Searching for sweat-free fashion in Chicago

Searching for sweat-free fashion in Chicago

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The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Bangladesh on April 24 continues to make headlines. One of the “worst industrial accidents in the world” is now known to have killed at least 1,127 people.

The event has roiled Bangladesh. There have been worker protests, a number of other factories have been closed at least temporarily, and the owner of Rana Plaza was arrested and faces murder charges.

Those poor labor conditions within Bangladesh’s enormous garment industry have had consequences around the globe. Rana Plaza workers helped supply major European and North American chains, and there’s increased pressure on these companies to help improve safety standards in the global garment industry. Unfortunately, not everyone is getting with the program.

And many consumers, including me, have started to take a hard look at those innocent-looking outfits hanging in our closets or stuffed in our drawers. What, exactly, are we buying into?

Now I’d like to be able to give myself a pat on the back when it comes to sustainable or ethical fashion. After all, I buy the majority of my clothes at thrift or secondhand stores. Yes, even shoes. But I can’t say that concern over the clothing supply chain drove me to it. I started thrifting in high school because I wanted to look cool, like my older brother’s girlfriend at the time, Heidi.

Heidi was a madly savvy thrifter, but she was actually concerned about ethical consumerism. She dug up a copy of Diet for a Small Planet by the early eco-foodie Frances Moore Lappé, and stressed the reuse and reduce angles of the holy environmental trinity. She also worried that her Mennonite family had strayed from its social values in favor of conspicuous consumption. Heidi was smart and persuasive, so I kind of paid attention to her ideas. But mostly I made note that replicating Diane Keaton’s preppy menswear style in Annie Hall was going to be dead cheap at a church rummage sale.

And so, driven more by the thrill of a good find than a set of good politics, I’ve kept going to the thrift store. But that’s not to say I haven’t picked up a few insights along the way.

One way of weeding out the real retro clothing from the Old Navy clones is to take a look at the label. If it says “Made in America” then chances are I’m looking at a garment that dates back to at least the 1980s.  Up until then, locally made clothing was easily available. And if the dead-stock price tags I’ve stumbled across are any indication, it was also affordable. And not just the polyester stuff. We’re talking quality clothes, made from cotton, linen or silk. I often wonder if that’s because they were produced simply: I’m struck by how low-tech the actual assembly of many of these garments appears. More than once when I’ve taken an older dress to be altered, the seamstress has mistaken something factory-made for a hand-sewn garment.

In just a few short decades though, oh, how things have changed - at least if we’re to judge by the stuff current discount retailers such as Forever 21 or Target or “insert name here” are selling.

One of the reasons I stopped shopping at those places is I couldn’t take the increasingly poor quality of the clothes. I kept wondering not just where the clothes are made, but what they’re made from.

These days, new clothes smell so strange, like molded plastic products, made via a chemical-laden process better suited to car or weapons manufacturing. And if elastane and polyamide are just the new synthetic fabrics, why do they feel so flimsy and slip-slidy? Why don’t they actually feel like clothing?

They’re the garment world’s equivalent of mystery meat. And despite my knee-jerk belief that the best clothes are those to be had on the cheap, I’m developing this mad compulsion: To dash into the fashion aisles yelling “Don’t (wear) anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as (clothing)!”

Okay, who am I kidding? I’m not the Michael Pollan of clothing. I haven’t entirely given up shopping at places like T.J. Maxx or Marshalls. For many of us, especially people with kids, cheap or disposable clothes feel like not just a bargain but a necessity. After all, how many of our salaries have risen alongside the price of Mary Janes or Garanimals?

Still, I’m not alone in wondering how it’s possible to make a T-shirt so cheaply you can sell it for $5. A majority of Americans say they are willing to pay more for clothes made here. Apparently pride in the idea of a homegrown clothing industry trumps even our pocketbooks (wherever they come from).

Unfortunately, even if we want to buy clothes locally, we’d be hard pressed to find them. As my highly unscientific survey of thrift stores confirms, we’ve “offshored” the bulk of American clothing manufacturing, some 98 percent of it, according to many reports.

In doing so, we seem to have traded quality for quantity. But the bigger trade-off is transparency: We can’t see where our clothes come from, who makes them and under what conditions. That’s the hard lesson of the Bangladesh factory collapse. And in an effort to take it seriously, I’ve decided to cut out the disposable clothes and start looking for clothes designed and manufactured right here in Chicago. 

If you think that’s easy as pie in the “best country in the world” think again. There are deplorable labor conditions to contend with much closer to home. Recently, both WBEZ and the Chicago Reader have explored questionable labor practices behind some of our most everyday objects. According to the Reader report, if you want to know who made your Beanie Baby and how much they’re paid to do so, you don’t have to go to Bangladesh or Guatemala or Eastern Europe. Just take a trip to Bolingbrook, Ill.

Still, according to some of the people I spoke with, small-scale and ethically sound manufacturing is on the rise in our area. We also have a government that appears to be willing to help grow it. So to the extent we too can support our local factories, that’s likely to make for good economics and good politics.

