Friday, October 2, 2009


In the spirit of last month’s confluence of Labor Day, September 11th, New York Fashion Week and the Pittsburgh circle-jerk (you can stick your 24-hour news cycle), allow me to indulge in a brief, optimistic and maybe even plausible meditation on the future of work in New York City. I mean beyond selling hot dogs at Ratner's Prokhorov's Nets Arena.

The financial industry doesn’t yet seem to have fully acknowledged the extent to which it so massively bungled the civic basket we’d entrusted to it (you know, the one with all our golden eggs in it), but it’s exciting to see people’s interest in fashion expand incrementally into an interest in the garment industry, because I think it could be poised to make a comeback as a staple industry and save the city.

Yes, I know that the conventional wisdom of the last thirty years has held that the job of the future would be in a cubicle, and that we would move away from the economy of things and into the economy of ideas. I’ve yet to grasp the connection between cubicles and ideas, but I think anyone with a brain can see that much of the last thirty years’ prevailing wisdom has proven to be fairly well full of shit.

Manufacturing matters. It creates jobs. And, if you don’t put the screws to your workforce in order to hoard profit, it could create good-paying jobs and meaningful rewards for innovation.

I’m not talking about going back to the days of Triangle Shirtwaist. I’m talking about building safe, clean and energy-efficient production infrastructure and paychecks sufficient to keep up with fair rents and sustain a robust retail and service sector, stabilize the real estate market and generate a tax base solid enough to maintain high-level civic services.

Along with media, garments are perhaps the best-suited form of manufacturing for a high-density population center: not too many toxic by-products and plenty of jobs for a skilled work force.

“Cash for Clunkers” aside, good pay for good work is often the very thing that people who complain about “redistribution of wealth” are complaining about. According to them, those smart enough to sucker the greatest amount of money out of the greatest number of people deserve the greatest rewards.

So this is my plug for systemic investment in the garment industry. If “systemic risk” is accepted to be justification for bailing out the white-collar casinos, “systemic investment” ought to be the other side of it, providing a lifeline to everyone else.

I know. Pipe-dream. Fine.

But just for kicks, what would need to happen?

First, and least likely, is a shift in investment capital away from the quick-blast-of-money-every-five-minute cokehead culture of Wall Street and into the more modest, demanding and challenging world of maintaining steady long-term returns.

(Yes. People love to gamble. And they should be allowed to. I hear Vegas needs help too.)

Second, there would need to be cooperation between designers, manufacturers and national retailers that builds on the current -- and encouraging -- trend toward more targeted regional buying strategies and greater attention to quality mid-market designs.

At some point, vertical integration beyond a particular scale (say, American Apparel) would inevitably become tempting, and if we’re truly doomed to keep repeating history over and over again, this would be where we slip up.

It might not be a prescription to save high-end fashion, but what most of us think of as “fashion” might prove to be its own worst enemy.

One of the nicer things to come out of this Recession, from where I sit, is that more credibility is going to people who can mix and match affordable items in creative and attractive ways than in sporting head-to-toe hot labels or prefab looks. It favors style (which I associate with taste and individuality) over fashion (which I associate with conformity and sounds like ‘fascism,’ which I hate).

Encouraging the co-existence of individuals’ personal tastes, be they aesthetic or utilitarian, and increasing the availability of diverse items in multiple markets exponentially increases the potential for brand development and sustenance.

The third fundamental systemic change we’d need to see is a return of respect for the trades. Gifted tailors, seamstresses, printers and machinists capable of innovation and teaching others are as valuable an asset as a designer or marketer, no?

There are already muted cultural rumblings of it, and not just in the form of ex-bankers buying books by phDs waxing romantic about motorcycle maintenance (I’ll leave it alone, but as someone who’s spent much of my post-collegiate life in the presence of power tools and seriously skilled craftsmen, I feel the same way about that as baseball fans feel about guys who try to turn a game into a philosophical treatise).

But what we need isn’t simply more i-bankers to buy custom shelving and have a beer with the installer (not to say they shouldn’t). What we need is a serious re-consideration of aptitude assessment in the educational system and reinvestment in trade education.

Which means that we, as a culture, would have to stop equating work to cosmic punishment and somehow figure out how to break the cycle of exploitation and loafing that has so defined the labor relations of the industrial and post-industrial age.

(That’s why this city needs to ditch Bloomberg. He’s smart enough in his way, but he still doesn’t get it. If you look at the link, keep in mind that the MTA is a private company providing a public service and chew on that.)

For the time being, until our workforce becomes competitive again, most of these skilled jobs (and I don’t care what anybody says, I consider sewing as much of a skill as knowing Excel) would go to immigrants. As per tradition. An excellent opportunity to revamp the immigration system: give people a reason to go on the books and a chance to straight-up contribute to society. Duh.

As for my generation, our skilled labor pool seems to be dominated by lawyers, media and the military. So one might think we ought to have enough business plans, marketing apparatus and trained logistical support to go around.

Yet here we are.

Since so much of our private capital can’t seem to see their small intestine in front of their nose (do the math), such initiatives may need to come from the public sector.

And since Biden’s supposed to start opening the valve on the remainder of the stimulus funds ramping into the mid-terms, now’s the time to get those plans in order. Otherwise it’ll surely fizzle and poop out just like the Republicans seem to want it to.

Forgive my indulgence in speculation, but these kinds of vague and general ideas are really all I can afford to invest at the moment, and as a survival-wage media piece-worker, all I stand to gain is a decent city to live in and a chance at a job someday.

copyright, © 2009 Andy Biscontini