Jews and the garment industry pt.2

A morning headline, a jewelry heist in Antwerp, sends me circuitously along the thread of one of my myriad arcane interests, specifically that of the influence of Jews in the garment industry.

Every industry has its own conventions of conducting business. The diamond business has long been dominated by Jews who conduct enormous transactions based on personal relationships and a handshake. Until recently, this was no different from our own although evidently, judging from this recent news story, the system is not without defect. There’s always opportunists and evil doers in our midst, thus the value of referrals and relationships. I think that many of the problems between contractors and DEs today is really a resentment on the part of the “old school”, that DEs are ignoring established standards of behavior and practice hence the lack of contracts governing production relationships. Accordingly, those DEs who do insist on these instruments are minimally perceived as disrespectful. Similarly, there exists a conflict between long established manufacturers and their suppliers versus newer companies using those same suppliers who fail to respect traditional standards of practice.

Returning to my arcane interest of Jewish influence in the garment industry, I am curious about the connection between the product development cycle and market dates; these schedules are advantageous for the observance of Jewish holidays and timed disadvantageously for Christian holidays (the most strenuous push for Fall takes place just before Christmas). Then, there’s the definitive double edged sword of Jewish ownership of plants juxtaposed with the labor movement, again historically Jewish.

As I said, just musing on arcane topics. I note the film Dressing America Jews in the Garment Industry is currently in development. I’ll keep you posted once I get a release date. Regarding labor and Jewry, a thought provoking review of the book Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor is here. Also see the recent article, Shmatte Chic: The rise—finally!—of Jewish fashion.

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8 comments

  1. nadia says:

    while i understand your point relating the culture of how business is conducted when one culture dominates. One fact has changed, the Indian community, specifically Gujarati Indians from the state of Gujarat in India control 60% of the diamond trade in Antwerp. This fact has been recognized as growing over the past several years in papers such as the Wall Street Journal as well as others. However, I do agree that Indian culture in general lends itself to this type of deal-making.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Interesting point. My first thought is that perhaps one reason the Gujarati Indians have successfully integrated into the diamond selling trade is owing to what you mention of their culture. Apparently, they share normative values with the precedent paradigm which -if anything- proves my point that standards of behavior must be observed if attempting to break into insular industries.

  3. Robert Welton says:

    Kathleen,
    Last fall, I went to the “A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry 1860 – 1960” exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum that you recently described on your blog.
    I liked what you provided on your blog and the actual show.
    I made a PDF of the brochure that I picked up at the show and attached it here in case it might interest you.
    The garment on display were interesting in that they must have taken hours to construct.

  4. nadine says:

    I feel your post may be suffering from being too short and some points are a little fuzzy. Be careful to paint with the brush of generalization.

    Some of the points presented may have held true when the garment industry in NYC was older and some things may have held over but today’s picture I feel is much different due to globalization. I’m concerned that some of your readers who do not have close experience with Jewish culture or the garment industry may derive an inaccurate picture based on how this information was presented.

    I found that your usual straight talking style (love it!) might have been a victim of being a bit pc in this regard (don’t have to agree with me :-)

    Anyway, being in NYC for the last 12 years I can tell you that the Garment industry is not being run by a mafia of Garmentos today to the extent it used to be. Fabric stores which used to always be closed on Friday afternoon and Saturday to observe the jewish sabbath are rare in contrast to all the Indian and Korean run fabric stores that are open on Saturdays. The Hassidic trim stores and suppliers are almost all closed except for a few in the lower east side. 90% of the fabric stores in the fabric district of NYC 38,39th streets are run by pakistani and korean trimming stores. The rush hour commute is from Chinese workers from Chinatown sewing for Korean and Chinese small manufacturers (not sweatshops). The new restaurants are all chinatown style lunch counters. In a large fashion company I worked in only one employee of at least 50 was an orthodox jew and left early on Friday to observe the sabbath.

    The Fashion Institute of Technology does observe Jewish Holidays as a result of it’s roots. However in most large Fashion companies there is a system of personal days that cover your personal holiday. A large number of asian product developers are entering the working ranks and also more and more asian designers are becoming common which was not the case years ago.

    The Jewish synagogues located in the garment district to serve the large jewish population of decades ago are suffering from lack of participation. One is a landmark building overshadowed by an enormous new highrise. One was torn down recently to make way for a building.

