Op-Ed | ‘Made in France’ Needs Remaking

Brooke Taylor of Aganovich, an emerging label that manufactures in France, surfaces the challenges that lie at the heart of the current ‘Made in France’ product labelling system and says it’s time for a rethink.

Source: Shutterstock

PARIS, France — A few years ago, I co-hosted the opening of a photography exhibition in Shenzhen, China. At the event, I was introduced to an artist calling himself ‘Made in China.’ It was never entirely clear to me whether he was a graffiti writer turned streetwear designer, a streetwear designer turned graffiti writer or some other kind of artistic multi-tasker. But one thing was very clear from the Colette-like savvy of the products he had created: the ‘Made in China’ label, that had evolved into something of a slur, was being appropriated and thrown back at us.

When my partner Nana Aganovich graduated from her MA course in London, she went to China with her best friend Ahlaiya Yung, who is Chinese, to open a production company called Missing Sock Studio. Their intention was to establish a ‘Made in China’ studio that would not subscribe to all the clichés of the label, while still managing to generate a tidy margin for themselves and their clients. The affection I developed for the Missing Sock team was my first step in developing a political awareness of the fashion supply chain.

A multitude of reasons led our label, Aganovich, to eventually produce in France, but two critical factors had the biggest influence on the decision.

First, having become familiar with many of the production outlets in Shenzhen, we knew a reasonable amount about who was producing where. And, as new investment allowed us to travel more and conduct research across geographies, we began to see a troubling pattern: well-known and admired brands were manufacturing in China, labelling in Europe and charging made in France, Italy or the UK prices.

At least the smaller brands we knew that manufactured with Nana’s friend Ahlaiya passed on the cost savings to their customers. This, on the other hand was wholesale abuse of the system: the Chinese worker who produced the garment was being denied recognition; the country whose name was being slapped on the garment was getting no benefit, neither in the form of jobs, nor (more imaginatively) in the form of licensing; and the end client was being mocked by a swollen price tag and a label riddled with inaccuracies.

Second, we ourselves were regularly encouraged by members at all levels of the fashion industry to produce in China, while pretending we didn’t. It was seen as very clever that we had secured Chinese production, but that we now needed to augment that cleverness by pretending we hadn’t. M.C. Escher really could not paint a better picture than this. Indeed, the choice appeared to between manufacturing in China and putting a ‘Made in China’ label on the finished product (the dumb-dumb option) or manufacturing in China and re-tagging in Europe, something that could be justified by some cursory finishing (the super-savvy option).

Contrary to all advice at the time — “no-one will pay Made in France prices for an unknown label” — we chose a third option. The Chinese studio had attracted far more successful clients than ourselves, so would not miss the patronage and we required a level of experimentation that only a highly experienced manufacturer could provide.

As a result of this decision, Nana and I were recently invited to participate in a round-table at the annual ‘Made in France’ conference in Paris, an event that attracts a relatively dry audience, including CEOs, ministers and representatives of textile groups. The theme of our discussion was ‘made in’ labelling.

The first speaker discussed the bureaucratic complexities that surround ‘made in’ labelling, including cross-border agreements, etcetera. The second speaker addressed the technical complexities. Where do you draw the line? Does assembly constitute origin? Or does the fabric also need to be made in the same country? What about the thread? The buttons? The mother-of-pearl on the buttons?

The last (and now I knew I was in France) focused on the philosophic dimension: “Until we can define France, we cannot define ‘made in France,’” he said. But it was this third speaker who got me thinking. He said that France’s greatest exports had not been products, but ideas; and that products, for the most part, were subject to borders, while ideas transcended them.

Indeed, the greatest paradox of the ‘made in’ debate is the idea of borders, pushed to it’s logical breaking point by scenarios like the one depicted in the film Gomorrah: undocumented, low-wage Chinese workers, illegally imported into Italy, simply to maintain the illusion of a ‘Made in Italy’ label. This type of scenario, which occurs in the real world, is a hangover from a time when ‘made in’ actually meant something: made in this village or made in that region. But the meaning of ‘made in’ has shifted. While it used to indicate provenance linked to a traditional knowledge-base, which in turn guaranteed quality, these days ‘Made in’ has much more to do with labour conditions than quality.

When we tell our buyers that our products are made in France, they absolutely do not take for granted that their quality is therefore paramount. It simply reassures them that there is a strong likelihood  that the conditions in which the product was made were up to standard, because the truth is, there are poor-quality producers in France, just as there are high-quality producers in Morocco or China.

