America’s textile industry was literally built on a foundation of slavery. In 1791, U.S. cotton production began at a humble 900,000 kilograms. The introduction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793, compiled with Anglo-French warfare blocking access to continental Europe increasing British demand, the Industrial Revolution, and slave labor, grew that number considerably. By 1860, Southern states provided roughly 75 percent of the world’s cotton.
Even though American manufacturing has continued to decline, and most American households now consume about 2 percent of clothing made in the United States versus 95 percent in 1960, the U.S. remains a dominant cotton powerhouse and a $25 billion industry—though China and India retain the top spots.
Despite America’s penchant for making clothes, it does not have a long history of designing them. Up until World War II, many American manufacturers happily paid a fee to see the groundbreaking collections of internationally-acclaimed designers like Coco Chanel, and buying a few pieces to make authorized facsimiles stateside.
The rise of garment factories in cities like New York were a boon to production, at the cost of terrible working conditions. 1911’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the city’s deadliest, killing 146 people, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrant women around 16-23 years old.
After Yves Saint Laurent helped make ready-to-wear clothing desirable in the 1960s, American factories readily tapped into a boom of licensing designer names, while others aspired to make their way from the workroom to the runway.
By the 1980s, American designers like Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein had become household names—but one thing remained constant: A skilled factory workforce comprised primarily of immigrants and their descendants.
That is to say, the reality of what "made in America" looks like is much different than the quixotic ideal. Sure, there are plenty of skilled white workers sewing seams, cutting bolts of fabric, and making patterns, but there are even more people from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. A recent report by Verité posits that in 2013, 64 percent of garment workers in New York are immigrants.
Toiling in a factory is still less glamorous than plenty of the high-end clothes manufactured there, and while undocumented laborers still fill positions that citizens aren't willing to work in (especially in garment manufacturing and agriculture), plenty of garment factories have majorly improved their conditions since the 1900s. Thanks to the work of labor unions, plenty of workers enjoy benefits, breaks, and a living wage.
But beyond making the clothes we wear, plenty of times it takes someone from a different background to provide a refreshing perspective on style. Japanese-born designer Daiki Suzuki grew up vicariously consuming American style filtered through the lens of Japanese publications like Popeye. He didn't take his first trip into the country until he was 26, staying on a dilapidated couch in Boston by way of a B-1 "Temporary Business" visa.
That experience galvanized his relationship with the American fashion industry, and in 2002 he launched Engineered Garments, a label influenced by Suzuki's diverse reverence for American manufacturing, hard-wearing fabrics, and a longtime appreciation of cult labels like COMME des GARÇONS.
It redefines Americana through a unique point-of-view, melding bomber jackets with intricate floral embroideries, taking the fuss out of Ivy League-inspired sportcoats with an unstructured wearability, and modernizing cinch-back trousers with a slim cut and dressier cuff. And in menswear, sometimes we need a true visionary to hold the mirror at a different angle to show us how good we can really look.
The thin line between predefined uniform and genre-pushing fashion is what designer Raf Simons has toed his whole career. Reimagining everything from schoolboy suits to anarchic, oversized guerilla military gear, Simons is one of the few designers actually capable of making a statement through his clothing. No matter how familiar you are with his eponymous label's extensive archive, chances are that in 2017, if you're into gear, you've worn something designed or inspired by him.
Last year, in a debate about the state of the American science industry, futurist Dr. Michio Kaku brought up the one thing truly keeping America great—the H-1B visa. The so-called "genius" visa applies to highly-skilled foreign workers and is limited to 65,000 per year, 70 percent of which have traditionally gone to Indian immigrants to bolster the tech industry, but it also applies to industries like the humanities and the arts. If there were ever a foreign fashion designer who absolutely qualified, Raf Simons would be it.
In the documentary Dior and I, Raf Simons demonstrates the kind of vision he could bring to U.S. manufacturing, something he may do during his tenure as the creative director of Calvin Klein. While outlining the construction of his first couture line for Dior, the highly-skilled workers at the French fashion house's atelier marvel at what Simons has tasked them to do.
It's at this point that the demarcation between "talent" and "skill" becomes self-evident: It's one thing to be able to make something, and another to have the foresight to see it in the first place.
Raf Simons firmly planting his feet in America, a story that starts tonight as he debuts his eponymous menswear label at the Gagosian Gallery during New York Fashion Week: Men's, represents what truly makes this country great. It's our ability to attract the innovators of the world and amplify their ideas. Our culture of empowering people from different backgrounds has become one of our most powerful exports, and it's more relevant than ever.
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