Adieu, Couture. Farewell, Ready-To-Wear

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 19 2009 6:39 PM

Adieu, Couture. Farewell, Ready-To-Wear

It’s a gloomy, retrospective day for fashion.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a meeting was to have taken place today between French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and a group of government advisers, luxury titans, and master craftsmen. The purpose? To discuss subsidies that might save feathermakers, milliners, embroiderers, and dressmakers from extinction. (To witness some of these artisans at work, check out the documentary Signé Chanel .) The French luxury sector has been hard-hit by the recession, the article explains: This year, business has dipped 30 percent. The fear is that the recession could kill off the remaining 115 businesses that cater exclusively to the high-end fashion and haute couture industries.

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But it’s not just luxury fashion workers who are at risk. New York City’s ready-to-wear industry is in peril as well, as tonight’s HBO documentary Schmatta illustrates. Simply put, both traditions-Paris haute couture and New York ready-to-wear-can’t compete with overseas production.

You may recall that designer Nanette Lepore wrote an op-ed during Fashion Week outlining the benefits of New York City-based production and the necessity of rent stabilization of Garment Center lofts. There are a host of reasons why her suggestions makes sense. The most compelling to me, as a fashion lover, is that a lot of new designers can’t afford to produce in China because to do so requires large production orders. The death of the Garment Center impedes small-scale production and blocks out the little guys, which means less variety and, potentially, less affordable variety. Schmatta doesn’t wrestle with these considerations, however. It emphasizes how the mass exodus of factories to Shenzhen and beyond has impacted the American fashion worker. It paints a very grim picture.

In 1965, 95 percent of our clothes were made here. Today, it’s 5 percent. Cheap nonunion labor, giant production lines, and the shipping container-basically everything that permitted for the explosion of Wal-Mart-offered too many incentives for profit maximization, and so the garmentos skedaddled. Schmatta challenges viewers to ponder the revival of worker-based fashion economy (and, hence, a worker-based economy generally). Its timing couldn’t be better.

Taken together, the Wall Street Journal article and the Schmatta documentary ask the question: Who is the fashion industry for?

If so few customers are willing to pay for Lesage embroidery, then artisanal work must be utterly passé. If the clients can’t support them-these are, after all, some of the richest women in the history of civilization-then there’s an argument to be made for the retiring of these craftsmen. They are obsolete. Truth be told, the death of the craftsmen would be less of a loss to fashion itself than to the marketing of fashion, which promotes money-losing confections in order to hawk perfume and purses to the hoi polloi , to put it rather crudely.

But ready-to-wear is far from obsolete! One could argue that the project of producing respectable clothing for the masses has reached its saturation point: Probably clothing cannot get any cheaper, or any more stylish, than it is right now at H&M or Wal-Mart. But the cheap prices have been thrust upon us so that the overseas factories can run 24-7 and pass on "the savings" to us ("consumers," never "people") through sheer economies of scale.

So what if the average American Jane coughed up a little bit more to purchase her glad rags? Schmatta doesn’t get into this-it’s beyond the scope of the film-but it certainly left me wondering. Indeed, what if women were okay with spending a little more on everything for domestically produced goods? Could this resuscitate the American workforce and the labor movement? After all, what’s the point of looking stylish if your livelihood is in constant peril, your retirement an impossibility. We’ll all look dandy as our ships goes down. And then what? Shenzhen will not save us.