A Fashion Foreign Policy

On the campaign trail, President Obama made a well-received promise to put more value on American labor when negotiating trade deals. He spoke of revisiting trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO to make sure that we didn't continue to erode American wages in the name of free trade. In Carla Behrle's comment to my last post--Bailing Out Luxury--she astutely points to how decades of outsourcing has undercut skilled artisans in the luxury sector. Her comment makes clear that the real threat to artisans is not just the absence of a clause protecting worker rights. Instead, the Rules of Origin clauses within these trade agreements which promote reckless outsourcing are to blame. To protect American workers, in the luxury sector and elsewhere, our government trade negotiators should revisit these outsourcing rules.

Talk of the production of fashion--the culture industry--typically revolves around stories of designers, fashion houses, and Madison Avenue advertising firms and boutiques. Television shows either take us behind the scenes to the production of marketing, i.e. America's Next Top Model and its multinational counterparts, or else to the proliferation of fashion advisers, i.e. What Not to Wear. The media has also pressed the case for fashion as subversion from Vivienne Westwood's punk rock looks to Jennie Livingston's documentary, Paris is Burning. In all this, discussion of the manufacturing of luxury has been consumed rather than scrutinized. Sumptuous materials and artisan labor infuses the luxury label with intangible bankable value.

However, as Carla Behrle underscored, since the 1980s, the luxury market has restructured its manufacturing process by globalizing. Like sporting goods and automobiles, luxury has outsourced. In How Luxury Lost its Luster, Dana Thomas eloquently shows how this restructuring has been driven by bankers and corporate managers.

However, our government foreign commercial policy has also been a main driver of the outsourcing of luxury. The Rules of Origin, which allow factory goods to masquerade as luxury, have been created by our government negotiators in the World Trade Organization and elsewhere. Also, for decades, our government's Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation gave low interest loans and insurance policies to set up the factory network that produce all these so-called luxury goods.

This is why President Obama's promise to renegotiate trade deals must not only include revisiting labor provisions. The Rules of Origin provisions must be reworked.

Right now, the luxury label tells us more about price than value. Luxury invokes design, material and artisan labor. The artisans built the luxury labels, which the banks and luxury houses are now cashing out.

It's no wonder that Target is keeping Bernard Arnault and LVMH up at night. Target maintains its reputation for affordability while attracting designers like Loomstate who promulgate a model that values design, quality quotidian materials, and fair labor practices at an accessible price point. Loomstate represents a quintessential American tradition which places a premium on working class-led styles--denim has moved from the mines of California to the Paris runways. Still, we must also reinvest in another artistic tradition, luxury brands that value artisanship, sumptuous material and design.

And, before we accept that some jobs are simply lost for good, we must also remember that luxury artisanship not only imbued luxury brands with quality and value. Women artisans fought for centuries to be fairly compensated for their contributions to luxury labels. Unlike male tailors, their work was long devalued as unskilled women's work.

Our trade deals have been undercutting the guild-like power that generations of women struggled for. When we subsidize the outsourcing of luxury, we degrade not only their contribution, but also their political and artistic legacy. This is one hidden cost of a foreign commercial policy that creates incentives to recklessly outsource jobs that Americans take great pride in doing.