    40th Street which was the premier fabric street for expensive imported fabric has evicted almost 100% of the tennants on the uptown side of the street to make way for the Times building. Mayor Bloomberg has now rezoned the fashion district so that factories can be pushed out and businesses can take advantage of the lower rents that once held factories. Several of my suppliers are being evicted – more recently a tool supplier who has to leave by May because Condos are being built on a fashion industry block. Several others are closing 50+ year old businesses, selling the building and or considering to move to Brooklyn for affordable rents and space.

    There are still some people around that we call garmentos but they stand out like a sore thumb or are being replaced at companies. They did have a unique way of doing business with a handshake – or in one case a boss of mine bought a connection at a big fashion company a $5,000 mink coat and thus ensured 20 years of trim business warehoused in his little place. He’s out of business too and big fashion companies all have policies about employees not being permitted to accept these “incentives”.

    I think you might be surprised to know that a friend of mine started a successful handbag line in a competitive market with a handshake from a chinese factory she worked with while employeed for a larger accessories company. They told her we believe in your designs, don’t worry about paying us right now and let us help you launch your small production. That might be something you could attribute to the Jewish garment worker way of doing things but really I think it is the way any kind of business owner chooses to do business when they have a feeling the other person is mature and responsible and want to invest in a good opportunity.

    I’ll add the disclaimer that I’m raised jewish, non-practicing. My family immigrated to NY and most had dry good stores but a couple were in the rag trade. Almost none of their kids followed them into the business except one case. I was born on the West coast and am only one of my tribe that swam back upstream to be in the fashion business.

    I can assure you I am not a garmento! :-)

    Also, if you ask a lot of people which group has the highest percentage in the NYC population a lot would say that Jews make up 80% of New York but the truth is probably only 10%. Why is that? Because NYC was born of immigrants from all over. The immigrant culture is so similar from group to group that it left an indelible mark on NYC and those growing up here. You can talk to Jews, Italians, etc from a certain era and they all sound exactly the same and if you were from outside you might think that is jewish when I would say it is just being a New Yorker. Anyone born and raised here from the 40’s to present has that certain New York quality. Some of these inaccuracies are born of people’s own biases or lack of understanding which can get translated to fact but still incorrect.

    Always love your posts but I have to speak up on this one.

  5. sarah says:

    1- Thanks Nadine…although I usually love Kathleen’s insights…this one made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Your insights pulled it out of that zone. Thank you.
    2 – I found the show at the Yeshiva University museum to be a big dissapointment. They clearly had done a good job assembling garments but seemed to have no idea as to why they were showing those particular garments. It was one of the worst curated and worstlabeled shows I have ever seen.

    I never would have thought that it would have made a difference in my experince of an exhbit to have a poorly labled show..but this show proved to me why those lables matter so much. As you went through you had no idea what you were looking at and no idea why it mattered.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Some of the points presented may have held true when the garment industry in NYC was older and some things may have held over but today’s picture I feel is much different due to globalization. I’m concerned that some of your readers who do not have close experience with Jewish culture or the garment industry may derive an inaccurate picture based on how this information was presented.

    I reread my post. I was talking about historical context, how we started, the establishment of behaviors and conventions (to which I am in accordance). I was not making broad categorizations of today’s globalized industry much less in NY. You read a lot more into it than what I wrote.

    And yes, some visitors may hold anti semitic views but they know me well enough to know that any expression of those sentiments here would be beyond unwelcome. I’d ban their asses. In a heartbeat. Imo, the history of Jews in the garment industry is a legacy that belongs to all of us, not just Jews. Not talking about it feels like sweeping it under the rug, consigning it to the dustbins of history, like what they did doesn’t matter anymore.

    I have personal reasons for my interest. Nothing earth shattering except that none of this, this site or anything else here would exist if it weren’t for a non-NY garment industry Jew. You know, they started plants all over the country, not just in NY but in off beat places, everybody seems to forget that too. I am beyond grateful for the formative experiences I had, perhaps my view is idealized and fairy tale but I wish more people conducted themselves with the same standards of decorum, respect and civility that I was taught.

    If I am guilty of anything, it is that I do not deny that I remain somewhat bitter and defensive over how my employer was treated in the community.

  7. martin greenberg says:

    Is there a catalogue of this exhibit and the part 1 done in 2005. I wouls like the information for a class I am teaching in Sunday School for high school students.

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