The arbiters of cool got a lesson in people power Thursday as Occupy Wall Street shined a public spotlight on the $340 billion United States fashion industry.
Protesters clad in red eye makeup braved a chill rain and 40-degree temperatures to confront the beautiful people attending a Calvin Klein fashion show on the final day of Fashion Week in Manhattan.
They lambasted the industry for moving millions of American jobs overseas to low-wage economies, which has caused an 82% decline in the number of U.S. apparel workers since January 1994. They also called it to account for indoctrinating generations of Americans with unrealistic body images, and fostering a covetous consumer culture that measures personal worth in price-tags and brand names.
“You are worth more than what you buy,” protester Julie Goldsmith told bystanders and passing fashionistas. “The label on your handbag does not define who you are. You don’t have to be a size zero to be a beautiful person.”
The fashion industry has used a variety of dubious tactics in recent years to foster profit growth, including marketing campaigns that have resorted to child sexual imagery and romanticized emaciated women. It’s succeeded in convincing “aspirational shoppers,” which is retail speak for people who try to fake it until they make it, to use borrowed money to purchase $5,000 dresses, $800 purses and $1,200 leather jackets amid the most challenging economic climate for the American middle class since The Great Depression.
At least one model stopped to talk with the protesters and have her eyes made up in protest red by Occupier Sparro Kennedy (left) of New Orleans. The stylized look was meant to give the appearance of eyes dripping blood in a nod to the movement’s pepper-sprayed members.
Jose Mediavilla (right), a 30-year-old Marine veteran from Virginia Beach, Va., exhorted passers-by not to waste their money on $1,000 handbags on the 155th day of the movement for a more equitable division of societal burdens and benefits.
“The whole Occupation thing is important because it’s about people going out and talking about the things that are messed up in our own society and the fashion industry is one of them,” said Mediavilla. “New York City used to be popping with jobs for people making clothes and then the industry outsourced many of those (apparel) jobs so they could pay people pennies on the hour in other countries instead of a decent wage.
“Meanwhile, they’re spending $500,000 on a single magazine cover photo that gets photo-shopped all to hell and is often very unrealistic. Young people see these fake images and think they have to look like that.”
Employment in the U.S. apparel industry has fallen off a cliff since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect Jan. 1, 1994, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. had 149,700 apparel workers last month, down 82% from the 834,900 in January 1994.
Median pay for the 64,100 sewing machine operators left in the U.S. was $19,180 in 2010.
The enhanced images which grace many U.S. magazines have contributed to eating disorders and unncessary cosmetic surgical procedures by millions of girls and young women seeking to achieve the nearly impossible combination of a lean muscular body and large breasts. Meanwhile, millions of young men are consuming steroids to emulate the sculpted muscles of professional fitness models.
New York City is the center of the U.S. fashion industry. It generates $55 billion in revenue and $2 billion taxes, and employs 165,000 people.
Many of the 40 or so people who participated in Thursday’s protest were fashion industry insiders. They were shadowed by nearly as many police officers and private security guards as icons of the 1% made their way into the discreet headquarters of Calvin Klein Inc., at 205 West 39th Street. The headquarters features an 8,600 square-foot showroom space.
The protest turnout was a far cry from the 5,000+ marches the Occupy movement routinely produced in warmer weather, before most of its camps were eradicated by big-city mayors seeking to protect the political machines that brought them to power. Political experts expect the big turnouts to return with the warmer weather of the spring as Americans are deluged with more than $7 billion of political advertising during the 2012 presidential election.
One other facet of Occupy also is in flux – it’s not quite so leaderless as before. Core members have taken advantage of the recent winter lull to get a better handle on their fast-growing movement. Natural leaders have begun to emerge.
Justin Stone-Diaz, who helped organize Thursday’s protest, said the goal was to draw attention to the manner in which the 1% amasses ridiculous wealth in the fashion industry by impoverishing the 99%.
