Whether it was World War II and a brand’s will to survive at any cost, or a more contemporary set of issues like increasing profit margins despite Third-World implications, some of the most hallowed names in fashion – past and current – have dark histories. In part 1 of our 3-part exploration, we go deeper into their pasts.

At its very core, a company must determine what “their price of doing business” is. For some, it means sacrificing profit margins in order to ensure that their products are produced ethically in terms of the utilization of human resources as well as recognizing and evaluating environmental concerns, while others are willing to take a more cutthroat approach to maximize and squeeze every penny out of a product.

Over the years, several fashion mainstays and some newer entries into the marketplace have become interconnected by their questionable ethics. In our three-part exploration, we shed a light on some notable offenders.

adidas

The rivalry between adidas’s Adi Dassler and PUMA’s Rudi Dassler went much deeper than merely who was selling more shoes. During an Allied bomb attack on Herzogenaurach in 1943, legend has it that Adi and his wife climbed into a bomb shelter that Rudi and his family were already in. “The dirty bastards are back again,” Adi said, apparently referring to the Allied warplanes, but Rudi was convinced that “the dirty bastards” crack from his brother was meant about him and his family.

While their infamous feud lives on in the pantheon of footwear, the Dassler brothers’ political leanings far outweigh their opinions about each other. Shortly after Hitler took power – and years before their dispute – both Dassler brothers were active members in the Nazis party. In order to defeat the Allies, the Nazis believed in fighting a “total war” which called for a “total war economy” – meaning that all of Germany’s industry would be dedicated to producing a range of items necessary to combat their enemies.

At their Herzogenaurach factory, the Dossler brothers were tasked with manufacturing the Panzerschreck – the German equivalent of the United States’ bazooka. According to Spiegel Online, “Despite its exceedingly simple design, it was still remarkably effective. ‘The Panzerschreck represented a quantum leap for the infantry in terms of anti-tank defense,’ explained Christian Hartmann, a military historian at the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ). ‘It was the first weapon that German infantrymen fighting on their own could use to destroy tanks from a distance.'”

While it’s unclear if Adi and Rudi were drawn to Hitler’s philosophies or if they were merely following the lead of every industry, Adi did work tirelessly to get his products into the hands of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin despite the Nazi’s attempts at shutting down the partnership. Many believe it was this partnership that saved their Herzogenaurach factory after the arrival of American G.I.’s who were obsessed with Owens’ exploits in the Olympics, and wanted to buy all the products that the Dasslers could churn out.

Nike

Since the 1970s, Nike has been forced to answer charges alleging unfair working conditions and having products manufactured in sweatshops. Many human rights activists noted that as wages rose and labor practices improved in Korea and Taiwan, Nike decided to urge its accounts to begin utilizing places like Indonesia, China and Vietnam.

Jeff Ballinger from Press for Change proved be one of the first, and leading voices against Nike’s practices – especially in Indonesia. In a game-changing exposé for Harper’s – which proved to be a vital piece in getting several dozen NGOs to support the courageous struggle of workers at Nike’s contract factories in Asia – Ballinger brought attention to the workers at Nike factories who were only earning .14 cents an hour.

On May 12, 1998, Nike Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Phil Knight, finally addressed their practices. Knight remarked, “It’s been said that Nike has single-handedly lowered the human rights standards for the sole purpose of maximizing profits. And Nike products have become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse. One columnist said, ‘Nike represents not only everything that’s wrong with sports but everything that’s wrong with the world.'”

In that same speech, Knight announced and acknowledged Nike would raise the minimum age of workers, significantly increase monitoring, and adapt U.S. OSHA clean air standards in all factories. In 2005, Nike became the first brand to be completely transparent about the factories they utilized overseas.

Uniqlo

According to Quartz, “Undercover researchers from the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) found that workers at two Uniqlo suppliers in southern China were being underpaid, overworked, and subject to unsafe conditions, including sewage-covered floors, poor ventilation, and sweltering temperatures.” In the report which was filed in January 2015, a testimonial from one of the workers brought charges of a never-ending work day, saying, “the machine will never stop so after the day shift workers finish work, the night shift workers come, and the machines keep going. So at least 12 hours – around 12 hours everyday.” 

Other testimonials from workers solidified SACOM’s assertion that Uniqlo was breaking three International Labor Laws; having people working more than 8 hours a day and 44 hours a week without overtime, the absence of one day off a week, and that a person shall not have more than 36 hours of overtime a month.

According to Ecouterre, “After hearing of the allegations, Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, carried out its own investigation late last year. Although it acknowledges several problems, including the long work hours, Fast Retailing contends that it has ‘different views on some of the issues’ listed by SACOM’s staff.” As of January 2015, Fast Retailing hasn’t cut ties with the Chinese factories in question.

Hugo Boss

The revelation that Hugo Boss outfitted the Nazis isn’t that surprising given what we know about Joseph Goebbels’ idea to fight the “total war.”  When the company was founded by Hugo Ferdinand Boss in 1924, he always maintained that his allegiance to the Nazi party had occurred simply to “protect his business.”

In the book, Hugo Boss, 1924-1945: The History of a Clothing Factory During the Weimar Republic and Third Reich by Roman Köster, the company itself wanted to learn if in fact the rumors were true, and they were more complicit with Hitler’s orders than Boss would admit to when he passed away in 1948. When asked why they would want to dig up a dark history, Philipp Wolff, Hugo Boss’ senior VP of communications, said: “We don’t want and have never wanted to hide anything, but rather want to bring clarity to the past. It’s our responsibility to the company, our employees, our customers and everyone interested in Hugo Boss and its history.”

