This story of globalization choking American manufacturing, it could've been told in lots of industries, why did you choose fashion?
Interview with Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson
I felt that there was no way to really understand what had happened to manufacturing in this country unless you put it in a historical context.
Daphne and I have worked with Sheila Nevins at HBO, and over the years have always discussed doing something about how the changes in the economy were impacting people's lives. And I, quite frankly, had been looking at Wall Street. Sheila felt that wasn't for the HBO audience; it was more for PBS or 'Frontline' or one of the financial networks. She was looking at her clothes and said, "Look at my blouse, it's made in India. Look at my slacks, they're made in China. You know, nothing I'm wearing is made here. Maybe you should go to the Garment Center." And I looked at Daphne, I was kind of surprised. I said, "What do you mean? You want us to do a film on the schmatta business? And she laughed and she said, "'Schmatta,' that's a great title.
How did the timing of your shoot fit with the start of the recession?
As Daphne and I got into this, Sheila's instinct proved to be very prescient. Most of the film was even shot before the crash, but we always planned on following the 2008 season in the Garment Center, almost as if it was the last season for many people. And we were always going to go from the February show to the September Fashion Week and then finish up with the holiday shopping season. But, of course, we didn't anticipate the almost total meltdown of the global financial system. We were stunned that no one had really focused on the Garment Center as a microcosm for all these changes. Fashion, not just as clothes but as a lifestyle and as a cultural force, has ascended to almost transcend music and film. So I think that instinct of hers was to do it through something that our audience, the HBO audience, really understands: fashion, clothes, shopping. Things that are universal, not technical financial jargon.
There's a lot of research and archival footage in the film - why did you decide to go back so far?
I felt that there was no way to really understand what had happened to manufacturing in this country unless you put it in a historical context. But getting into all the footage, you could see the evidence right there of how there was this incredible diversified economy, with sales reps and managers, division heads, designers, craftspeople, small business owners. It wasn't just people bent over sewing machines in sweatshops - that's sort of the image that NAFTA evoked, and that was the big selling point: That Americans shouldn't be doing these jobs anymore. But you can see in the footage, all these people from small business owner, upper middle class, white-collar positions and down, talking about what an incredible industry it was and how much fun it was. It's exciting, fast-paced, and a lot of the white-collar people were just completely blindsided in the past 15 years. They felt they had done what they were supposed to do. If you went to school and studied hard, and you worked your way up, then you could have the American dream. And they can see now that their jobs are being outsourced also.
A lot of the film is focused on unions, which are simultaneously credited and blamed for the state of U.S. labor. Were you able to better understand that conflicting reputation?
Well, I think Doug Kesselman said it in the film. If there's enough work, there's money to pay union workers, and as Joe Raico will tell you, the union never demanded that much. I mean, how much does a union worker really make in the end, you know? So I don't think you can just blame it on unions demanding too much. And again, what were they really demanding? Just a decent living wage.
The Garment Center was the heart and soul of New York City, in which we literally saw the whole story, rags to riches, the great American Horatio Alger story.
This history and a lot of what Daphne and the team discovered was eye-opening to me. And there's a lot more, of course. So that's the history. The political debates, you know, "Did unions kill the Garment Center?" We're hearing it repeated now, "Did the UAW kill the auto industry?" My bottom line is that everybody got greedy. The companies got greedy, the unions got greedy, the government got greedy. We look at the Garment Center, but the bottom line is the simple question of: "Can the American economy continue to provide enough jobs, and jobs that will allow us to maintain the standard of living we're used to?" That's the question. The Garment Center was the heart and soul of New York City, in which we literally saw the whole story, rags to riches, the great American Horatio Alger story. And yet, now it's a shell of itself. We don't pretend to have the answers, and I'm not saying that unions have the answer either. I think this is what's got to be struggled over the next decade or two. But you can't do it without some sense of how we got here.
When people watch this film and want to learn more or get involved, where would you point them?
Well, just immediately, in New York City, there's actually going to be a demonstration two days after the premiere on October 21st at noon on Seventh Avenue at 39th Street, a Save the Garment Center demonstration. And that is just a very small issue, obviously, but it goes right to the heart of our film.
But it's also people just understanding the history, and changing their mentality, which counts for a tremendous amount.
It's interesting that this lens is through culture. Because the very cultural values which fashion shapes, that's what fashion is. It's about what's in, what's hip. And what became fashionable in the last 30 years was union-bashing; was shopping; consuming, not saving; commodifying everything; not necessarily worrying about quality or craft; speculating, not necessarily investing. These are all part of our culture. And we're all part of it. And there does need to be a shift in the cultural values.