I wasn't made in America, why should I care if my clothes are?
Written by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
Please shut up about the “authenticity” of your well-crafted goods and how tapping into the heritage of your brand has given you revelations about going back to the way “things used to be”—when grandpa made stuff with his hands, had just two pairs of shoes, and dug holes in the backyard to “build character.” If we kept up with that line of thinking, we probably wouldn’t have the Internet, iPhones, or apps like Instagram where the bearded denizens of Willamsburg, Brooklyn can share photographs of their well-worn selvedge Tellason jeans (no doubt broken in while toiling away building a sustainable kiddie-pool sized terrarium in which to grow avocado squash). I don’t care about “the good old days” of America, because I wasn’t born here.
Growing up in the '90s, I wore a lot of sneakers and Polo. My default sixth-grade outfit was a Polo pocket tee (I had like five), a navy blue and white Polo golf jacket that my dad handed down to me, cargo pants and Nike Kukinis. It was classic American style, and I thought it was fresh as hell. None of it was made in America and, well, I didn't care. I was born in the Philippines, and it kind of became a running joke that any sort of imported gear I was rocking was probably made by a child that looked like me. I didn't think that was a reality though, I just kind of assumed that as with cars, there were probably racks of machines in Asia who popped out T-shirts and shoes like Tic-Tacs.
Making a hearty appeal for the 'glory days' of America will not get me to buy your pricey button-downs and Filson collaborations.
It wasn't until my clothing choices expanded beyond the parameters of my dad's wardrobe that I really began to think about clothing in a conscious way — as in, “what can I wear to make it look like my mom didn’t lay this out for me last night?” But even then it would be years until I thought about the socioeconomic ramifications of my style.
When I get nostalgic about America, I don’t think about Red Wing Boots, flannel shirts, and shuttle-loomed denim. I think about rushing my ass home from school just in time to catch TaleSpin and Darkwing Duck on The Disney Afternoon. I think about Friday nights spent with Cory Matthews, Topanga Lawrence, Shawn Hunter, and Mr. Feeney. And you know what? Things were good then too. You want to market nostalgia to me? Sell me a SNICK T-shirt. Make some Nike Air MAGs I actually have a chance of buying — and jeez, can they self-lace already?! But no, making a hearty appeal for the “glory days” of America will not get me to buy your pricey button-downs and Filson collaborations.
You know why that is? Because “Made in America” is not the end-all/be-all of quality. This is not “the last shirt I will ever buy,” because, well, I like buying new gear. The first really expensive shirt I bought was an oxford from Band of Outsiders. Within a week, the buttons started coming undone from the placket. I was pretty pissed. Good thing I recalled some rudimentary sewing skills from my middle school home economics class, because I sewed those mother-of-pearl fuckers right back on. I can say that while UNIS, one of my favorite brands, uses great fabrics and a superior silhouette that makes my ass look awesome in their $228 chinos (again, made in America), I’ve had two pairs start to rip on me at the pockets. I was told that because of the meticulous garment dying process, sometimes the threads at that area get weakened. Did I throw a hissy fit about it? No. Again, I sewed that shit back up.
Mending your own clothes gives you a better relationship with them. For all this talk about #menswear culture of guys talking about clothes with the same under-the-hood curiosity as car enthusiasts, I do believe that learning about what you wear fosters the idea of fully investing in it. Not just with money, but also time and knowledge. It’s why I don’t stick my button downs and jeans in the dryer. It’s why I use shoe trees in my hardbottoms. But the reason I like the things I like has nothing to do with where it’s made.
In her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, journalist Elizabeth Cline points out what gets cut while producing easily-consumable goods for brands like Zara, H&M, and Forever21 isn’t labor — it’s quality. Clothing is a commodity that’s assembled by hand, but not always done well. No tiny robots can sew buttons onto shirt plackets — only human hands. Mass retailers with in-house lines must order high volumes of clothing in order to keep their costs low. The result is shoddily sewn merchandise made of crappy materials and fabric. It’s a no-brainer: we sacrifice craftsmanship for cost.
The truth is that good clothing and bad clothing are manufactured everywhere. There’s crap being pumped out of Italy, England, and yes, America. Of course, there is plenty of crap coming out of China’s smog-filled seams. But this isn’t a tirade about the death of the American textile industry, nor is it an impassioned cry to buy thousand-dollar sportcoats with hand-embroidered buttonholes and branded lapel pins shaped like sea corals.
In fact, I don’t even mind the fact that a lot of the stuff I like is made in China. My GANT Rugger shirts, J. Crew chinos, Club Monaco sportcoats, and Uniqlo T-shirts all get worn pretty regularly, and the reason why I like them so much is that their price points agree with my income. Let’s be real: most people who work in fashion aren’t exactly the type who can afford it. That’s no secret. Particularly in the realm of menswear, we are total nerds who read about the shit all the time and get a feel for what makes one garment superior to the other. Would I prefer to wear the best of the best? Hell yes—of course! But I also have to pay my rent somehow.
American style itself has become an export. Chinese kids run the streets of Guangdong in bootleg Abercrombie & Fitch hoodies.
It doesn’t hurt that I really like designers like Christopher Bastin, Frank Muytjens, and Aaron Levine. They have all done a good job of making easy-wearing stuff that appeals to dudes who don’t know a tartan from a tattersall as well as the kind of guys who read about this sort of stuff on the Internet, but are looking for something a little cheaper than high-end fashion and artisan goods.
That’s precisely why it’s not a huge deal that Ralph Lauren made Team USA’s gear in China: American style itself has become an export. Chinese kids run the streets of Guangdong in bootleg Abercrombie & Fitch hoodies. Tumblr is full of “steezy Asian dudes” and other people of color doing their own twist on “classic American style:” whether it’s oxford shirts and four-hand-ties or cuffed selvedge jeans and white T-shirts. Nike never even made a shoe in the USA, yet no one’s given them shit for swagging out our Olympians in covetable Flyknits and next-level windrunners — and mind you, people riot for that company’s goods. America the production powerhouse may be dwindling, but America the brand remains as hot as ever.
Besides, if you’re the type of person that only buys fair trade coffee and eats free range chicken, buying strictly American isn’t the only answer, you jingoistic fool. Brands like Apolis Global and Oliberté work closely with their overseas factories to ensure that workers get paid a living wage and production remains sustainable. In a Portlandia-like twist, each tag on a piece from The IOU Project contains information on the artisan who made the garment in your hand. How’s that for transparency? If this is the sort of progressive clothing that really appeals to you, I’d highly recommend you read Brad Bennett’s Well Spent blog.
Let's face it, buying American and supporting American-made companies because you think it'll single-handedly turn around cost-driven consumerism is like putting a band-aid on a severed limb. Thanks to the fast-fashion industry and a market driven by cheap clothes, people's expectations for quality and price have become unreal. You are not going to find a made-in-the-USA shirt with mother-of-pearl-buttons and artisan detailing for under a hundred bucks. Does that mean supporting small brands and designers is a lost cause? Of course not, but don't do it because you feel obligated to. Do it because you actually like the shit they put out. It's as simple as that.