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Seemingly all of the United States was put into a fashion frenzy last week when it was brought to the media’s attention that the Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms for the 2012 US Summer Olympic team with their all-American flair (and hideous berets) were produced in China. From senators to civilians, everyone expressed opinions on the matter ranging from apathy to the demand that they be burned.
The symbolism of these particular outfits obviously stirred the ire, but the Hanna-Barbera dropped jaw reactions over “American” clothes being made in China speaks to a grave ignorance on the American public’s knowledge of how the fashion system currently operates.
“I think it is somewhat of a disgrace that well-known American designers produce minimally, if at all, in the US,” says Brad Schmidt of Cadet, a Brooklyn-based menswear company that manufactures everything in the USA. “There are 530 athletes in the 2012 Olympics. Almost any US factory could have produced these garments in a very short time frame … [Ralph Lauren] could have walked outside their offices into any one of the factories in the Garment District and placed an order.”
It’s unsurprising they didn’t, however. Corporations can maximize profits by outsourcing labor where it’s cheaper and the laws less stringent. Only about 2% of the clothing sold in this country is produced here, and even the stipulations surrounding that particular “Made in the USA” label are questionable at best. Even though there seems to be a rise of “Made in the USA” championing, Brad says still, “There is a disconnect with consumers [in some cases] between wanting ‘Made in America,’ but not wanting to pay a little more for it.”
Is there honestly some fundamental evil or betrayal in what transpired? I can’t think of anything more American than outsourcing the manufacturing of goods. As we can clearly see before our very eyes the dissolution of the Garment District in New York City, all US industries have outsourced production of goods to other countries to take advantage of lower costs. It’s capitalism at its most blatant.
Six Democratic senators plan to introduce the “Team USA Made in America Act of 2012” this week to ensure the production of the uniforms on our soil, even though Ralph Lauren already vowed to avoid another PR disaster and make the 2014 Winter Olympic uniforms in the United States. But does it make any difference? The blue blood, preppy aesthetic of Ralph Lauren will still largely be produced off-shore, as will Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg and almost every other major American designer.
Design, planning, marketing and other more conceptual ends of the apparel industry do typically take place here, of course, which makes it queer that one particular fragment of the entire process upsets so many. But our culture still holds the physical act of creation very sacred, valuing the tangible over the theoretical. There still exists a very precious relationship between the artist and the art object, even though that paradigm is slowly shifting, even if our perception doesn’t. Even Brad notices with Cadet’s customers that, “The fact that the garments are made by us and made locally resonates more than Made in USA … it’s the connection between what they are wearing and knowing exactly from where it came.”
The Hirsts and Murakamis of the world employ large studios to create the bulk of their work, and while more and more artists utilize the help of assistants and studios, there’s still a note of disapproval in the act. Of course the history of art and fashion has long been a collaborative process (to put it nicely) with many major artists using assistants to help produce their work and nearly every singe major designer using an atelier. So why still the outrage?
The criticism of the uniforms’ production illustrates a refusal of destroying the auteur myth that permeates all creative industries more than blatant patriotism. If the public really cared about the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs in this country, they’d be fighting to create more permanent jobs here rather than a one-shot project like the Olympic uniforms.