List of Figures vi
Introduction: Fashion Workers and the Labor of Design 1
1. Shoddy Seams: The Decline of the New York Garment Industry and Its Transformation Into New York Fashion 25
2. Back of House/Front of House: Creative Skills and “Effortless” Labor Among Samplemakers and Fashion Workers 53
3. The Deskilling of Design: Technology, Education, and the Routinization of Fashion’s Engineers 93
4. Designing Diaspora: The Racialization of Labor, the Rebranding of Korea, and the Movement of Fashion Designers Between Seoul and New York 123
5. Fast-Fashion Families: Family Ties and Fast-Fashion Production in the Los Angeles Jobber Market 162
6. Epilogue: Made in China 201
1.1 The Garment District in Manhattan, West 25th Street 28
1.2 The daughters of garment workers 33
2.1 The Fashion Calendar created by Ruth Finlay 53
2.2 New York Fashion Week fashion show catalog 61
2.3 Patternmaking tools 63
2.4 Sample fabrics with sleeve 67
2.5 Jean coin pocket 70
3.1 Course notes on the dress form 97
3.2 New York fashion school course catalog 102
4.1 Newspaper clipping of Korean fashion designers featured in New York–based Korean Daily 124
4.2 Parsons Fashion Design LookBook 2006 131
4.3 Magazine clipping of Korean fashion design student in New York City 146
5.1 California mood board 165
5.2 Workplace desk 194
6.1 Shoe leather at factory in China 201
Fashion Workers and the Labor of Design
Fashion is a fascinating amalgamation of design practices, technical skills, material and technological sources, and particular laboring individuals and communities who make our clothing. Pull on seams and discover all the different parts and varying elements of your clothing as the actual spatial and geographic borders of the cities in which it was made. Fibers are grown in fields, picked and spun into thread, dyed and spooled, wrapped around a bobbin on a sewing machine. The seams of clothing hold two pieces of fabric together, powerfully transforming the flat, two dimensional into the third, of shape and curves and bends around the body, into the fourth dimensions of a moving body that crosses landscapes, cities, and borders. In this way, fashion, worn on the body, materially traces the transformations of work. It is a narrative journey, not just of its wearer, but also of the fashion workers who’ve migrated through its global supply chains, crossing national and state borders, shifting the meaning of their own identities as they transform landscapes of work.
Fashion is a way of traveling from here to there just like any story or drawing or map. Pull on a thread and it will lead you to the many tangled knots and neighborhoods of streets, the fronts of houses and back rooms, the offices and design studios, the large-scale assembly factories and small workshops of its production. Covered buttons once led me to a buttonhole maker in a single room in the New York Garment District, buttons of all colors, sky-high to the ceiling, with a small rug for praying next to his metal hole-puncher. Snaps on jeans led me to a woman who, for two decades, sat in the window of Steinlauf and Stoller on 39th Street, powering an antique foot-powered industrial snap and grommet machine. I once traced a pico stitch cut in half that could make a scalloped edge on the strap of a dress to a certain sewing operator working in a samplemaking room on the 11th floor of a Sixth Avenue fashion company, using a 1940s machine he found from the Hecht Sewing Machine & Motor Company on 38th Street—a machine that was built to make this one single type of stitch. Certain colors and dyes, threads, zippers, and bra hooks have led me back led back to laboring individuals, sets of skills, and technological machinery throughout the geography of cities such as New York. The hand-printed silkscreens or the computerized digital prints, the machine-stitched or hand-stitched sequinning, embroidery, or the rhinestones glued onto your shirt have led me to second- and third-tier cities of production, industrial districts, and urban villages, large-scale and small-scale factories of mass assembly across South Korea and China. If fashion is the material embodiment of labor, what kinds of skills are involved in its making, fragmented in divisions of labor across the global commodity chain? How might the material embodiment of labor capture the various skills, industrial histories, migrations, imaginations, aspirations, and selfhoods of its workers in its making? Fashion tells the story of labor and the social worlds of its making. Seams and threads weave together so many different histories and come apart as so many different narratives. This book tells the story of New York fashion’s new working class: fashion’s new working class engaged in the labor of design and the material making of fashion in the early 21st century, connecting the materiality of fashion with their imaginations, affirmations, and interwoven multiplicities. This book explores how their thoughts, histories, and personhoods are literally woven into the fabric of things.
