RSR Research: Schmatta Girl – Returning to My Roots
By Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner
Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary
of an article from Retail Paradox, Retail Systems Research’s weekly
analysis on emerging issues facing retailers.
The HBO documentary, Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags, traces
the garment industry’s history back to the turn of the 20th century, and the
great fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. Many say the United States
industrial labor movement started with those Manhattan sweatshops and that terrible
fire. The seamstresses were literally locked in the burning building, and many
jumped to their death, rather than burn. Obviously, that part was before my time,
but eventually the script started sounding very familiar. Somewhere in the early
1960’s the story became really relevant to me.
I grew up in New York. My father was a single-store clothing retailer, and
when I was kid he’d take me buying with him to "The City," in that
same Garment District. I was struck by an exquisite irony. A half century later,
I, who watched racks wheeled through the streets and saw my father buy clothes
from grizzled garment veterans much like those in the movie, am writing a benchmark
report on Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and global sourcing. The veterans
I met back then "didn’t know from" PDM, PLM or computers.
They knew the touch and feel of the merchandise, and they always knew to the
penny what their mark-up was, and how much they could afford to discount their
goods for my father.
As late as 1975, 95 percent of the garments sold in the U.S. were made in
the U.S.; by 2009 just five percent were made here. Times have changed. The
emergence of channel masters and the explosion of private label coupled with
the globalization of supply have made global sourcing and PLM indispensible
tools for retailing success.
The movie is meant to be a paean to organized labor, I think, and as such,
it misses some steps on the road to globalization. In reality, the industry
move directly from New York to foreign shores. Garment manufacturers followed
cheap labor south, to the Carolinas and beyond. Halston may have got his start
in Manhattan, but by the early 70’s, my father (who sold to the middle
class) was making yearly buying trips to South Florida, where he’d buy
knits and other products in Hialeah. The shoe industry found its way to Asia
long before garments. It was a step-wise process, always following the lowest
Today, we live in a global economy. The garment industry is also global and
powered by technology, from three-dimensional virtual patterns to electronic
tape measures to computerized cutting machines. Even the smallest retailer
has computerized inventory and point of sale technologies. And we know, perhaps
better than anyone, how important technology is to retailing success.
Having said all of that, it’s good to remember the feel of the fabrics,
and the smells of the factories. Those schmattas put my sister and me through
college. I imagine they’re doing the same for families around the Americas
and around the world.
Discussion Questions: What has been the ultimate impact of the apparel industry’s
move to offshore sourcing? What are the implications of designing and sourcing
so far from the point of demand? Has the industry been able to adequately
stay in touch with consumer tastes?