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.