There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American. Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.
When it comes to politics, a subject that the fashion community has grown slightly more comfortable addressing recently, there are a couple of major issues that directly impact U.S. fashion brands. One is border taxes on imports, which the current president has said he intends to increase as a way of punishing those who don't produce in the U.S.; the other is immigration, which the president intends to make even more difficult than it already is — a move that would actually result in deeply damaging consequences for U.S. manufacturing. Not only is this contradictory, but it's also concerning for local fashion businesses of all kinds.
As you're likely aware, the American fashion industry would be very different were it not for a significant immigrant community occupying many of the top jobs and running some of the top fashion houses in the biz, from Raf Simons to Diane von Furstenberg to Anna Wintour. They're creating jobs and contributing significantly to the U.S. economy. But that's to say nothing of garment manufacturing in the U.S., which only a relative handful of brands are committed to doing and of which the president's rhetoric indicates he's a big proponent. Would that even be possible without immigrants? The answer is a resounding no. At least, not right now.
Walk into any garment factory in downtown Los Angeles — home to America's largest apparel manufacturing hub — and the vast majority of the people you'll see will be immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America. (They not only work in these factories, but many of these factories were set up by immigrants decades ago.) You'll hear just as much Spanish being spoken as English, if not more — to the point where speaking Spanish is a crucial job qualification for anyone hoping to get hired by a designer as a production manager.
"I see about 300 workers here and 99 percent of them are immigrants," estimates Iris Alonzo over the phone from one of the DTLA factories that produce clothes for her new, all locally-made clothing line Everybody.World. For Alonzo and her co-founder Carolina Crespo (whose parents immigrated from Mexico and started a DtLA factory in the 1970s), immigration regulations are not something they have to deal with directly as the factory they use is "above board" and requires that all workers be documented. But Alonzo knows from her own experience, which includes over a decade working at American Apparel, that there is a vast community of undocumented workers "living in the shadows" throughout LA despite their very valuable skills.
"There are thousands of people for sure within a few miles from where I'm standing that could set up a dream factory," she says. "They could manufacture almost anything you would possibly want to make."
Dov Charney-era American Apparel was that dream factory, in a way. Immigrants, many of whom were undocumented, were the backbone of the brand's LA factory, which was at one point the largest clothing factory in the U.S. In what was believed to be the first nail in American Apparel's coffin, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency forced the company to fire 1,800 workers — a quarter of its workforce — in 2009 due to paperwork issues. It was a cautionary tale for other brands committed to producing things locally, who must take pains to ensure the validity of the paperwork of those they hire so that a regular audit doesn't decimate their workforce. This is especially important (and perhaps more difficult) for smaller brands who may rely on only a handful of sewers and cutters.
LA-based womenswear designer Raquel Allegra, for instance, relies on local workers with very specialized skills to execute her signature deconstructed, tie-dyed and hand-beaded pieces each season. Quality control and the ability to oversee the development of every tie-dye pattern is of especially high importance to Allegra's success as a brand, and something she wouldn't be able to achieve were the majority of her designs produced elsewhere, and thus wouldn't be able to achieve without immigrants. Allegra's other reason for producing locally, aside from the ability to keep tight control over her creative process, is a desire to participate in the local industry. "It's an interdependent industry; they depend on us, we depend on them," she explains. "It's important to invest in your own industry in your own country."
Calder Blake founder Amanda Blake also feels passionately about this. She tells me a story about a denim laundry in the late '80s whose immigrant workforce "came to the building and stood on the roof and the surrounding area to protect the business from being burned down" during the LA riots. "This dedication and hard work speaks volumes," she says. "One of the major reasons I choose to manufacture here in LA is so that I can see the people that are involved in the process. I know that Fernanda just had a baby and will be back sewing in a few weeks and her mother is taking her place while she is with her baby. When I ask Alfredo to rush something for me I know that he will make it happen. There are plenty of signs on the doors of the sewing contractors that say 'Looking for a single needle operator' or 'Looking for Overlock operator' and I don't see anyone other than immigrants lining up for these jobs."
