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.
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