It’s all smoke and mirrors. All along Fashion Avenue. Or at least dust and mirrors. Throw in the odd cockroach, fleets of rolling racks jammed with garments and tottering on mangled wheels, hangers protruding at rakish angles, and the smell of the microwaved burrito emanating from the Head of Production’s desk and wafting over the bowed heads of twelve people every day at 12:30. The typical New York fashion studio.
Following on the heels of the news that New York fashion designer, Rebecca Minkoff, was fined $77,000 by the Department of Labor for “willful and serious violations of workplace safety standards,” including limiting access to emergency exits, forcing her staff to work in offices that are “overcrowded and congested,” I found myself reminiscing about the cosy and intimate little Manhattan manholes that were the locations of some of my past jobs.
The clutter, the minor injuries, the feeling of sitting so close to your colleague that you became convinced their growling stomach, when the steaming burrito is whisked across the room, is in fact your own. If there was a fire, our charred remains would have been tramped over by the cockroaches on their way to that abandoned 1/2 pound beef bean combo.
And you thought the fashion industry was glamourous? Ah, well.
Bear in mind, I made a conscious effort upon arrival in Manhattan not to follow the corporate route, thus avoiding becoming an anonymous minion in a typing pool of designers perhaps responsible for women’s dress shirts or some such anal pigeonholing.
Anal pigeonholing sounds weird.
But my point is, I think Ralph Lauren would have his fire exits as clearly marked as British Airways, and perhaps with an emergency chute at the ready as we designers tend to be tucked away in the upper storeys.
Oh, where is that design assistant we just hired..?
In one job, me and my two assistants were packed into a box storage room along with everything else that had been discarded in the Garment District since the era when Halston himself was in business. Cleaners didn’t venture in and the grey matter lodged round the computer keys may well have become biohazardous. Working with embroideries, the scale of the artwork could be large. We crawled around on the grubby floor most of the time as it was the only available surface area.
But apparently the problem lies not only with the design studios. A friend who has a line in Europe visited NYC recently to have a meeting with one of the city’s high end department stores to discuss their stocking his shit-hot collection. In another box room, with junk climbing the walls and throttling the meagre shelving like a possessed creeper plant, he almost gagged during his presentation from the stench of the overflowing garbage bin.
But the store in question attracts only the most polished and elite customer––oh, and my intimidated fashion students who are forced to go there for their market research by their unsympathetic design professor.
But back to that job of mine. It had one saving grace. I got to travel to India as much as eight times a season as our production and sampling was done there. You might think we went from the frying pan of clutter into the hell fire and damnation of it. But India’s where I found some semblance of order.
Yes, the sacred cows chewed on plastic bags in the middle of the road causing jams a mile long; and my rickshaw journeys from the hotel to the factory were nothing less than invigorating first thing in the morning; and what looked like fifty people piled into one vehicle, sprouting from windows and doors and perched on the roof making clown cars look mundane and filling me with fear that their sari fabric would somehow get caught in the wheels, and I would go home with the vision of something truly horrific imprinted in my mind, despite all that, I sought sanctuary and found it.
My boss used to sheepishly broach the necessity of another trip to Delhi to check sampling, convinced it was an imposition. Even though I flew coach (there are many reasons to follow the corporate route, young designers out there) I concealed my contented smile. If he knew I enjoyed going, he’d find a way to make it seem like a perk when I asked for a raise or time off. He was that type.
In the Delhi factories, the smell of saffron and lavender permeated the corridors. The dusty cacophony of daily life was shut out and the air hummed with an Ayurvedic calm. In that culture, men do the sewing and the delicate needlework of embroideries. They have well-maintained workspaces and look dignified behind their machines, proud of their skills.
When they are occupied with the close beadwork, they prefer to sit on rugs on the floor with the fabric pulled tight across small drums in front of them, jars of coloured beads and stones sparkling on shelves behind them. The work room where we carried out fittings and corrections was pristine and our freshly pressed samples hung on a shiny rail that circumnavigated the room, the garments spaced equidistant apart like in the most stylish NYC department store.
We have grown accustomed to hearing of tragedies in third world factories that make us question the relentless exploitation at the heart of the fashion industry. And they are indeed legitimate discussions. But when I returned to our office from Delhi, and gave a progress report to my boss, I couldn’t help thinking Who’s third world now?
And we always brought back such lovely souvenirs:
My first novel is inspired by all my fashion experiences. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.