Recently, I noticed that some of my t-shirts have "Made-in" labels that go above and beyond the usual information. These garments were, it seems, Designed in France, then Made in Morocco. It doesn't require a grad seminar on Edward Said to figure out why this might be spelled out. What the label is doing is saying, yes, you'd imagine these shirts to be French (ahem, Petit Bateau), but in all honesty, they were assembled elsewhere. But! Fear not! French workers were involved! Not only were they involved, but they participated at the highest level! When I noticed the label, I imagined a creative-professionals office, something like an architecture firm, where only the most Gallo-Celtic assemble to decide just how far apart stripes must be placed to be authentically Breton.
Clothing brands often send the same message, if less explicitly. H&M evokes Sweden, but this is not (sorry to disappoint) where the clothes are produced. Uniqlo is all about Japan, but very much Made in China. Then there are the Americana brands - if you're under the illusion that GAP, Levis or J.Crew are hand-crafted by rustic Real Americans or recent-college-grad Brooklynites channelling that spirit in a warehouse somewhere, you're in for a shock. There's the country whose aura you're purchasing, which is rarely the same as the the one the clothes are actually from.
But what if the countries of image and origin are one and the same? Problem solved (assuming one sees the image-origin mismatch as a problem), one might think. But no! What if there are ferners involved? And what if what's at stake isn't skankorifically-advertised American leggings, but Quality European Goods?
The perils of Italian production coming from those without Italian blood in their veins has shifted from food to textiles. The comments to the Times story are, I think even to someone less enthralled by newspaper comments than I am (and I'm so enthralled that my dissertation is about, in part, the 19th C equivalent - angry letters to parochial newspapers), kind of amazing.
Three different commenters are excited to learn that this is why their shoes fell apart so quickly. The Chinese! Another has this charming suggestion: "They should label the garments "'Made in Italy by Chinese,'" a sentiment shared by others as well (A moment, please, while I label this blog post, "Made in the U.S.A. by a Jew.") A recommended comment compares Chinese and Japanese workers to ants, and deems them incapable of producing quality goods.
However, the comment that struck me most was this one:
I remember so lovingly the beauty and quality of "Made in Italy" when I studied in Florence in the late 60'sand 70's: the fine materials, the extraordinary workmanship, the pride with which shopkeepers showed off their wares.When one returns to Florence today it is a very different city and almost heartachingly painful: the leather shops, the embroidery, the housewares are all sold by shopkeepers who don't even speak Italian, much less understand, or appreciate, what they have displaced.What a shame that some of the city's greatest traditional handiwork, not to mention their elegant taste, is fast disappearing and going the way of cheap globalization.Where to begin? Do the shopkeepers "not speak Italian" as in, one is unable to make a purchase from them in Italian, or is it that they're chatting amongst themselves in a language other than the one the guidebook promised, until you enter and ask to be helped? Is this an issue of communication or aural aesthetics? Must a kerchiefed matriarch stirring the local cuisine emerge from the back of the workshop at mealtimes?
Next, if you're visiting a place as a tourist, even a tourist who went on study abroad in the place way back when and so might have a particular interest in the region, how on earth do you know if store clerks "understand, or appreciate, what they have displaced"? Is this something people even wonder in their own hometowns?
Finally, when are concerns about craftsmanship, quality materials, and labor conditions just a proxy for racism? If there's racism, it's of a particular sort - the quest for authenticity is about consistency, not whiteness. The idea being, Italian stuff had best be made by Italians, not Chinese immigrants or Swedish ones. And the let-down at Uniqlo, in this line of thought, wouldn't be that East Asians made the stuff, but that it's made in China rather than Japan. Regardless, I suppose part of what I'm missing here is that I find it tough to wrap my head around the mindset that would find it "almost heartachingly painful" that clothes and accessories aren't made like they used to be.