"These Tents Are The Ellis Island Of Fashion!"

That's IMG Fashion's Fern Mallis in HBO's new documentary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. Schmatta, which premiered last night, isn't for the faint of heart, but it's fascinating and important... and has a hefty dose of Kathie Lee:

This is a fascinating look at a dying industry, from the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, when most garment workers were Jewish and Italian immigrants, to subsequent union organization, to 7th Avenue's glory days, in which the garment business was the biggest employer in New York City. The film has a strong bent towards the labor angle, and at times the juxtaposition and runways and sweatshops can feel manipulative. But it's also effective - and the contrasts are that stark and that tragic. The facts are black and white: from 1965, 95% of American clothing was made domestically; in 2009, all but 5% is outsourced overseas. The film gets into a number of the causes - deregulation, changing sensibilities, weakened unions, and increasing alienation from the day-to-day business of making clothes. We meet figures from the old guard - a hard-as-nails old-time shmatta exec, various craftspeople being put out of work - whose world is basically obsolete. Says one cutter, "The CEO is not a garmento, he's a numbers man."

Part of the change came from the 1980's emphasis on aspirational designer labels - as epitomized by Ralph Lauren's faux-WASP fantasyland.

And, of course, there are the other casualties: third-world laborers. It's interesting to see the range of attitudes, from pragmatism, to "conflict" to denial. Case in point: Kathie Lee.

The documentary drives home how far we've regressed in unflinching terms. (This clip is upsetting.) With the industry trapped in limbo between fast fashion and aspirational high-end, it's what one labor organizer terms "a race to the bottom" whose casualties, both here and abroad, are very high. A schedule of upcoming showings, here.


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