The clothing industry is built on the backs of women. Upwards of 80% of garment makers are women, with many regularly facing discriminatory and dangerous conditions in their working environment. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, garment makers are “routinely exposed to inhumanely high temperatures, harmful chemicals and physical violence” in their workplaces. And what’s more, these very women are risking their lives for cents a day, given the lack of living wages that’s prevalent in the garment manufacturing industry. This has time and again ultimately pushed many garment workers into homelessness and food insecurity on a whim whenever brands make abrupt order cancellations, despite these women being an essential component of the clothing industry at large.
Data also demonstrates that women are the largest consumers of fashion goods in the United States, with millennial women spending 226% more on clothing per year compared to their male counterparts. Furthermore, the market for womenswear is estimated to be worth over 620 billion dollars. As both sides of the industry are predominantly women-driven, it is astonishing that very few women hold positions of power within fashion. Historically, this has also been prevalent within most industries. In a 2021 report, the Women Business Collaborative found that women held only 8% of CEO positions of Fortune 500 companies, with women of color holding less than a single percent overall. Additionally, women of color continuously face harassment and discriminatory practices working in corporate fashion. In the past few years, many women of color have shared their experiences with microaggressions in the workplace and the prevalent presence of corporate racism within the clothing industry.
There’s no skirting the issue: the fashion industry disempowers and takes advantage of the women who produce its profits. The ambassadors that make up Remake’s community aren’t blind to this problem, and many of them have close ties to the industry that inspires their work as advocates. From models and fashion designers to retail workers and garment workers, the breadth of individuals that join Remake in its fight for a fairer future of fashion is far-reaching. Along with personal experience in the industry, this community also finds itself with deep roots and familial ties whose lineage serves as a spark in igniting the fervor behind advocacy. Here are some of Remake’s community members’ stories.
Phillips’ grandmother or nonna would often assist with piecework, sewing nightcaps between the ages of 10-15 years old. Phillips affirms that “the industry wouldn’t exist without these women today, and the women like [her] grandmother and great-grandmother who came before.” She says, “It’s a privilege to educate others about these issues and, I feel, maybe in some spiritual way, that I am fighting for my family.”
Image: Remake ambassador Sara Phillips’ grandmother Ethel Chiappetta Phillips and great grandmother Maria Amato Chiappetta
Thania Peck, Remake ambassador and founder of Catcher in the Style, says that the generational family history within the garment manufacturing industry has made her “even more passionate to help make the lives of garment workers better.” Peck shared that her “grandmothers and great grandmothers were garment workers,” and that they experienced harmful working conditions in the “cut and sew facilities,” dealing with toxic dust from fabrics. This, coupled with very little pay, proved to be detrimental to their health. “Unfortunately I wasn’t ever able to meet any of them,” Peck stated. As a sustainability activist and advisor with a family history in fashion, Peck wants “to see fashion in a better place for people and the planet.”
After immigrating to the United States from Germany in the late 1920s, Elisabeth King’s great-grandmother worked as a seamstress in Detroit from the 1940 to the 1960s after she was widowed and had to provide for her two children, including King’s grandmother. King, a Remake ambassador and lifelong thrift shopper, describes her grandmother as her “style icon,” stating that her great-grandmother “made the vast majority of [her] grandma’s clothing.” King shared that “getting to see some of the garments and hear [her] grandma’s stories always made [her] appreciate the quality of made-to-order and slow fashion.”
Images: Remake ambassador Elisabeth King’s great-grandmother and grandmother at her wedding, in a dress they both sewed
Award-winning author and poet Alison Morse was empowered to undertake a research trip to Bangladesh, during which she interviewed a number of survivors of Rana Plaza, labor rights activists and lawyers, and women who sewed in Bangladeshi factories. On her mother’s side, Morse “comes from a Jewish family that immigrated from what is now Belarus to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century with nothing but the clothes on their backs […] Poor, non-English speaking, and barely educated, [her] grandmother and her [grandmother’s] three sisters found work in New York City sweatshops and garment factories.” After hearing stories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, a tragedy that stemmed from the factory’s horrific working conditions and anti-union stance, and New York’s Lower East sweatshops, Morse “took the news personally” after learning of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse. She stated, “I grew up with images of the blazing Triangle building and the deaths of 146 workers, most of whom were young immigrant women just like my grandma and great aunts — it was not a great leap to connect what happened in Bangladesh to the Triangle fire, my grandmother, and her sisters.”
This led Morse to ask and explore the following in her project “The Price of Our Clothes:” “How could an industry that served as a pathway for [her] family to not only survive but become part of the American middle class change so little — or even go backwards?”
Emily Stochl, Remake’s Director of Education, has family ties to activism and union organizing. As a single mother of six children, Stochl’s grandmother Audrey Weber worked for Koller-Craft Plastics in Fenton, MO and passionately “fought for the women on her line to be paid equally to the men” through union organizing as a member of Teamsters Local 688 for 27 years. “The union was a crucial part of her being able to provide a stable life for her kids,” Stochl shared, and “hearing her stories about her factory job helped me to understand the significance of unions and worker solidarity as it meant so much to her life and livelihood.”
Because of the values that her grandmother instilled in her, Stochl “became passionate about the ethical fashion movement and garment worker solidarity,” leading her to work directly with Remake. Through Remake, Stochl “learned more about the lives of garment makers, and learned that they are predominantly young women, often mothers,” struggling with providing for their children similar to her grandmother. Speaking of grandmother, Stochl stated, “While her life was never easy, she did have certain protections that made life possible — protections which are not extended to garment makers today.”
Image: Remake Director of Education Emily Stochl’s grandmother, Audrey Weber
As a fashion model and contributor with Remake, the cause of ethics in fashion is one that is close to my heart. Although consumers are exposed to endless advertisements everyday, the ethical practices of the modeling industry are not called into question. A great deal of unethical behavior on the part of fashion designers, photographers, and other industry “professionals” falls through the cracks. Despite being the face of fashion, models are often subject to low wages, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and harassment, with victims forced into silence due to industry pressures (or even by their own agencies). I believe that the movement for ethical fashion can create a better industry for women at every level, especially for fashion models and garment workers.
Despite increased advocacy for ethics and sustainability in fashion over the past several decades, the inequalities present in the early days of the industry have not disappeared. Women are still treated unethically throughout the supply chain and on a corporate level. Garment workers continue to work for minimal wages in life-threatening conditions, and women continue to face adversities throughout corporate fashion. Increasingly we are seeing demands for equity and inclusion within the fashion industry, from movements like #MeToo, highlighting the negligence with which our society has handled cases of sexual assault, to Remake’s #PayUp campaign that combats wage theft. The significance of these movements is ever present. In the last few years alone, garment workers experienced unprecedented levels of wage theft on the part of many major fashion retailers.
With a network of over 1,300 ambassadors globally, Remake will continue to advocate and educate. As Morse eloquently puts it, “We all need clothes,” and we all need “to help push for a garment industry that supports and sustains the people who make our clothing and the planet that supplies the materials that clothe us.”