[25 January 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Today is a culmination of 43 years in the garment industry. My industry has just about had it.
—Joe Raico, cutter
“I’ve been here for five decades,” says designer Stan Herman. “I walked up 7th Avenue when I was quite young, in the ‘50s. I walked to the schmatta center.” Back then, as Herman recalls, it was possible to arrive in a new city and find work—not just any work, but work within a creative, supportive, and dedicated community that was both fulfilling and profitable.
As Herman and others remember their beginnings in the garment business, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags offers black and white images of bustling streets: clothes racks pushed by ruddy-faced young men, trucks loaded with fabrics. Mort Scheinman of Women’s Wear Daily underscores, the industry was “the biggest single employer n New York City.” The sheer busy-ness of the business could be daunting: Adds Irving Rousso, founder of Russ Togs, it was a time when “you couldn’t walk around a foot, they’d knock you right over. It was the damn culture of the industry. It was all we knew.”
Schmatta screens 25 January as part of Stranger Than Fiction‘s Winter Season Series, followed by a Q&A with director Marc Levin. The documentary shows that today’s workers share an energy and hopefulness—call it indomitable spirit—with their predecessors in the industry, famously comprised of immigrants with ambitions and loyalties to one another. Products of underclass neighborhoods and close-knit families, garment workers developed skills, came up through apprenticeships, and considered themselves craftsmen. Fabric cutter Joe Raico says, “It was a gentlemen’s job… They knew what they were doing. When a garment was finished, it was something to be proud of.”
Even more remarkable than the numbers of companies and individuals made wealthy by the industry, the documentary points out, was the respect and attention paid to workers’ rights. “The garment unions,” says Bruce Raynor, President of Workers United and SEIU (Service Employees International Union), “provided for entry to the middle class.” This shift “revolutionized America,” he adds. It as a shift in thinking about class identity and social structures partly instigated by the “vision” of organizers Jacob Potofsky and Stanley Hillman, as well as the tragic and galvanizing Triangle Shirtwaist Factor Fire of 1911. Over 150 women died in the fire, unable to escape because the doors on the building were locked: as the film recounts, many victims leaped to their deaths from ninth and 10th story windows. Their bloody bodies laid out on the sidewalk (and recorded by cameras) inspired thousands of protestors, who took as their motto, “Who’s going to protect the working girl?”
If workers were and remain the foundation of the industry, they have also been brutally abused, by employers and U.S. legal processes. Over decades, immigrants provided a labor pool, but management became increasingly antipathetic; under the strains of West Side Story‘s “America,” the film shows changing fashions and work conditions, as well as some stunning numbers: “In 1965, 95% of American clothing was made in USA.” A verse or two later, following clips of union-busting Reagan (“We are keepers of the flame of liberty,” he proclaims in one vintage moment) and NAFTA-supporting Clinton, the film notes that as of 2009, only 9% is made in the States.
Presidential proclamations are one thing (International Fashion Syndicate editor Marylou Luther remembers the emergence of “Reagan red,” in Nancy’s outfits and elsewhere). Greed and the incursion of Wall Street into the erstwhile mom-and-pop business of schmatta are another (“The CEO is not a garmento”). The film illustrates the resurgent use of sweat shops in the industry (decades after the Triangle Fire) with 1996 footage of Kathie Lee Gifford’s tearful declaration of her ignorance/innocence regarding the Honduran girls sewing pieces for her clothing line for 31 cents an hour.
Gifford’s highly publicized offenses seem like gateway crimes by the time the film turns to celebrity designers like Calvin Klein and Tommie Hilfiger. After watching a couple of selective—and exceedingly shallow interviews (Hilfiger make that tired assertion concerning his own brilliant use of “street” designs)—you’d be hard-pressed to admire these multi-millionaires. A series of Ralph Lauren advertisements—young tanned beauties looking pouty and rich—is followed by his self-explanation: “I think we grow up with aspirations of the life you want to live. My clothes were part of the dream, my clothes were part of the world.” He pauses. “Designers somehow do clothes, I do life.”
In this universe, such high self-regard and narrow vision are hardly news, of course. But, as Schmatta makes clear, none of this “life” would be possible without an egregiously exploited work force. As the industry continues to ship jobs to cheap labor markets and chip away at unions, Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee warns that white collar jobs will someday be subject to the same fate, “You can’t shop your way out of these circumstances,” he says, “The only way to stop this downward spiral on the part of working people is the right to organize.”