• Six minute read • By Susan Chan •
In certain manufacturing regions in Asia, migrant workers do not make it home except during Chinese New Years when they take a month off from the factories and return in herds.
They travel, taking as long as a week to arrive at their destination before having to turn around and get back, leaving only a week or so to be with family.
I think of this when I visit loved ones. For selfish reasons, I don’t go back as often as I’d like, but by the same token, working in fashion means I don’t see them when it matters most. Besides, in fashion, there’s never a good time to take off.
Because most fashion companies in the States nowadays have production in Asia, their calendars revolve around their biggest holidays, one of them being Chinese New Years. These deadlines, depending on where the lunar calendar falls that year with the Western one, sometimes happen around Christmas or New Years.
If your company also participates in Fashion Week, lucky you! In addition to pushing out deadlines around the holidays to the factories, they probably work around the clock for weeks before participating in the shows. Model castings, makeup tests, fittings, adjustments, and line up run-throughs while garments are made and altered in between have to be ticked off before even one step is taken on the platform.
This happens in between negotiations for the newest hot model(s), makeup artists, and venue location. Even though the clothes are the star, you the designer, works around everyone’s schedules so everything is perfect.
In New York, Fashion Week takes place in September and February, which means scratch out any drinking you’ve planned for Labor Day weekend or celebrating Chinese New Years, because it’s not going to happen. Depending on how important he is to the company founders (if they’re Jewish, um, usually not at all), Martin Luther King also gets the shaft.
Factories, working with the company prior to shutting down, ship out any needed materials— printed panels, embroidered pieces, even shoes— for the runway. They arrive in New York when they close in Asia. If incoming pieces arrive not up to snuff, designers have few options while the office remains closed. If all goes as planned, items are frantically assembled, then fitted for the shows.
If the colors are off, the execution poor or misinterpreted, or the concept has evolved into a better place than the development, the teams start to chew their fingernails to see whether the factory can wring out another version in time for the shows.
Is there still enough raw material (fabric/yarn/trim) and manpower to make a quick turnaround as the factories slowly reopen? Or can the factory in India or China turn it around faster? By the way, is there any possible way the raw materials can be overnighted from Italy to India or vice versa? It’s a cluster-fuck of a logistical nightmare.
Hand beaded panels? Better hope they’re sporadically placed and not fully encrusted. What? You want that shoe with the same wedge heel but now in a lucite-like material? Ten pairs needed and the show is in five days? You’re absolutely fucked.
These periods of panic and insanity are incessant, equally spread throughout the calendar year. After a while, it dulls the glamour.
When I do visit family, I’m usually escaping from the aftermath of such tetris-like deadlines. I power sleep the entire first day as the knee-jerk reaction to problem solving and checking the clock recedes. Eventually, my heart rate returns to normal. The last thing I want to look at, touch, smell, or remotely even talk about is clothing.
This irony is not lost on me. That, while designers and migrant workers— from the highly skilled technicians who breathe life into an idea to the lowly steamers who press and clean garments and panels— occupy opposite sides of the fashion food chain, we wholly affect one another’s quality of life.
We forget that with increasing mobility and travel options, it’s much easier to visit friends and blood relatives in far flung places now than it was a hundred years ago. Maybe we all need to take a moment to realize going home is a chance to reunite with family and loved ones. It is a way to vacate current reality, however crazy it may be, and reconnect.
When my plane lands in LAX, I usually have to wait for a ride to my parent’s house. During the wait, I see hundreds of thousands of workers on the other side of the continent, crowding into the train station, making the same journey home.
I remember then. It’s not the clothing that drives us. It’s the realization that after a long, strenuous season, we can all return home.
In this, designers and migrant workers are the same.