Couture Revolution

How cheap Chinese textiles could transform high fashion


No sane person considers Washington D.C. to be fashion-forward, but trend watchers should take note: The capital is gearing up to decide what the rest of us will be wearing next season.

We may not all be forced into bowties or pantsuits, but a congressional push to re-impose quotas on Chinese imports will determine how well, and how cheaply, America dresses. Ever since trade quotas on Chinese textile imports fell away in the U.S. and Europe on January 1, and the U.S. has been buried in a downy avalanche of cheap tees and underwear. Imports of knitted shirts are up 1,250 percent this year. Cotton pants are up 1,500 percent; underwear, 300 percent. The dramatic surge in imports is an indication of just how obscenely low the old quotas were set, and how needlessly high clothing prices were. Recent studies put the cost of protectionism for the U.S. textile and apparel industry at as much as $13 billion annually.

The domestic textile industry was given ten long years to prepare for the deluge, but instead of modernizing, trade groups are legislating. With the support of the Bush administration, The U.S. Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) has announced "China Safeguard Proceedings" to protect us from all Commie underwear, the first step in what will likely end with re-imposed quotas or worse. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says "it is time to bring out the big stick" and defines "stick" as 27.5 percent tariffs on all things Chinese. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman has promised "a tougher approach" with Beijing, as if decades of onerous quotas were an example of American largesse.

If politicians can resist the urge to stem the flow of imports, cheap Chinese clothing will create a better-dressed America and a sleeker fashion industry. Clothing prices have been falling for a decade, helped along by the rise of cheap chic a la H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. These stores have earned fat profits ripping off the work of Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and other fashion luminaries. By pumping out cheaply made imitations from the developing world, the shops have created a world of disposable fashion, letting teens stay trendy without sinking hundreds in a look that won't last. A $10 H&M camisole—likely China-made—will last about as long as the trend it's following, which is to say, a wash or two. It's not just moral depravity driving your 14-year-old to stuff her closet with trampy knock-offs; she can afford to approximate Beyonce's bling and Lil' Kim's decolletage like never before.

Should American designers be screaming as loudly as the textile industry? You won't hear Marc Jacobs complaining about the dirt-cheap versions of his latest bags stacked against the walls at Zara. As UCLA law professor Kal Raustiala has pointed out, knock-offs propel the fashion cycle forward to the benefit of the industry's elite. Zara's accessible imitations let new looks rapidly diffuse to the general population, so the truly fashionable have to buy more, more quickly, from latest big names in fashion. Prices are down, consumption is up, and the fashion cycle is moving faster than ever. Explains Raustiala, "You don't want to see the 16-year-old next door in the same thing you spent a lot of money on at Barneys."

For as long as snobbery exists, cheap Chinese imitations will be a boon to haute couture and its American equivalent. Clothes are a both a way to signal status and to exhibit a certain mastery over a system of rules, and their value is dependent on their scarcity. Now that the H&Ms and Wet Seals of the world are packed with the season's bullfighter jackets and flounced skirts, the truly fashionable have moved on—to the benefit of the same circle of designers who trotted out those styles in the first place.

The White House has failed to understand the fashion cycle, which is perhaps unsurprising considering its general inability to dress appropriately; any administration that lets Dick Cheney go to a Holocaust Memorial Event dressed like an over-mothered 10-year-old on a school ski trip needs to stay a safe distance from the clothing debates. But Washington examines clothing through the same narrow lens as Brazilian sugar or Vietnamese shrimp.

"The arguments in Congress are usually couched in the functionality of clothing, and that's true in the courts as well," says Raustiala, "Anyone who really understands fashion knows that's not what it's about. That's been true for humankind since we got out of the cave."

The American textile industry has watched the fashion industry evolve, but has failed to develop into an industry that might benefit from the changes. Manufacturing has been falling off in the states since WWII. Today about 600,000 depend on the American textile industry, and the force of these jobs is propelling Congress in its mission to halt the Chinese. Members of the tiny minority of Americans who wear clothes might object to the interests of the textile industry trumping their own, but quotas are unlikely to help even those employed by the trade. As Pietra Rivoli, associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, has put it, "The quotas have had many effects. Protecting American employment is not among them."

Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, says the quotas have actually proven disastrous to the industry by accelerating the race to the bottom. Quotas imposed on China led the production to shift to Hong Kong; when Hong Kong was hit with similar restrictions, factories popped up in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Writes Rivoli, "Each time a hole in the import dyke was plugged by quotas—on cotton socks from China, say, or silk ties from Thailand—the effect was not to preserve US jobs but instead to increase the force of imports gushing in from other countries and categories."

As a result, quotas are not supporting jobs here at home so much as they're supporting Filipino and Jordanian factory workers. The WTO agreement that required the end of quotas in January includes a provision allowing the U.S. and Europe to extend the quotas through 2008. But slapping more quotas on China will only continue the global chase for lower prices—until 2009, when we'll be exactly where we are right now. Worse, the U.S. will have spent three more years blaring the message that it is entirely unserious about free trade, even for industries that are peripheral here and vital to the developing world. Trade officials will have far less bargaining power with producers who respond by erecting their own barriers to trade.

Like capri pants and pointy heels, apparel protectionism is a trend that has lasted way too long in this country; the first clothing tariffs were imposed in 1789. It's time to move on. Otherwise, we'll just have to hope that the developing world—having proven adept at aping the work of Paris, Milan, and New York—doesn't start replicating the misguided ways of Washington.