interpretation (like not wearing pants if we lacked American ones), we were eight and hadn’t developed true enough senses of irony for that. Plus, everyone’s parents did most of the work. When I went home and asked my mom for help, she got really excited and went straight for a few things, like she already knew.

“You know, I bet you’re the only one in your class who’s going to have a whole outfit,” she said, laying out four different outfit options.

I didn’t know why it got her so worked up, or why she was acting like she’d been waiting my whole life for the exact opportunity to lay out all the clothes Made in the USA. I found out later, in high school, when she told me why the third company she’d worked for had just gone under.

The reason was also what made her hiss at me not to even apply to Parsons or FIT for design (Her: “It’s a dying industry nooo!” Me: “Oh. Okay. HI, JOURNALISM SCHOOL!”), and what made me sputter at the news that Ralph Lauren had outsourced the production of this year’s US Olympic team uniforms to China. It wasn’t the outsourcing that I sputtered at so much as the fact that it was Congresspeople huffing and puffing and sound biting about it all of a sudden like they oh-my-gosh just realized this was going on.

Around 90% of the clothing Americans buy is imported. This change — America was once the largest producer of clothing in the world — caused the loss of nearly a million jobs and shrunk the industry by more than 80% after NAFTA was passed. There have been laws to ostensibly slow the bleed, like provision 807 in the US Customs Trade Regulations, which allows companies to import tariff-free if they use American pieces and construct the finished goods in the Caribbean, but they’ve been superficial and many have lapsed.

Mom’s got some sound bites of her own, though. About the garmentos who used to run racks of just-sewn clothes up and down Broadway to showrooms, and the buyers from Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s who visited less and less frequently and then not at all. She watched Traphagen, the college where she learned to draft, design, sew and cut patterns close down, and saw the clusters in Fashion Marketing and Merchandising students blissfully ignorant of needles and threads tootling around FIT. She saw the district where she used to have to leave 10 minutes early for meetings to allow for time to say hello to all of the people she knew and would bump in to on 35th shrink and mutate into a district of tourist petting zoos along Broadway connecting Macy’s and the Manhattan Mall.

When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad decided that he’d stay home with me all day since she was just starting a career she’d worked hard for and wanted. By the time I was in middle school she was an out of work, award winning children’s wear designer and my dad had picked up exterminating jobs to make sure we could keep living where we were living. It wasn’t long before she came to the realization that she would have to learn how to design on a computer, in Illustrator, to ever get a job in the same industry again. My mom and most of her friends — talented seamstresses and designers — were switching careers if they could, and giving up if they couldn’t.

Meanwhile, as New York City design companies disappeared, factories and textile mills down south started shuttering, too. And the smaller businesses that grew up around the garment industry, where someone without a formal education could open a contracting company and have a shot at succeeding and making a decent living or failing on their own terms, were lost too. There were art studios who sold print rights for patterns, button makers, lace makers trim makers, sewing machine manufacturers, scissor sharpeners who would go through buildings collecting dull scissors and sharpening them by noon, nearly all gone now.

My mother went from having her own design room, sample maker, and sewing machine in her office to a PC with Illustrator and AOL and tiny desk that could only hold enough pattern paper for doll clothes. I grew up and started applying for internships at fashion magazines and freelance (emphasis on the “free”) reporting jobs at Fashion Week. The first time I went I was amazed how quickly it transformed Lincoln Center in to this gazelle parade fenced in by photographers and tourists. As I watched the shows I knew I was watching a sort of art, and that most those clothes were of course different from the stuff I could afford and wear.

But it is also a parade of where the money is going. These luxury brands ostensibly can’t afford to produce within the U.S. anymore, but the face of the fashion industry is Fashion Week — a multi-million dollar spectacle where brands can afford to pay editors and bloggers a few grand in free stuff to attend a show or two and cover it, if need be. And on the other side of things, the garment industry itself is withering away, and big designers are starting to follow.

Because what the ballsiness of Ralph Lauren’s (who built his brand on Americana, might I add) move says is that it’s going pretty badly for the American side of the industry. It’s moved past the giant discount chains and in to designer fashion, which is supposed to be a last bastion of domestic industry.

There are American designers who still produce and manufacture in America, like the Mulleavys of Rodarte and Nanette Lepore. But the reason luxury brands from Europe and America are having such roaring issues with Chinese knockoffs is that their factories are located in China, smack dab next to where the knockoff factories churn out fakes. I’ve heard anecdotally that some of the fakes are actually made in the same factories, on the same machines — that they’re just the rejected irregulars or made of stolen scraps. So essentially the production cost of a lot of “designer” and “couture” stuff is the same as what you would buy at H&M, and of the stuff on Canal Street. The people making those clothes are working in places where the standard of living makes H&M a luxury store.

In some industries, there’s been a shift back to American factories due to the expense of shipping things over from Asia and the wage inflation in China, but this is mostly limited to electronics and appliance companies. This is unlikely to happen in the apparel industry because clothing isn’t as expensive to ship as a refrigerator, and the huge players in the industry — stores like Target, K-Mart, Macy’s and (shudder) Wal-Mart who drove American manufacturing overseas to begin with — are still moving in a direction of being completely reliant on foreign-based manufacturing. They’re now forcing what remains of the American design, import and agent companies out of business by hiring in-house designers based in overseas factories. Which, I should mention, are more akin to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory whether they’re based in Argentina, Vietnam or Bangladesh (hence the cheapness). If it isn’t right and legal to treat human beings in such a way here, and it isn’t, why the hell are we supporting that kind of treatment elsewhere?

For all of the posturing and shrieking of politicians about how the garment industry should be “brought back” (cute, Nan Hayworth, but read up), it rests squarely with them and the enormous corporations that were allowed to ship an industry, piece by piece, overseas. None of them stood up for the laws they signed or admitted the laws they let lapse that allowed it to happen so easily — not John Boehner, not Charles Bass, not Allen West and certainly not Mitt Romney.

But while they kvetch for a few more weeks until they forget about pesky trade policy agreements again, my mom won’t ever be sure that the job she trained for and worked at for decades will be there tomorrow. One day she’ll tell my kids about a dead industry and it will sound like another country all together, and I will remember my mother coming home in tears for a third time in as many years, my mother at her sewing machine making my Halloween costumes, my mother at the dining room table teaching me how to cut and sew a skirt.

And I will look at the tags at every damned thing I buy, if only to see that it was Made in Pakistan, just so I know the score.

Here’s a (partial) list of companies that are still Made in America, if you’re curious.

Honor Vincent is a writer who’s bounced from coast to coast, and you can find her here, here, and here.

Photo by Lee Russell.