With a city this big and creative, I can only scratch the surface of consciously made clothing options. So I’ve decided to focus on independent “high” fashion made on a small scale. Most of these designers and producers reflect a relatively new but growing interest in sustainable, hand-crafted goods, including clothing.

Designer Shelby Steiner and some of her looks. (Photo courtesy Grant Legan)
The Designer: Shelby Steiner. I was immediately intrigued by Steiner when I found out the source of one of her collections was inspired by “The Cove,” the devastating eco-documentary about dolphin slaughter. Steiner makes her own custom prints, and she’s used that talent to design collections that reflect on rhinoceros poaching or conflict diamonds.

Steiner says finding truly environmentally friendly fabric can be difficult: The high temperature process involved in its making can be difficult to get around. But she sources as much of her materials from the States as she can, and uses materials like vegan leather or fabric that is free of that nasty plastic, polyvinyl chloride.

Steiner is currently in residence at the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a 2005 collaboration between the city of Chicago and Macy’s to help young designers launch their careers. Steiner says all six of the current residents are trying to create fashion made solely in Chicago or the U.S. Their next big runway show is in October; right now the designers are getting their lookbooks ready and approaching boutiques with their designs.

Julie Ghatan at Dovetail, her West Town boutique. (Photo courtesy Julie Ghatan)
The Retailer: Dovetail. Over the past 10 months, Julie Ghatan has been quietly but steadily turning her vintage clothing boutique into a showcase for locally made designs (including those by Shelby Steiner). Ghatan had her epiphany about the clothing supply chain while shopping for a “splurge” in a high-end boutique.

“The price point was above $100, but all the labels said ‘Made in China,’” Ghatan said. “So what am I paying for?”

Ghatan thinks people are getting “bamboozled” by shelling out for designer labels “when the source materials are the same as Forever 21.”

Ghatan started with menswear and all the lines she carries, including Vagrant Nobility and Glass House Shirtmakers, are made locally (see below). More recently she’s branched into women’s wear. Currently, Sadie Monroe and Claire Henry of Co.lab are showing their first ready-to-wear line there, a summer collection inspired by nomadic voyages.

Ghatan says that though she’s in West Town (“not exactly a shopping hub”) people are making the trip to see and buy local clothes. She tries to convert people by explaining the labor process behind the higher prices and by hitting them on a “selfish level” — both she and the designers pair their quality clothing offerings with a level of enthusiastic and attentive service that’s largely absent from corporate or discount retail.

The Manufacturer: Stock Manufacturing Company. For Tim Tierney, one of the designers behind local menswear line Vagrant Nobility, making clothes locally was actually a selfish option – or at least a cost-saving one. “Early on we were not given a choice,” Tierney said. “We didn’t have the volume or funds to afford  manufacturing overseas.”

Tierney and his partner found a local option at A. I. Industries, a uniform manufacturing company run by Areill Ives and his family since the 1960s. Tierney, who used to work in the pit at the Chicago Board of Trade, says they quickly realized that instead of just manufacturing their own line, they could also be a resource for other small designers, who were also looking to make stuff locally at a decent price. So they brought in Ives and two other partners to form Stock.

Teirney attributes Stock’s efficiency and economy to its “vertical process” whereby everything it takes to make a garment is done in-house (except manufacturing the fabric itself, which Tierney sources only from developed countries, including a trusted Japanese textile maker). Their operators are paid by the piece, and Tierney says nobody makes less than $10 an hour (but closer to $16 or $17 depending on how fast they work).

But it also has to do with a more radical gambit.

At Stock they combine a largely unchanged process of making clothes on old school machinery (and by hand) with the very modern power of social media. Partnering with local people (designers, bloggers, tastemakers), Stock puts designs up on its website and ask people whether or not they’re interested. If enough people buy in, the object (shirts, ties, you name it) gets made and sold at a price without a retail markup.

So far Tierney says most of the designs have attracted enough buyers to be made. As for the future, he says if things take off, they have plenty of room to grow. Between uniforms and designs (which are still a tiny part of their output), the factor generates about $1 million in revenue annually. But Tierney thinks they have the capacity to expand to about $10 million annually in their current space

The bigger question may be whether Tierney and his partners can sustain their own energy. “Running a factory, managing its production, is brutal,” Tierney said, adding that it isn’t all that easy for newcomers like him. “[To do it well] you have to do have done so for a long time, back in the heyday of Chicago production.”

So, clearly a shift in our clothes consumption isn’t going to be easy - for anyone involved. And I’m not saying buying a locally made, button-down shirt can make up for all the deaths at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh. What could, short of criminal proceedings, alongside a wholesale overhaul of our global clothing economy?

Plus, buying local or handmade clothing may not even be the best solution. Some think moving to a fully automated manufacturing process might be the way to bring back an affordable, safe and sustainable garment economy in the United States.

But what do you think? How - and where - do you shop for clothes? Do you care about sustainable or organic fashion? Would you give your businesses that make clothes locally, even if the prices are higher? And if you don’t, what would make you change your mind?

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter. Follow her @wbezacuddy, on Facebook and on Instagram.