Indeed, ‘made in’ used to be about protecting the consumer. Now, it’s more about protecting the labourer, a shift that requires a rethink of how the whole system works.

Why shouldn’t a French brand pioneer a clear labelling system — 5 stars or 5 circles, whatever — that could guarantee a garment was manufactured under health and safety conditions comparable to those in France, making the country, once again, an exporter of ideas, and not just products? Why can’t we develop a labelling system that unites global manufacturing with good labour standards?

As I put the finishing touches on this article, yet another garment factory tragedy is unfolding on my television screen. 160 dead in a collapsed building in Bangladesh. Making clothes. This is insane.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. All this under the under the new law in France penalizing LA based denim labels a 26 % increase in duties to export to France . Hmmmm

    Helen from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  2. I design high end children’s wear and produce the clothing in Armenia.
    I am from New York, but find that the hand work in Armenia is WOW and I thought producing there would be a boon for export to Russia market because there are no borders thus export to Russia is virtually duty free….
    Lo and behold the Russian clients want Made in the USA on the labels, with Armenia nowhere in sight! Furthermore wealthy Armenians living in Armenia don’t want to purchase the little Made in Armenia masterpieces that are coveted all over the world for the simple reason they are Made in Armenia! In these times of globalization where materials and components are shipped everywhere in the world and assembled in many different countries and continents to produce one end product, shouldn’t the finished product be the main focus of everyone’s scrutiny? A rose by any other name is still a rose…

    Ninachka from Armenia
  3. Its interesting that this article has been written as its well known in the industry that a number of brands use this tactic to avoid the ‘Made in China’ label. The problem is that the consumer has been so brainwashed by NGO’s and the press into thinking clothes with the Made in China or India etc label automatically means the product is of inferior quality and made by small children in darkened rooms when actually, thankfully, most of the time it isn’t. The western countries have destroyed their own manufacturing base and lost the skills that now the only place to get certain items made on a ‘biggish’ scale of consistent high quality and maintain margins is the Far East.

    Casper from Europe
  4. Maybe you should give the end user and ecological end human rights organisations who look closely to production methods more importance within this ‘made in’ approach. Quality can be sold by companies and with marketing techniques but the end users with a eye for quality and design may give their opinion too. The world has changed rapidly and consumers talk and write on blogs and social networks about what they like and dislike. Where clothes are manufactured, which brands respect ecological conditions. They also exchange opinions about how people are exploited in far away countries to produce what we wear. Maybe you can think of their role within this new label approach and the pression of the public opinion playing the role of the devils advocate. By giving them a role of importance the label will be accepted more easily and with more passion.

    Erik Vos from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  5. As a reseracher in film and fashion and an expert in haute couture crafts and the origin of where clothes come from. From the beginning of the process from the silk worm to the sheep. This is a wonderful article that should be shared around the world. People should become aware of what, when, where, how and who make their clothes down to their underwear. Most of my students have no idea where there T shirt was made or if it from organic cotton, what labor choice was made in producing said garment. Bravo for this op-ed.

    Elizabeth Galindo Roberts PhD from Carmichael, CA, United States
  6. We can produce in France… the only problem is who want to invest on it? I’m looking for investors since a long time but nobody want because they prefer to spend millions in 10 start up, maybe one of them only will be a good investment and they can receive the money back in less than one year with some benefit. I can produce in france a luxury brand , with the same sourcing than Hermes for 40% cheaper, and i still keep a good marge on my price… But the question is : who want to invest in 5 years business development??? mickael@nvmd.fr if you want to have details about it.

    Jouvet from Villeneuve, Picardie, France
  7. Thanks to everyone for the feedback. A couple minor corrections for editorial honesty:
    The opening paragraph should read-
    1. “I was due to co-host a photography exhibition” not “I co-hosted the opening”. The project ultimately could not get adequate funding.
    2. “I was introduced to the work of an artist called-” not “I was introduced to an artist” I have never had the pleasure of meeting the person behind that brand.

    Brooke Taylor from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  8. this is so accurate !! thank you for that refreshing article, it’s all true

    garance from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  9. I like the star system, indicating some combination of local content and adhering to standards for safety, quality, etc. The simple binary “Made in X” doesn’t mean much anymore, almost no product is made in one place with 100% local labor and materials. If memory serves the auto industry settled on 75% of the value had to made in the US to get the “made in the USA” label. Not sure if that’s still true, but it seems reasonable.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach

    David Kaiser from Clarksburg, WV, United States