“Most of my friends that work in the fashion industry are only part timers and they’re given less than 30 hours of work each week so they don’t qualify for benefits, but they still make too much to qualify for food stamps,” Stone-Diaz said, pausing briefly as a passing woman swathed in haute couture directed profanity at the protesters.
He smiled, shook his head and continued.
“We have all these fashion shows on television right now – like Project Runway – that romanticize the industry and hold it up as part of the American Dream,” Stone-Diaz said, “but it’s built on 1% structures just like the American Dream.”
One of those structures is grossly underpaying workers in order to lavishly overpay investors and top executives, models and designers.
One of the saddest ironies of the Occupy protests has been the number of self-made men like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (right), who have seemingly abandoned all loyalty to the 99% since joining the ranks of the super-rich. Bloomberg’s daddy was a real estate agent who raised him in the Boston area’s midde class communities.
However, instead of taking on silver spoons like the infamous Koch Brothers when he became a national figure, this child of immigrants has embraced their war against working Americans.
Today, Bloomberg is the wealthiest elected official in American history with a personal fortune of $19.5 billion. He has ruthlessly targeted Occupy’s nonviolent protesters since they first appeared in Lower Manhattan in September to criticize the financial services and banking industries that funnel more than $7 billion a year to his Bloomberg LP financial information service, which also publishes under the Businessweek name. And he took a hardline Thursday, lining the area around the small group of protesters with police.
Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Bloomberg, did not respond to a request for comment.
Bronx-born designer Calvin Klein (left) also hails from working-class stock, but has left those roots far behind as he’s built his personal fortune.
The 69-year fashion icon sold Calvin Klein Inc. (CKI) to Phillips Van Heusen for $430 million in stock and cash in 2002 and should earn another $200 million to $300 million from licensing rights and royalties through 2017. He retired from designing after the sale, but continues to play a role in the company that bears his name.
Van Heusen’s CKI subsidiary reported earnings of $301 million in the third quarter of 2012, which ended Oct. 30. That’s a 10.5% improvement over profit in the same three-month period a year ago.
Klein, the child of Hungarian immigrants, helped pioneer the modern fashion marketing world with aggressive tactics that often seemed bereft of both moral boundaries and concern for the greater good. Their only merit lay in their ability to convince generations of impressionable young people that social standing could be purchased by embracing fashionable images and absurdly expensive brands.
“Anthing I wanted to do I did,” Klein said of his career in one of his most famous quotes. “If there’s something I want, nothing stops me.”
The tactics that helped the designer achieve his financial goals included romanticizing incredible thin female models and sexualizing men and teens.
“Anyone who is secure about herself shouldn’t be threatened by the ads,” he once famously said of the images of women with protruding ribs used in his marketing campaigns.
Klein was investigated for possible violations of child pornography laws by the FBI and Justice Department in the 1990s after running a series of advertisements featuring underage teenagers in sexually provocative poses. The ads were decried as “kiddie porn” by some news organizations.
He was also responsible for another 90s advertising campaign which appeared to idealize drug culture and was labeled “heroin chic” by critics. It helped the fashion industry earn a warning about glamorizing drug addiction from then President Bill Clinton.
CKI spokeswomen Jennifer Crawford and Nacole Snoep did not respond to requests for comment from The Cynical Times.
Goldsmith (left), the 29-year-old protester from Queens, said she was deeply influenced as a teen by fashion industry marketing campaigns and images, and suffered from eating disorders as she tried to emulate them. It’s difficult to believe such a beautiful woman, who bears a striking resemblance to mayoral daughter Emma Blooomberg, could ever be insecure about her physical appearance.
“I wasted a lot of years hating myself when I should have been loving myself,” Goldsmith said. “I struggled with anorexia for close to 10 years because of the myths perpetrated on the American public by the mass media and the fashion industry. I don’t want other girls growing up to suffer the way I did.”