Rags Time: Marc Levin On HBO Doc Schmatta
Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, Marc Levin’s history of the Garment District, airs tonight on HBO. After tracing the origins of the New York City rag trade back to immigrant-staffed sweatshops like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Levin proceeds to track the rise of the Garment District—those mid-century decades when approximately 95 percent of the clothing sold in the United States was made domestically, making it the number one employer in New York City. Times, needless to say, have changed. Today, close to 95 percent of the clothing sold in the United States is made abroad, making the Garment District so much a shadow of its former self that a fight to save it from extinction is currently being waged. Schmatta tracks that devolution, as well. In so doing, the film raises important questions about how the fashion industry infrastructure we currently take for granted will be forced to adapt in the post-recession, post-Inconvenient Truth era. Here, Levin talks to Style.com about fashion as microcosm, his own rag trade genealogy, and the fact that he’s not trying to be Michael Moore.
You’ve got a lengthy filmmaking résumé, and nothing on it indicates an interest in fashion. What made you want to tell this story?
It was a curveball, actually. I went to Sheila Nevins at HBO with an idea for a documentary about hedge funds, and while we were sitting there, brainstorming, she brought up the fact that her blouse was made in China, her pants in Bangladesh, and so on. She thought there was a story there, and she suggested I go check out the Garment Center. I said, “You want me to do something on the schmatta business?” And she said, “Schmatta. Great title.” That’s how things get done, sometimes.
When you started researching, was there something you were looking for in particular?
Well, I knew I wanted to tell a story about the human impact of changes to our economy. That was the idea behind the hedge fund project, too, to a degree. But I have to say, Sheila’s instincts were right on target, because fashion is a much more accessible lens through which to view that subject matter. Not just because fashion is so present in the culture, but also because every single one of us interacts with fashion in some way, and because so many of us have roots that go back to the Garment Center. My own family is a case in point. My great-grandfather invented an adjustable dress form. I’m only a few generations removed from the schmatta business, myself. And since that business caught a lot of immigrants, that’s true for millions of people all over America.
Your film also makes the case that the fashion industry has been a bellwether for a lot of changes to American industry over the years.
It absolutely has been. I mean, look at the labor movement after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. It was the fashion industry that led the way toward unionization. The workers in the Garment Center, they were immigrants, they spoke all these different languages, and no one at the time through they could organize themselves. But they did it, and wound up at the vanguard of the labor movement. And for decades, the Garment Center was a place where immigrants and less-educated people could get jobs that paid for a middle-class lifestyle. Now those jobs have gone overseas, by and large. You look at the steel industry, you look at automaking, it’s the same story. Not identical, but similar enough.
One of the interesting things about this documentary is that it shows how the front-facing identity of a company rose to prominence just as the back end of its business was getting harder for consumers to comprehend. I mean, it’s easy to feel a connection to Ralph Lauren, say, but difficult to take in a process where the making of a sample involves a convoluted supply chain where fabric comes from Japan, patternmaking goes on in Croatia, sewing in China, and finishing in Mexico.
Capital will always seek the cheapest labor. That’s like gravity. And there’s still such global poverty, we’ve got another hundred years to seek and exploit the cheapest labor in the world if we want to. But will we want to? That’s the big question, now, and frankly it’s one I couldn’t even begin to answer in this film. I think we’ll be chipping away at an answer for the next decade or so. It does, however, seem to me that we’ve reached an inflection point. We’ve all been dazzled by the ad campaigns, the celebrities, the flashbulbs, the whole “show” aspect of fashion. But you can make an analogy to finance. Given what’s happened with the economy, with all these baroque financial products and splicing and dicing of risk, people are in a mood to demand more transparency. The public has come to understand that these operations behind the veil affect them. I think that attitude will apply to the garment trade, too. And as we address global warming, and as energy prices rise, outsourcing may become marginally less cost-effective. The upshot of all that may be that manufacturing starts to return to the States. Maybe.
I could sort of see a movement coalescing around the idea of quality. My analogy is to the food industry. I imagine that for every one person who shops at Whole Foods or at the farmer’s market because he or she is a determined environmentalist, there are probably a dozen people doing it because super-processed food just seems, well, cheap.
I just happened, last night, to watch the documentary about Valentino, which I liked a lot. And I realize this is a very elevated example, but you’ve got to be impressed with his head seamstress. I mean, talk about quality control! And in the Garment Center, there’s that same enduring sense of pride in workmanship. It really used to mean something to be a cutter, to be a sewer. There are certain values represented by the Garment Center, and they’ve gotten lost as the fashion industry has corporatized and commoditized itself. I don’t want to demonize anybody. I realized as I was making this film that I’m as complicit as anyone. I haven’t been looking at labels. I haven’t been researching supply chains. We’ve all been conditioned to shop for things that are cheap and disposable.
You say you don’t want to demonize anyone, but this is a movie that takes sides, wouldn’t you agree?
I am constitutionally and through my own family a progressive. But I genuinely did not enter into this project looking to make a Michael Moore film. This isn’t Capitalism: A Love Story. There aren’t heroes and villains. What I found was that most of these people who moved their production abroad did so because huge economic forces were prevailing upon them. I think the point of view of the film is, can we find a way to navigate these forces more responsibly?
Do you think the Garment Center could ever come back? If not to its historic strength, then maybe to a half or a quarter of it?
Well, right now people are worried there might not be a Garment Center at all. We’re showing an eight-minute film tonight about the “Save the Garment Center” movement. It’s kind of like an epilogue. Anna Sui, Nanette Lepore, and Yeohlee Tang are some of the designers involved, and they’re going to be demonstrating on the 21st. The real estate has gotten expensive, and the city is contemplating changes to the zoning. I guess we’ll see what happens.