Yimin Deng is a senior fashion design student at Parsons who went on the Remake journey to Sri Lanka to discover the hidden faces of fashion’s supply chain. Sustainability and ethereality have been central to his conceiving label, yiminism. He believes a sincere respect for nature and humanity is indispensable for future fashion.
After I got back from Sri Lanka with Remake, people ask me, “How was the trip? Was it life-changing?”
Unless they have an hour to sit down and talk with me, I usually reply with an awkward and prolonged, “ummmmmm…… good?” after a solid 5-second silence. Gosh, I really need to come up with an “1-minute elevator pitch” for my experience there. But let’s jump to something else for now.
The most memorable time I had was the few hours I spent with female garment makers in a private boarding house. I am glad they were happy to see us and were extremely welcoming to a group of foreigners with big video cameras interrupting their only day in a week to get some rest. I wish I could establish deeper connections with these women, but I was merely a passerby.
However, the resilience and strength these women, mothers, sisters, daughters demonstrate, for their hardships, and unfair obstructions to better lives, is heart-warming to see. Globally, 75 million people are making our clothes and 80% of them are women at the age of 18-24. What can we do for these strong women? If one questions this statement, try to sew the same zipper for countless garments for 12 hours, with only 45-minute break, 6 days a week and I haven’t started talking about wages.
I was relieved to see Ashila, from Stand Up Movement Sri Lanka. Ashila is a former garment maker herself who dedicates everyday of her life to build relationships and empower the women who make our clothes in Sri Lanka with labor rights knowledge, organizing tools, healthcare information, while raising her own two kids. At the end of our trip, we visited her again at night in her office. That was when we learnt that her house is 20 kilometers away and she needs to take her sleepy kids home in a motorcycle when street lights in the outskirts of Colombo are not that commonly built or used. I won’t forget that humid tropical night when we were sitting together with Ashila, and our translators, getting bitten by mosquitos while quietly talking about continuing to fight for better wages and rights for garment makers. I watched as she tirelessly worked while her kids fell asleep. This is what a #girlboss looks like.
The lives we see in Sri Lanka are intertwined with fashion, some are makers, some are managers, some are more privileged, most are not, but all of them are oppressed by fashion and its top-down structure. 40 makers together, make a activewear t-shirt that will go on sale for 8 pounds in the UK. The minimum wage they get can’t even get them through a week living at a private boarding house.
They are always working overtime but they are not getting paid with premiums. Management and factory owners trying to make a small margin of profit from big companies giving shorter lead time, higher standards and for less money. One last minute change from a designer overseas can have the whole factory working even more overtime to take off buttons and put on new ones designated by the designer, scrambling to ship them out on time.
So many facts and stats you’ll find if you read through our journey on Remake’s social media which I will not repeat here. Frankly speaking, my emotions and feelings don’t matter as much since these facts are speak for themselves and for our industry. Do note that Sri Lanka, as a fashion production country, is considered one of the best, globally in terms of labor conditions, infrastructure and less “cheap-price-driven”.
For Remakers who are in the fashion industry, let’s get to work, be great and take the lead because a cleanse of this industry is long overdue.
We will need patience for our frustration of progress, but impatience for bullshit. For Remakers, please share, please advocate for your values in life, as we have so much power not just as consumers, but as people organized and united.
I hope my words here have somehow done justice to my experience with Remake in Sri Lanka. So here’s my attempt to explain to anybody I see about my experience in a minute:
What I experienced in Sri Lanka solidifies my understanding of fashion as an oppressive system.
The garment makers I saw, work 6 days a week and at least 12 hours a day with wages that barely support themselves and their families. A toothache, a family funeral or a wedding can have them indebted. Some even turn to sex work to get by. There are much worse situations in the fashion industry, beyond Sri Lanka. Capitalism has been scraping money off these marginalized and underprivileged people because they are only numbers to be calculated and worked around in a excel sheet.
With the continued expansion of these fashion companies, and the fact that they need to feed their shareholders and investors’ greed, they are going to go out there like a harvester to every last corner of this world to breathe new life into colonialism. The optimism I have now is to keep working because the only way to go is forward.