According to Köster’s report, “there [was] no indication that the Hugo Boss company played any kind of leading role in [the uniform production] sector. Nor do the available sources indicate in any way that it was involved in designing uniforms.”

While charges that Boss served as Hitler’s “personal tailor” proved to be false, the report did find some inflammatory information; the usage of slave labor. In an official apology from the brand, Hugo Boss acknowledged it, saying “it express its profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule.”

Köster’s report contends, “[A] total of 140 Polish forced laborers, mostly women, as well as some 40 French prisoners of war, were made to work for Boss during the Holocaust. They were housed in a camp in one area of the factory, and lived in extremely poor conditions with ‘uncertain’ food and hygiene levels.”

Barneys

In 2013, New York retailer Barneys – which has operated since 1923 – came under fire for charges of racial profiling when Trayon Christian,  a NYC College of Technology freshman from Queens, was detained following purchasing a $350 USD Salvatore Ferragamo belt. Despite producing his identification, his debit card from Chase, and the receipt with his name on it, Christian was taken into police custody, but eventually let go when they determined that the belt wasn’t stolen nor was the purchase fraudulent. A second shopper, Kayla Phillips, then came forward and said she endured a similar ordeal.

Barneys ultimately agreed to pay a $525,000 USD penalty to settle claims that it mistreated African-American customers by subjecting them to unwarranted scrutiny and falsely accusing them of committing crimes. Following a nine-month-long investigation by New York State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, he commented, “This agreement will correct a number of wrongs, both by fixing past policies and by monitoring the actions of Barneys and its employees to make sure that past mistakes are not repeated.”

Following the settlement, Barneys CEO, Mike Lee, said of the ruling, “During the entirety of our 90-year history, Barneys New York has prided itself on providing an unparalleled customer experience to every person that comes into contact with our brand — open and welcoming to one and all.”

Forever 21

Much of Forever 21’s success stems from a philosophy that is not necessarily unique to them, but one that they’ve proven that consumers are willing to get behind. By toeing the line between producing knockoffs of expensive brands and selling them for “mall prices,” their “fast fashion” formula keeps them relevant in terms of design aesthetics, but doesn’t eliminate certain cash-strapped verticals from getting in on the buying action.

While much of the dark history related to labor practices relates to oversea workers, a class-action lawsuit filed by minimum wage workers in the United States suggests that the broken system between owners and employees isn’t only a third-world problem.

According to the Huffington Post, “Jazzreeal Jones, Jessica Ramos, Shanelle Thompson, Alyssa Elias and Tiffinee Linthicum, represented by Norton & Melnik, APC, and Kitchin Legal, claim[ed] in court filings that they were frequently kept at stores during lunch breaks and after the ends of their shifts while they were searched for stolen merchandise.” Since the employees had already clocked out, the suit alleged that this amounted to unpaid labor.

Legal council for the plaintiffs pointed to a settled suit in 2010 against Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. in which similar “off the clock hours” were expected of employees which was ultimately settled out of court for $4 million USD.

H&M

As part of their 11th annual sustainability report which aimed to provide consumers with transparency as to their labor practices throughout the world, H&M disclosed that in 2013, 1,798 factories manufactured goods for the company – with 760 are in the Far East, 499 in South Asia and 539 in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

According to trade officials, H&M is the largest single buyer of Bangladeshi garments and imports by purchasing $1.5 billion USD of ready-made clothes from the country. As part of the company’s official “about” section they say, “Bangladesh is one of our most important production markets.” As the world’s second-largest apparel exporter – after China – it also has the lowest minimum wage in the world – $37 a month – despite being a $19 billion USD manufacturing industry. The New York Times reported that, “Its low wages and lack of regulation have helped it attract billions of dollars in orders from Western retailers and apparel brands.”

Following the collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 which claimed the lives of 1,129 people, H&M indirectly acknowledged their own shortcomings in the marketplace despite not being affiliated with the Savar building collapse. When Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M, was asked to comment on the situation; Spiegel Online took him to task.

SPIEGEL: You could have done that much earlier on. Around 700 people have died by fire alone in Bangladesh’s textile factories since 2006. Why did H&M only sign the treaty now?

Persson: This is the first treaty of its kind regarding fire and building safety. A step like that only makes sense if many or ideally all companies take it together. That was not the case before. But we were already doing a lot prior to this. We’ve trained more than 500,000 textile workers in fire and safety procedures, that being part of our Code of Conduct. We have also conducted programs in skill development and social dialogue, and we have published the names of our 800 supplier firms, creating transparency for the first time. The problem is of a different nature. In Bangladesh we are dealing with a corrupt system. The factory that collapsed was approved for fewer stories than it actually had. The catastrophe has brought everyone closer together now — the government and the companies there.

SPIEGEL: You have your supplier companies checked regularly by your own inspectors — at the company Garib and Garib in Bangladesh in 2009, for example. There, fire extinguishers and first aid boxes were not accessible, and yet H&M continued producing there. A year later there was a fire there which killed 21 people…

Persson: …that was a disaster. We checked (the building) once and urged them to make improvements. We do not cut off (relationships with) suppliers unless they attract attention at a second inspection. Perhaps in this case we ought to have performed more inspections. But should we have left this factory? No, I don’t think so. That would not have helped anybody. During the months after the tragic accident, our staff visited the factory more often. As there was a willingness to improve the conditions at the factory, we preferred to remain a buyer and support our supplier.

Stay tuned for part 2 and 3.

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

What To Read Next