Uniform debacle has Olympian implications

Ralph Lauren — the company behind America's beloved Polo shirts and khakis — promised last weekend the uniforms it will design for the 2014 Winter Olympics will be made in the USA.

The declaration came less than 48 hours after lawmakers raised a fashion ruckus after learning athletes in this month's London games would attend opening ceremonies in one-percenter-style getups — complete with berets and bobby socks — made in China.

In a slightly half-cocked but well-meaning gesture, a group of Democrats drafted a bill last week that would require the U.S. Olympic Committee to have this year's uniforms made here. After all, the unemployment rate in June was 8.2 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are only 147,300 apparel manufacturing jobs when 10 years ago there were 350,000.

"I think the Olympic Committee should be ashamed of themselves," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said about the Ralph Lauren apparel. "I think they should be embarrassed. I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again."

On Monday morning, the Xinhua News Agency responded to the controversy by saying that American politicians were behaving blasphemously when it comes to the Olympic spirit, "which is supposed to separate sports from politics."

While I appreciate this exercise in consumer patriotism, I hope we recognize the bigger issue: Fashion is out of touch with everyday Americans.

Although Ralph Lauren donates the Olympic uniforms — with too-boxy blazer, too-nautical trousers, and hard-backed white shoes that are just wrong — it estimates a retail price of $1,500 for the women's ensemble and $2,000 for the men's, an example of aspirational fashion gone awry. (Although what twentysomething aspires to dress like that?)

Of course, it's this kind of elitism that the high-fashion industry has always cultivated, creating "it" bags and must-have $150 jeans. It also ignores large segments of the population — oblivious to plus-size women and snubbing models of color — and most Americans, including politicians, don't even blink an eye.

But the made-in-America manufacturing issue seems to touch a nerve because it affects everyone: Over the last 20 years, we have unwittingly become a nation with closets filled with clothes made overseas. Now it's finally in style to care where your clothes come from.

In January, I began writing this occasional series about a grassroots shift away from offshore manufacturing toward made-in-America chic. Young designers are realizing that overseeing work overseas is costly and small retailers recognize that their customers prefer unique pieces to "it" pieces.

Slowly but surely, consumers are asking for made-in-America clothing, intent on putting a neighbor to work rather than buying a cheap, trendy item that could fall apart after a few washes.

Not only are there rumblings on New York's Seventh Avenue to save the Big Apple's garment district, but other cities — including Philadelphia — are fighting to rebuild their clothing economies.

In Philadelphia, officials are trying to revitalize their manufacturing plants and designers are looking for ways to source and sew their pieces right here — not an easy task in a town where many of the hulking buildings in North and West Philadelphia have been closed for decades, leaving few workers with knowledge of these skills.

"In a perfect world, we'd have all of these great items made and manufactured in America and blue-collar workers would have jobs," said Marshall Cohen, analyst at the NPD Group. "But that's easier said than done; it's our politics that sent these jobs overseas in the first place."

Ralph Lauren isn't the only label to blame for going overseas to make clothes. Gap, Lily Pulitzer, Tommy Hilfiger, and even Levi's — so-called heritage brands — sew major parts of their collections abroad.

(Many of these old-school Americana labels are seemingly less populist when it comes to their target audience. Ralph Lauren's New York Fashion Week show featured a sparkling chandelier hovering over a runway that was populated by thin, fair models clothed in riding pants and plaid jackets fashioned from plush fabrics.)

If Congress gets its way, although unlikely, and a new batch of uniforms is made stateside for this year's games, that's a good thing. But for real change to occur, it's up to American companies, and heritage brands, to make it a priority to manufacture clothes here — not because of political outrage, but because it's a true way to foster American pride.


Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at philly.com/mirrorimage.