Sunday, June 24, 2018
Human Interest

After Bangladesh factory collapse, she finds the world in her closet

I'm a terrible shopper. I hate malls and outlets, seldom order online.

When I need something new, something nice, I make myself stop by Stein Mart on the way home. Otherwise, I pick up a cotton dress while I'm getting printer paper at Target, or yoga pants while I'm grabbing milk at Walmart.

I don't pay any attention to brands or labels.

But when I heard about the clothing factory that collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 people, I started wondering about where my clothes come from.

As a kid, I remember this commercial where all these female factory workers sang, "Look for the Union label … It says we're able to make it in the USA!" Lots of our clothes, back then, were made in America. By 1990, only half of American-bought apparel was made here. And now, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, 97.7 percent of the garments Americans buy are made overseas.

Behind China, Bangladesh is the world's second largest exporter of clothes. Benetton, the Children's Place, Gap, Target and Sears all order apparel from the impoverished country.

Had I bought anything from that factory? Or clothes that had been made in one of the 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh?

So I did an inventory. Here's what I found:

The 165 items I counted came from 34 countries. More than a third were "Made in China." A Target dress, an H&M blouse, boots from Kohl's.

Other labels spanned the globe: a Jordache blouse from Jordan, a cocktail dress from Romania, a Gloria Vanderbilt jacket from the United Arab Emirates. SpongeBob pajama pants from Cambodia, a Benetton skirt from Italy.

The Walmart yoga pants were made in Haiti, bought a year before the earthquake. An Old Navy sweat shirt was stitched in the Philippines. Vasque hiking boots came from Korea; Conga! Jeans from Uzbekistan. My husband's Duck Head flannel shirt was made in Qatar.

One of his Haggar polos comes from Lesotho. I had to look it up — a little landlocked nation inside South Africa.

Only 23 items were made in the USA — and most of those were purchased pre-1990.

On the top shelf of the closet, my husband keeps his T-shirt museum: from high school plays, camps and college intramurals, all circa 1980-90, all made in the USA. One, from a soccer team sponsored by Hough Fuel, bears the brand name Russell Athletics. He has other sportswear from that company. Check the labels, and you can watch the manufacturing migrate. A Russell Athletic T-shirt he got last year was made in El Salvador. His David Price Russell Athletic T-shirt, a Rays-game giveaway, was made in Mexico.

Levis seem like the signature American clothing. But none of mine were made in the States. I have four pairs — purchased over the last decade — each stitched in a different country. Pakistan. Vietnam. Cambodia. Mexico. No wonder all the rivets rust differently.

Much of my closet is crammed with sundresses, batik and tie-dyed fabric, many made by a company called Flaming Pearl. I first found the tent at a music festival in Live Oak. Later, I ran into the vendor at Gulfport's Art Walk and during St. Pete's Saturday Morning Market.

Tamara Leavy manages the business from her home near Tyrone Square Mall. She used to have a shop on Park Street but made more money at festivals. Now, she goes to more than 100 events a year and sells about 10,000 dresses.

"I design them all, here at home, the patterns and the colors. But I couldn't get that kind of fabric made here," she says. "I ship my drawings to Indonesia, where they hand-dye the fabric — that's their art form — and sew the sundresses."

So the dresses that Leavy, 45, designs in her living room (a five-minute drive from my house), which she sells at Art Walk (a five-minute walk from my house), are made halfway around the world.

Has she ever visited the workers in Indonesia? Leavy laughs. "Are you kidding?" she asks. "With four boys at home?"

For some reason, I felt relieved none of my clothes came from Bangladesh. Only three items in our closet were from there, and they all belonged to my husband. Better yet, I didn't buy any of them; they were all gifts from his mother. But unlike my exotic-sounding dressmaker, all these items were American classics.

Two Dickies-brand short-sleeved button-up shirts, both plaid. Dickies' CEO Philip Williamson is chairman of the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

The last label seemed sadly ironic. My husband's favorite shirt: a soft, short-sleeved black cotton button-up. "Arrow," says the label. "USA 1851, NJ. Made in Bangladesh."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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