Raging Bulls

High Fashion and Exploitation

If you were walking down West 14th Street on September 20, you might have noticed a white tent signaling the grand opening of yet another upscale boutique—in this case, Stella McCartney's flagship—in the meatpacking district. Only this time, in addition to stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Liv Tyler and the requisite phalanx of photographers recording their presence, the red carpet hosted a dozen people dressed like cows, with picket signs in their hooves that said things like "Sweatshops are not fashionable."

"I drove to Target in Queens to get those cow costumes," laughs Mary Kay Devine, a field organizer with UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, AFL-CIO). UNITE hoped that a herd of bovines bellowing, "We shall not be mooved" and "Cows unite for human rights" would draw attention to McCartney's parent company, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), a $27 billion conglomerate which owns, along with glittery businesses like Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and Gucci, the decidedly unglamorous Brylane, a catalog warehouse in Indianapolis that is facing fierce management opposition in its struggle to unionize. UNITE also wants to put pressure on PPR to stop using sweatshop labor in the thousands of factories it has contracts with around the world. (According to UNITE, PPR's subsidiary Patel Hosiery in Bombay employs women sewing garments in their homes who often earn less than one cent per garment; at factories in Bangkok, girls as young as 16 work up to 17 hours a day for as little as $4.)

Devine and her boss came up with the cow idea partly because Stella's store is, after all, in the meatpacking district, and partly because McCartney has been such an active campaigner for animal rights. "Stella is such a well-known activist," says Devine, who has the open, friendly manner of a Midwesterner (she's been in New York only since last Thanksgiving). "If you say fur is truly not fashionable, why can't you say, in the same volume, that sweatshops are not fashionable?"

Unite's Mary Kay Devine
photo: Brian Kennedy
Unite's Mary Kay Devine

Asked what the response of Stella McCartney and Gucci has been to the picket lines and leafleting campaigns (the Gucci leaflet is orange and has a Halloween theme—it's called "Gucci: Haunted by Sweatshops"), Devine replies, "They say, This has nothing to do with us. But Stella made a deal with PPR, and that deal made her the hottest ticket during fashion week."

Devine, who is 26 years old and has short, curly brown hair, manages the tricky feat of being passionate without becoming didactic. "PPR says, 'We have a code of conduct, we are law-abiding,' " she explains in her ultra-reasonable voice. "We say, the contractors and suppliers you hire are breaking the law in Thailand, the Philippines, India. What I find most insulting is Thomas Kamm, PPR's director of institutional relations, who told Le Monde last May, 'We are certainly not perfect, but we cannot be behind over 2000 suppliers and an equal number of subcontractors.' Can't keep track? That's funny—they can keep track of every pair of socks and T-shirt at the Brylane factory. I mean, don't insult my intelligence."

Devine's unusual background—her father is a former priest, her mother a former nun—imbued her with a strong sense of social justice. She went to Loyola in Chicago and graduated with a degree in communications, but at one point during senior year she says she felt perilously close to a meltdown. None of the recruiting seminars in her field exactly looked at things from what you would call the workers' point of view. "I didn't want to feel like a sellout, to be 21 years old, making $50,000 a year, and becoming a big asshole." When a couple of women from the AFL-CIO came to the campus, a favorite professor urged her to have coffee with them. "It was like the clouds had opened and the sun came through. All of my communication and problem-solving skills—I could use them to help empower people."

Not that Devine doesn't like fashion herself, or understand, on some level, the magical pull that can make someone go limp at the sight of a particularly luscious sweater or handbag. "I went to a Catholic high school and I had to wear a uniform, but I was always winning some award like most outlandish socks or best tights." Today she is dressed in a red, flowered 1970s skirt that once belonged to her mom, a black shirt, and a pair of thick-soled Mary Janes. Like so many women, she's built a wardrobe that is a combination of carefully culled bargains and thrift-shop finds. "I make a middle-class income, so I'm not buying $100 shoes. I love Anthropologie, though I can't necessarily afford it. I try to improvise with what I can get at Goodwill or Target." Devine adds that her absolute favorite stores are T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, both of which are UNITE shops.

Still, Devine understands that for most people, it's virtually impossible to avoid clothes made by companies that employ sweatshop labor. "I mean, even somebody like me—I like Target, and places like Target use sweatshops. But I think that even though we go to places like Target or the Gap or Old Navy as customers, we have to be as vocal as possible with e-mails and leafleting and say we don't want to be partners in creating sweatshops. We have to fight like hell to make systemic changes. We have to be well-organized enough to say, 'Enough—no more.' "

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