Both Allegra, who says she gets audited every year, and her production team are careful about only hiring workers with the right documents, who are typically found through word of mouth or even simply placing a sign in the lobby of her building. "There are so many garment workers in this building; people know other people; there's a community that really exists, an immigrant community," she says. Skills are often passed onto family members and friends and colleagues, several designers we spoke with have said.
Immigrants are also the backbone of cool-girl brand Reformation, which has such a nice DtLA factory and treats its workers so well that it started hosting tours to show it all off to the public. As I was told by founder Yael Aflalo during one of the first of such tours, the company offers weekly ESL classes and a path to citizenship course.
Undocumented workers are still being hired — either by employers with the time and resources to help them get the appropriate visa, or by others that are simply less discerning; some of these factories, even in the U.S., qualify as actual sweatshops. "Factory owners are taking advantage of the fact that they don't have work permits and they're earning below-minimum wage, not getting proper overtime breaks, those kinds of things," explains Alonzo. That's not OK, but neither is the prospect of millions of skilled laborers being deported en masse, a process the POTUS is threatening to put into motion.
In response to this threat and the challenges around immigration that already existed, the CFDA published a report in April compiled with the help of FWD.us, an organization that advocates for immigration reform with a focus on the tech community, entitled, "Designing an Immigration System that Works." The report included survey responses from 100 members of the U.S. fashion community to illustrate how critical immigrants are to the health of the industry. It found that 82 percent hire foreign workers for their skills and talent (not because they're cheap labor) and 42 percent find it difficult to hire foreign workers because they're uneducated about the immigration system.
"With excellent international candidates, my top concerns are difficulties processing visas, unnecessarily long wait times for people to get visa confirmation and reissuing, and unnecessary legal fees associated with visa obtaining," an anonymous designer was quoted as saying in the report. "They're all a nuisance."
The study also estimates that 20 percent of workers in U.S. garment manufacturing are undocumented, and it's not hard to see why. The process of hiring a foreign worker who isn't already documented is complex and expensive, if not downright impossible. According to the report, more than 68 percent of respondents spent between $5,000 and $9,999 per employee on legal expenses related to the visa process and interactions with the immigration system.
Not unlike the CFDA's study on the New York Fashion Week format, this report doesn't offer much in the way of concrete solutions, but it does propose some recommendations; one is updating visa qualifications. H1-B visas, which it argues should be more freely distributed, allow companies to employ, for up to six years, people from other countries in specialty occupations. It's commonly referred to as the "high-skill visa."
It argues that the government should expand the definition of and reform the O-1 visa, which now only applies to those with "extraordinary ability" in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. It also proposes the creation of an entrepreneur visa for immigrant designers, and that companies be provided more guidance on navigating the immigration system. Its final recommendation: "Create a pathway to legalization and/or citizenship for undocumented immigrants."
We caught up with CFDA CEO Steven Kolb months after the report came out, who says the organization is still working with FWD.us on "amplifying our report and findings to policy makers." For now, he advises concerned designers to "support groups like the ACLU that stand up for immigrants' rights." Another paper on this topic with additional findings is set to be published in the fall, he says.
Even if you — like the President of the United States — don't care about the fact that this country was founded on the concepts of acceptance and freedom and the American dream, immigrants are simply good for business. They are the people who possess the skills to make our clothes and accessories locally. They're also willing to do jobs that have been deemed undesirable by many natural-born Americans.
"It would be devastating to the manufacturing economy locally and on a national scale; it would have a ripple effect if those people were to be rounded up the way it's always talked about and sent back to where they came from," says Alonzo. "We can't just put a blanket description on undocumented immigrants as people that have broken the law and done something wrong. I think there has to be a more productive way of looking at things where we can embrace the skill and knowledge that's already here."
"We are a country of immigrants and fashion is an industry built on skill. These skills easily translate regardless a person's language or homeland," adds Kolb. "In order to continue the U.S.'s success and influence in the fashion industry, we must recruit the best talent from all over the world. If the United States wants to lead the world in fashion innovation, we need immigration policies that embrace the talented foreigners who come here to build and grow."
Homepage photo: Inside Reformation's Los Angeles factory. Photo: Reformation