Last week was a big week for New York fashion. The Metropolitan Museum held their annual fundraiser, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”, sponsored by Apple. The theme was a meditation on the increasing role of technology to build beautiful garments, both handmade, tailored garments and ready to wear (1). The event drew attention to the enormous investment in the garment industry’s version of Silicon Valley, rising in Brooklyn, New York. Incubator hubs integrating fashion, manufacturing and technology are sprouting up along the river in Brooklyn, New York including Manufacture New York, a 160,000 square foot fashion incubator, factory and research facility (2).
If I have not mentioned this previously, I have a tendency to be a Luddite when it comes to technology (ironically, the word Luddite comes from the textile industry where workers destroyed machines designed to economize on labor (3)). Practically speaking, this means I am skeptical of and cautious about adopting “technological advances”. Yet my business has caused me to learn to respect all sorts of technology - ecommerce, social media, smartphones - and look forward to ways that it will continue to change the possibilities for my business.
As I read about this fashion/tech hub I thought a lot about what I value in manufacturing and the brands that have inspired me. 3 come to mind: Raleigh Denim - beautiful jeans made by non-automated jeansmiths, S.N.S Herning - family run knitwear company from Denmark , and Cydwoq - handcrafted shoes. All three of these companies proudly highlight the role of human expertise and low-tech, old-school tools and equipment. People still drive the work and creativity in a direct way on each piece. They are also superior products. I believe this is because they value the people and the materials. The result is beautifully made products that last.
When I visited my denim factory, Tri-Americas in El Paso, it completely changed my relationship to the Riding Denim to see that real people were powering beautiful old sewing machines to make the jeans. It gave me a renewed energy to get my Riding Denim out there, knowing that a dozen or so people had jobs they loved making them. Jobs that support their family and allow them to live good lives. I am nearing the 1 year mark of wearing the hell out of my Riding Denim, biking, walking, laboring, you name it, and they still look and feel beautiful.
Is it a coincidence that the garments I love and respect, with the highest quality manufacturing and materials, are made on old machines where serious expertise by real humans still does the bulk of the heavy lifting?
I don’t think so. To go a bit hippy dippy on you, a person that is doing work that they love, brings an intense and amazing energy to that work and I do believe it changes the product. I also believe this means that they are creating at the frontier of human potential. The results are limitless.
I am by no means dismissing the efforts in technology and fashion. I look forward to advances that help bring American manufacturing back to its glory days, to innovations which reduce the environmental imprint of manufacturing, which improve the durability and fit of garments, and allow us to live more active, stylish, greener lives. But I would like to see more discussions on the importance of people in manufacturing. Where does technology enhance human potential versus replace it? What work should remain human driven and where is it OK to replace a task with technology? What difference does this make for the people, the products, the consumers, the planet?
I can’t change what others are doing but for REID MILLER Apparel I will continue to ask these serious questions and use as my measuring stick the benefit to people and the planet, not stockholders or financiers. In the meantime, I’d love to have a discussion with anyone who is interested about technology + manufacturing + creativity + sustainability + people. More questions than answers here for today!
1) "At the Costume Institute, Couture Meets Technology". Roberta Smith. New York Times. May 5, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/arts/design/review-at-the-costume-institute-couture-meets-technology.html
2) "Brooklyn’s Wearable Revolution". Vanessa Friedman. New York Times. April 30, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/01/fashion/brooklyn-wearables-revolution.html
3) "Luddite". Wikipedia. Last updated: April 12, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite