From Azerbaijan to New York City, a human-scale view of global trade
In the business of making and selling clothes, “Made In” labels do precious little to convey the constellation of treaties, countries and people at work in the assembly of a simple pair of jeans. In Fugitive Denim journalist Rachel Louise Snyder reports from the far reaches of this multi-billion dollar industry in search of the real people who make your clothes. In Azerbaijan she meets Mehman, a cotton classer, Ganira, a cotton picker, and Vasif, a cotton gin owner. A trip to Italy brings her the denim designers Pascal and Ariana. The factories of Cambodia produce Nat and Ry, women from the countryside who now live in the city of Phnom Penh. In New York we find Rogan and Scott, business partners who eventually team up with Bono and his wife to launch the Edun clothing line.
Throughout the book, Snyder reveals the often obscure links between people from wildly different cultures and personal situations. At the same time, she investigates the manufacturing process itself, considering the feasibility of organic cotton, analyzing the environmental effects of dyes and exploring the regulations that govern factories. In a disarming and humorous voice, she ponders questions of equity, sweatshops and corporate social responsibility through narratives of individual people, making an often academic subject accessible and compelling. Neither polemic nor prescription, Fugitive Denim captures what it means to be at work in the world in the twenty-first century.
I. The Subversive Ecosystem
In a downtown New York loft industry and whimsy dominate the landscape in the form of two items: orchids and skateboards. But not just orchids – many, many orchids. Orchids dripping from a desk and clambering toward the windows. Orchids vying for light, and taking root where they find themselves. Fuchsia, ivory, lemon. And not just skateboards, but many, many skateboards, wheel-less, waiting for the freedom of movement. They are piled under chairs like diner trays, stacked against the desk and atop bookshelves, lining walls like skirting board. Paint has been splintered and splattered on some, carefully swirled and brushed on others. Orchids and skateboards. Beautifully sloppy, full of light and life, and always inviting movement. In this office, they are Rogan Gregory’s perfect foil.
Rogan is a fashion designer. An accidental designer, in fact, who could just as happily be planting trees in the north woods of Canada, one of the few landscapes he probably wouldn’t feel the urge to redesign. A founder of the clothing label that bears his name and another called Loomstate, he is the creative visionary in a business partnership with fellow New Yorker and good friend, Scott Hahn.
Rogan made a name for himself with his own high-end clothing line; he’d worked at Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, the Gap, Daryl K and others. He was known for his funky jeans, his upscale menswear, his urban style. “Anonymous,” Scott called it once, meaning it was both familiar and new. But he also became known, through Loomstate, which uses only organic cotton, for a business model that was environmentally conservative, ethically conscious and aesthetically progressive (“subversive, sustainable agriculture,” Scott calls it).
One afternoon in the fall of 2004, Rogan and Scott got a visit to their small showroom in Manhattan, a rustic space painted a weathered white; the room was all light and windows, big timber beams carry scars from old tenants–rusting nails, splinters, carved out fissures. Scott and Rogan received lots of visits from buyers and sourcing agents and stylists and deliverymen and models, but this one was different. This one was a panic-inducing, pressure-cooker of a visit, if they were the type to betray such things, which they aren’t. This visit was from Ali Hewson, an elegant, earthy Irish woman known for her activism, and her husband. Bono.
“Snyder must be a good listener. Her interest is in the distant voices and still lives of those who are, as one might say, in jeans… she succeeds admirably in animating the lives and the voices.”
– Alex Danchev, Times Literary Supplement
“A fascinating chronicle of the $55-billion-a-year global denim industry. . . .”
– David Futrelle, Los Angeles Times
“A thoughtful, ultimately hopeful look at how our choices about something as mundane as jeans can alter the lives of people 10,000 miles away.” —Fast Company
“Contains a number of surprises about the most ubiquitous of clothes. . . Ultimately Snyder gets readers to think about the real costs of clothing, and its likely they won't look at $30 or $200 jeans the same way again.”
– Kathryn Masterson, Chicago Tribune
“Smart and ambitious… Snyder’s investigation is an essential read for those curious about fashion or the globe-spanning business that produces their clothes.” – Publishers Weekly
“In this accessible and lively book, she uses the jeans industry to examine issues of agriculture, free trade, environmental safety and workers’ lives.” – Elsa Dixler, New York Times
“When Rachel Louise Snyder looks at a pair of jeans, she sees faces and ghosts…From start to finish, Snyder is less interested in parsing textile quotas than in portraying the lives of the cotton carders, gin operators and clothes designers she meets… I’ll never view my Levi’s quite the same way again.”
– James Pressley, Bloomberg News
“…next time you buy Seven for All Mankind jeans, you'll know there's more of mankind involved in those pants, you might have imagined.” – Billy Heller, New York Post
“…Snyder is a fine reporter who, uncommonly, does her best listening when her interviewees go off-topic and talk about anything but the product. (She gives great asides.)… No one else could have written anything like her fresh report on an arbitration council hearing a dispute between Khmer union leaders and Chinese management – they didn’t speak the same language, and, moreover, misheard each other’s decibellage; or her melancholy synopsis of the Cambodian minister of commerce and garment manufacturer’s association heads expending $350,000 in Washington to lobby for five minutes’ attention from President Bush, which they didn’t get… It all matters.” – Veronica Horwell, New Statesman
“Snyder attempts to carve out a third path between the overly consumerist and the loftily distant – one that ultimately will have more relevance to consumers’ relationship to fashion in the future.”
– Hadley Freeman, Guardian (UK)
“A rare book on [globalization] that is neither boring nor preachy but a wise tale of what global trade really means.”
– Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge
“There are people’s stories woven into each pair of blue jeans, and Rachel Louise Snyder illuminates these stories with a reporter’s eye and a human heart.” – Pietra Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
“…[Snyder] seeks to give consumers a different view of the impact the world’s most popular fabric has on our daily lives..” – Ross Tucker, Women’s Wear Daily