Well, probably except for the handles. Here’s Why You Should Care.
Luxury is great. Makes us girls happy sometimes, going Designer Discreet. Ariana Grande once said, “think retail therapy, my new addiction”. But if you love top luxury brands without cruelty, this is for you.
In The Beginning, of luxury goods creation…
The first major wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the industrial sector around Prato, Italy in the 1990s. Nearly all of them came from Wenzhou, a port city south of Shanghai.
The Prato area was a hub for mills and workshops, some of which made clothes and leather goods for the top luxury brands. If you were willing to be paid off the books, and by the piece, Prato offered plenty of opportunities. Many Wenzhouans found jobs there.
“The Italians, being canny, would subcontract out their work to the Chinese,” Don Giovanni Momigli, a priest whose parish, near Prato, included an early influx of Chinese, told me. “Then they were surprised when the Chinese began to do the work on their own.”
As appetite for top luxury goods progressed…
The Chinese firms gradually expanded their niche, making clothes for middle-tier brands, like Guess and American Eagle Outfitters. And in the past decade they have become manufacturers for Gucci, Prada, and other luxury fashion houses, which use often inexpensive Chinese-immigrant labor to create accessories and expensive handbags that bear the coveted “Made in Italy” label. Many of them were then sold to prosperous consumers in Europe and North America.
Chinatown, though, looked dishevelled. In the alleyways, many of the windows were covered with blankets.
In addition, many top luxury brands opened large factories in China to create a massive churn out of luxury products made on the backs of really low wage workers who worked under poor conditions. It’s no surprise many of them make top designer brands list.
In rooms without heat, the newest and poorest arrivals, many of them undocumented, sat bent over sewing machines, tacking collars onto shirts or affixing brightly colored stripes to jogging pants.
Jessica Moloney, a London-born brand consultant and agent for importers, explained to me, “If you’ve got three to six months to wait and you need five hundred to a thousand pieces, you go to China. But if you have only two weeks and need a hundred pieces, you come to Prato.” She noted, “TJ Maxx is everywhere here. I don’t know anyone who isn’t working with them.”
Italy’s luxury-fashion industry has long struggled to lower costs without compromising on quality. Largely because after manufacturing rather cheaply, a chunk of the money made is used to advertise back to attract you to buy their luxury. It’s all about your money.
In the seventies and eighties, the Pratan system of interconnected workshops ran smoothly, but in the nineties, as trade barriers fell around the world, fashion houses saw an opportunity too good to resist. Why not manufacture “Made in Italy” products in Eastern Europe and in China? They would still be designed in Milan or Florence, so the label wouldn’t be a complete lie. Reports of the practice leaked out, and the brands found themselves under pressure to market their products more honestly.
In 2010, Santo Versace — a politician, chairman of the Versace fashion house — championed a law that contained a very Italian compromise: if two of the steps in the manufacturing process took place in Italy, the item could bear the valuable label. But the famous fashion companies continued to look for ways to make the “Made in Italy” tag mean what it was supposed to mean without forgoing profits.
A friend once explained the economics of doing work for luxury-fashion brands. He was paid a set fee for an order, no matter how long it took to complete. He generally lost money on the first bags he finished, but his workers got much faster with repetition, and the later iterations were profitable.
When he was fulfilling Gucci contracts, he said, the company paid him an average of nineteen euros an hour. He showed me a bag that featured the company’s insignia fabric, with its interlocking “G”s, and said, “This fabric would cost fifteen euros a metre. But they make millions and millions of metres, so they don’t pay fifteen. Maybe ten. The leather here costs maybe fifteen to twenty euros. It’s two euros for the zipper, plus the money they pay us — that’s the cost. And they put it on the market at between ten and fifteen times that cost.”
Technically, if you buy a luxury handbag at $2000, it’s original cost of production is $200 or even less. Most of the balance includes the company’s profit, money meant for creating runway shows and adverts to make you re-purchase.
In 2014, an Italian artisan spoke to the investigative television journalist Sabrina Giannini. Gucci had given him a big contract, he said, but the pay was so low — twenty-four euros a bag — that he had subcontracted the work to a Chinese mill, where employees worked fourteen-hour days and were paid half what he made. When the bags made it to stores, they were priced at between eight hundred and two thousand dollars.
An inspector for Gucci told Giannini that he saw no reason to ask employees about their working conditions. (Gucci denounced the television report as “false” and “not evidence of our reality.” The company says that, in the past few years, it has increased scrutiny of its supply chain, including subcontractors, and has “blacklisted” around seventy manufacturers.)
Current trends in the luxury fashion industry…
Many Chinese mill owners in Italy have started hiring workers from countries including Syria, Pakistan, and Senegal. Once, in the Prato area, a small protest was held outside a local workshop. This workshop regularly received subcontracts from a nearby firm that produces metalwork for well-known fashion brands. The workshop’s Chinese proprietor had abruptly closed the operation, locked out his employees, who were mostly Senegalese, and stiffing them of their wages. They found him around the corner, in another mill that he owned, and he agreed to pay them if they met him back at the workshop. When they returned to the factory, he greeted them at the front door, and asked them to wait a minute for their money. He then walked out the back door and got into a waiting car.
Following this Keystone Cops farce, a national labor union encouraged the employees to stage several public protests. One of the employees who protested later told mentioned that he had been paid only twelve hundred euros a month, with no benefits, to work in a freezing-cold room. He remembered working on products for companies including Ferragamo, Prada, and Dior.
The crew chief, he said, “would scream at us to work faster, to get more pieces done.” (The employees were officially paid a higher salary, to comply with the law, but, according to a union representative, managers required them to withdraw their “extra” wages and give that money to the owner.)
If your luxury piece wasn’t made by an Italian, it’s not made in Italy. It was probably made by a low wage worker paid a tenth of what he should earn.
What Do You Think? Shouldn’t we ditch luxury brands associated with human cruelty?