When I first started this research in New York in 2005, it seemed that everything Americans wore on their bodies was made somewhere else. To understand how, I came across literature on fashion’s global commodity chains to understand the new “flexible” arrangements of fashion production and networks of supply chain capitalism that emerged between the US and Asia during the 1990s and 2000s.1 I learned that American apparel giants had grown enormously with the support of East Asia’s export-oriented economies (labeled newly industrializing countries, or NICs), looking to find a successful path and integration into the competitive new global economy. Garments or apparel, among developing nations, was thought to be the only option in gaining a true stake in the global economy, after the failures of state-led industrialization developmental models of Latin American countries in the 1970s. As a low-cost and labor-intensive “starter” industry, garments were central to export-oriented industrialization, promising a pathway for nation-states towards progress and modernity. Developing countries could quickly grow their GDPs through the making of clothing and economically “pull themselves up from their bootstraps” through manufacturing. They would supply goods and products for consumers of the West, including the United States.
To study such shifts from state-led industrialization economies to export-driven economies, academics, economists, policymakers, business leaders, and activists took to the analytical framework of the global commodity chain (GCC), a conceptual tool to imagine and describe macro, meso, and micro levels of firm connections transnationally. Global production was commodity chains described the larger institutional and structural environments in which production was embedded and the social and developmental dynamics of contemporary capitalism located at the “global-local nexus.”2 As sets of inter-firm networks that connected manufacturers, suppliers, and subcontractors in global industries to international markets, this theoretical and methodological framework to study the global could help visualize, map, and analyze an increasingly complicated international division of labor in global capitalism, beyond the territorial limitations of the national economy.3 In the words of sociologist Jennifer Bair, commodity chains could trace the path of a commodity from a pair of blue jeans in China, denim in India, cocoa bean in Ghana, chocolate bars in the Netherlands, laptop computers assembled in Mexico, its parts from East Asia.4
One could now imagine, as Anna Tsing wrote, “telephone operators assisting customers from across the globe; ‘traditional’ indigenous farmers growing specialty crops for wealthy metropolitan consumers; Chinese millionaires reaping the profits of Walmart contracts; sweatshop workers toiling in locked rooms while brand-name buyers disavow responsibility.”5 Supply chains made vivid our imaginations of global production and consumption, from cars, electronics, and plastics to fruit, vegetables, and coffee from around the world.
When it came to the study of fashion, the international business community quickly took to global commodity and value chain approaches as a way to understand, operate, and manage global supply chains more quickly and efficiently throughout its sectors, studying how global commodity chains could be more cost-efficient and agile.6 They emphasized the need for “industrial upgrading” among deindustrializing, developing nations, promoting creativity, branding, market development, and technology, which would lead the way for a more improved, higher quality product while benefitting workers at the very bottom of the commodity chain. In this telling of globalization through apparel in the 1990s and 2000s, fashion, design, and branding was thought to be the natural progression of all nations towards economic development—the kind of progress and modernity that countries should strive for and attain.7 In this global imaginary, the creative drivers of the new global economy were located in global fashion capitals such as New York, where fashion corporations formed what was thought to be symbiotic arrangements of outsourcing, subcontracting, and assemblage with factories in Asia, benefitting both American consumers and Asian workers. Labor, in deindustrialized, postindustrial, creative economies such as New York, was thought to be completely offshored, only to appear in distant places, such as the assembly lines of China. Further, labor was continually imagined as industrial, corporeal, and manual— as the menial tasks of garment work—carried out without any mental, intellectual, and imaginative thought, and what educated middle classes of industrialized nations no longer wanted to do. In time, a false dichotomization of the global fashion industry emerged, allocating labor and creativity in opposite geographic locations of the world.
Soon enough, abstract descriptions of global commodity chains of fashion abounded with new taxonomies of supplier-driven and buyer-driven chains. From new “quick response” systems in retail that captured the latest data in consumer trends, to the “just in time” production systems used to quickly put clothing into production. New acronyms such as ODM (original design manufacturing) and OEM (original equipment manufacturing) described production systems that abstracted labor and made labor disappear altogether. The abstraction of labor and the fetishization of creativity steadily increased in studies on the global fashion industry at the start of the 21st century, distorting our understanding of the globalization process across commodity chains. These studies became part of the anonymizing languages and imagery of extrastatecraft, what architectural theorist Keller Easterling argues is the cultivated mechanisms of abstraction and legibility used to justify imagined global futures of profit that she observed throughout the 1990s and 2000s in global trade, finance, management, and communication.8 Anthropologist Aihwa Ong calls this the “abstractability and movement” of global forms, while Bruno Latour refers to it as the “immutable mobile” of technoscientific forms.9 In all, these abstractions dispensed universal beliefs about the global production of fashion: Creativity, design, and innovation is a thought to occur in one part of the world, while unthinking, manual labor takes place in another, only to come together in a natural symbiotic relationship that obscures and makes “neutral” the reality of deepening global inequity and value mining at the core of global capitalism, the exploitation of labor at the very heart of its development.