(Watch Trailer After the Jump)
HBO’s Schmatta: Rags To Riches To Rags starts off a nostalgic dream: clean-cut men in hats, hard-working immigrants at sewing machines, dames in sharp outfits strutting down cobblestone streets to Cole Porter music. Yet this tale of the NYC clothing industry also strives to be a model of our current economic woes, and like most models, she’s drained dry and about to pass out. Even so, she has magnificent clothes and it’s just impossible to take your eyes off her.
Director Marc Levin’s latest documentary is an educational runway show that manages to address the current economic crisis without ever using the words "hedge fund" or "subprime mortgage." With a large cast of characters, he doesn’t even need a narrator; Buyers, designers, corporate titans and cutters tell this story. Many are out of work now, at loose ends and a bit frayed, but small hints–a stylish haircut, well-applied make up, a sharp cheekbone (or tongue)–let you know that each of them was once considered top-quality merchandise on Seventh Avenue. But that’s what happens when you have the bad luck to get caught up in an industry as it dies. All your gumption, talent and effort mean nothing to history and economics. (Hello, unemployed publishing geeks!)
As marketing and branding explodes, Calvin Klein talks about selling fantasies instead of garments: "Designers somehow do clothes. I do life." Industry madman Irving Rousso, who built and then cashed out an empire, unapologetically discusses sweatshop labor: "Am I gonna straighten out the whole world? I can’t. So I joined and bought the sweaters."
The garment industry was the epitome of The American Dream, Levin reminds us–the "gateway to the middle class." The ideas of fair and clean workspaces, labor unions, even the New Deal all rose out of the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, when 146 women died because the emergency doors of their factory were locked. To understand the labor movement in American history, you have to know the garment industry.
And now it’s gone. The frocks, fashions, unions and retail-sold-at-wholesale prices have all disappeared. Forty years ago, 95 percent of all clothing sold in the U.S. was produced in here. Today, it’s five.
Because that’s how bubbles work. Just mix a little deregulation and greed and start cutting costs, outsourcing jobs. Prices drop, profits increase. They blow up from big to bigger to biggest until POP! And then you just pray for a bailout. However, with the miracle of Globalization, there may be a sweatshop job available for you in India. If you’re willing to relocate, that is. But there sure won’t be any Cole Porter music and it’ll never be as cool as Seventh Avenue.
Schmatta: Rags To Riches To Rags premieres on HBO Monday, October 19 at 9 p.m.