On Monday June 2nd, our Detective Work team promised to answer ethical fashion questions asked by passersby in Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre. This is the second of five questions they tried to answer. Each one took all week to research, but they are worth waiting for.
This question was asked by one of our visiting fashion experts, Carry Somers. She wanted us to trace the story of the vintage housecoat that she was wearing. All we had to go on was the label. What we found made us think it should be exhibited in a museum of outsourcing. You’ll see why.
Carry Somers, the founder of Fashion Revolution Day, asked us to research her vintage coat made by Elinor Simmons for Malcolm Starr, which she believed to be from the 1960s/1970s. Why was it ‘Made in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong’?
The son of Claire and Frank Starr, a costume designer and a well-known figure in the textile industry respectively, Malcolm Starr graduated as an electronic engineer and gained a masters degree in business management before founding Malcolm Starr, Inc. located at 530 Seventh Avenue, a prestigious fashion district area of New York City (Cotto, 2008). The company became renowned for their unique bejeweled eveningwear designs gaining popularity amongst America’s leading figures including First Lady Nixon, who purchased several designs including a “yellow silk and worsted cocktail dress” and included Starr and Simmons amongst her favourite designers (Taylor, 1969).
In the 1960s, Starr’s exports to European markets from America were subject to high tariffs. In France for example, garments were subject to a 20% import tax plus a 20% internal use tax (Barmash, 1967). To put this into context, a dress that cost $50 to make in America would need to sell for roughly $90, but if exported would have to sell for $150-200 in Europe (Barmash, 1967).
Starr hoped the better quality and fit of garments made in the USA would compensate for the higher prices in European markets, but this did not happen (Barmash, 1967). Hence, the most appropriate solution was to outsource production to India and China. “We don’t expect to make money for a while, but we believe the chance to export, or to set up joint-venture companies in other countries, is a tremendous opportunity for the American apparel industry” (Starr in Barmash, 1967 np). The company became one of the first to lease factories in India and China for manufacturing and also had factories in Hong Kong that specialized in hand-beading, which was a “minus quantity” in America (Sheppard, 1965).
Journalist Helen Hennessy visited Starr’s Hong Kong factory in 1970 and provides the most detailed account we have been able to find of working there. She describes a:
“spacious factory [with] rooms … sectioned off according to function – design, pattern marking, cutting, sewing and basting. Final under pressing and inspection routines are rigorously enforced. The very last stage is packaging the garments for storage as hanging air freight on planes bound for the firm’s major markets. … A methodical check is kept on each style as it progresses through each stage on to delivery by means of [production manager] Lester Levy’s own ‘poor man’s IBM’ as he calls it. This is a massive chart on the wall with tags representing each style as it proceeds through the factory” (Hennessy 1970 np).
Henessey wrote that the factory’s “600 workers enjoyed clean, light and airy working conditions, contrary to the ‘sweat-shop’ image often falsely attributed to Hong Kong factories”. Levy told her that monthly production had increased from 4,000 to 5,000 units in 4 years, and that the factory had more than doubled in size. Describing the employees, he told her, “There is good workmanship here providing it is done under proper supervision … The Chinese have marvelously dextrous hands” (ibid).
Production of American designed goods in the Far East for European markets allowed Starr’s designs to retail in Europe at the same price as they would in America as, for example countries like Britain had no import tax on Hong Kong produced goods (Sheppard, 1965).The production of goods in Hong Kong did not however cause the closure of Starr’s American factories. Starr’s Hong Kong manufactured garments never reached American shores (Sheppard, 1965). Starr did this so as not to ‘under-sell’ his garments, “I have eight factories here [America] and a five million dollar business.” (Sheppard, 1965). Starr’s reputation meant partnerships with the designer were highly sought after, with franchises helping to build up a net annual worth of $12 million from sales volume (Barmash, 1968). By 1969, for example, Starr had created a joint venture with Japanese company Isetan, a chain of department stores, to produce goods solely in the Far East.
One commentator suggested that the “expansion in overseas manufacturing” (Barmash, 1968) combined with an increase on the retail scene is what made Starr head of one of the most successful companies on Seventh Avenue (Barmash, 1968). Attempts were made several times to purchase the company, including a bid by Warner Brothers in 1968. Starr sold the company in 1976 to Bidermann Industries for $7 million (Cotto, 2008).
Carry’s coat represents the beginning of outsourcing production ventures in the fashion industry, which has led to the vast and labyrinthine network of international commodity chains that we know today. Starr’s business practices mark the beginning of a globalized production system, in which commodity chains have spiraled to unprecedented levels, under the homogenizing force of production lines.
Researching ways to promote more sustainable and ethical practices in the fashion world has led us to look at the practice of divestment and the ways in which clothes are recycled and reused in society, spanning many generations.
Coupled with this though is the issue of transparency. As more spaces, places and people become entwined in the production line, clarity is lost. The common conception that knowledge is power is employed in commodity chain analysis. However, transparency is just a tool used as an incentive for greater consumer consciousness. For change to happen, we need a stimulus, something that cultivates public action by engaging with us personally. The search for greater transparency and knowledge about our clothes is human instinct, being intrigued and wanting to find information and gaining a level of trust in a company or brand.
Transparency is used as a proxy for trust, something that we instinctively desire when acting on information for change. A garment label and some online detective work skills can help us to see fashion more clearly.
Carry’s coat had already had an interesting life. But, on the same evening that this page was being finished ready for publication, Carry was wearing it to an important event. Here’s how Carry’s evening and her coat’s role in it unfolded.
— Barbara Crowther (@chocoholix) June 11, 2014
— followthethings.com (@followthethings) June 12, 2014
— Carry Somers (@Carrysomers) June 12, 2014
— followthethings.com (@followthethings) June 12, 2014
Anon (1969) Malcolm Starr Collection: Fashion Show to Benefit Heart Ball. Palm Beach Daily News 12 January (http://bit.ly/1l3q3Tu last accessed 6 June 2014)
Barmash, I (1967) The Merchant’s View: Makers of Apparel Seek Ways to Tap Foreign Markets. New York Times (http://on.fb.me/Uvf76A last accessed 6 June 2014)
Barmash, I (1968) Filmmaker bids for apparel unit, New York Times (http://on.fb.me/1lbmyEU last accessed 6 June 2014)
Cotto, W (2008) Manufacturer Malcolm Starr. Women’s Wear Daily 21 March (http://bit.ly/1lbmLaW last accessed 6 June 2014)
Hennessey, H (1970) The Hong Kong Style Is in Style. The Sumter Daily 27 August (http://bit.ly/1lgzI8f last accessed 6 June 2014)
Sheppard, E (1965) Dress Maker’s Roam Find Second Home in Hong Kong, The Montreal Gazette (http://on.fb.me/UvfBcN last accessed 6 June 2014)
Taylor, A (1969) Mrs. Nixon shops for pastels. New York Times (http://on.fb.me/1nxXgVV last accessed 6 June 2014)