From Sweatshop to Hip-Hop: Once Ignored by Fashion, Youth of Color Become the Focus of Its Marketing. (Culture)

Article excerpt

India Arie is smiling down at you from a Gap billboard. A half-mile later, it is progressive hip-hop crew Black Eyed Peas looking fresh in Levi's Silver Tab jeans. Rewind two years, and it was Mos Def and Talib Kweli, then De La Soul.

Rewind 10 years, and hip-hop was absent in the mainstream fashion industry. The billboards would have featured thin, slightly curved white female models who refused to smile.

Ten years ago, when Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss & Company gazed into the future of their clothing empires, youth of color were an irrelevant demographic. The fashion powerhouses believed that hip-hop was an annoyingly violent fad that would pass through like a bullet. They gambled against hip-hop. And so far, they have lost millions.

Today their futures look very different. Both companies have become lightning rods for bad news. Gap stock, once flying high and helping its Republican founder Don Fisher buy political clout in San Francisco, was degraded to junk status by Moody's in February after 21 months of non-stop losses. In the same month, CARMA, a media analysis firm, announced that among U.S. retailers, Gap had received the second-worst media coverage in the world, second only to bankrupt K-Mart.

Meanwhile, Levi Strauss & Company has been losing profits--and laying off workers--in what seems to be an irreversible downhill slide in U.S. sales. It has recycled executives like tin cans, dumped marketing agencies left and right, gone IPO and then reversed course back to private stockholdings--all in an effort to stop losing money.

When announcing their bad news to investors, both companies focus on business details like profitability per square footage of retail real estate, or they talk generally about the need for more competitive fashion designs, or, like everyone, they blame September 11.

Neither Gap nor Levi's confesses to the deeper irony of their situation. Both companies are suffering from a loss of cool--the fashion industry's equivalent of cardiac arrest. Where did cool go? It shifted to the very people who were dismissed by fashion insiders as "sociopaths" in the 1980s and early 1990s. They are the kids shooting hoops in concrete jungles, the break-dancers taking over high school hallways, the American-born children of exploited garment workers. The kind of people who rarely made it into fashion billboards. Today, coolness lives among youth of color and their beloved hip-hop. And now, if they are to survive the new millennium, Gap and Levi's must take that coolness back.

Garment Exploits

The difference between this reality and what the companies anticipated is enormous. Levi's predicted a cheaper, globalized workforce, and began closing U.S. factories and relocating those jobs to countries like Costa Rica and China. In the 1980s alone Levi's closed 58 plants, putting 10,400 people out of work and moving about half of its production overseas. Gap did the same thing, subcontracting with 3,600 factories in 50 countries by 2001.

As a result, Gap and Levi's, like others in the industry, are the focus of dozens of anti-sweatshop campaigns internationally, which have revealed terrible labor conditions in the garment factories sewing their clothing. Both companies have been sued by garment workers in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. The suit alleges that the factories, sewing clothes for a who's-who of fashion companies, including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Target and the Limited, practiced indentured servitude. Witness, a human rights organization, says that in Saipan, "14 hour shifts, payless paydays and lock-downs are routine."

In 1990, Levi Strauss & Company closed a factory in San Antonio, laid off more than thousand workers, gave them horrible severance packages, and then moved the jobs to Costa Rica.

Jason Morteo understands all of this. He is a 17-year-old Chicano lyricist, bear junkie, and grafitti writer in San Antonio. …