When I worked on a project for Tommy Hilfiger, writing product copy for their high-end European TH Denim line, I became very interested in the process of making jeans. During a visit to the flagship showroom in Amsterdam, designers walked me through their newest styles, explaining the details. They also told me that making jeans is not an automated process. It takes actual workers to load washing machines full of jeans and stones to make stonewashed jeans, deconstructions and fraying are done by hand, and resins and paint are hand sprayed to make each pair unique.
I would have loved to go on a factory tour and see some of these jeans being made. Kelsey Timmerman got to do just that, and it’s the reason why I picked up his book about his journey across the globe to see where his clothes were made. He went to Bangladesh for his boxers, Honduras for his t-shirt, China for his flip-flops, and upstate New York for his shorts. And, in my favorite section by far, he went to Cambodia to tour Levi’s factories.
I’ve been to Cambodia – even toured a local village – so many of his observations about their culture and low standard of living weren’t new to me. Apparently, Timmerman isn’t a professional journalist, and his prose is sometimes choppy and disjointed, but he mixes hard facts with humorous anecdotes to make this a highly interesting and informative read. At one point he describes asking a Levi’s employee in Phnom Penh if he can get a factory tour. He is open and honest about his intentions and he expects a rebuff:
“As I talk, he presses a button on his phone. I wait for a trapdoor to open beneath my chair, swallowing me. I imagine I’ll slide down into a pit full of idealistic, anti-globalization activists. I’ll be the only one wearing Levi’s and drinking a Coke. Some of them, having been there since the mid 1990s, will be zombielike, and they’ll walk towards me all herky-jerky with outstretched arms chanting, “Diet, Cherry or Vanilla, Coca-Cola is a killa!” Then they’ll eat my brains, because that’s what zombies do.” (p.113)
The employee surprises him though and arranges someone to take him. At the factory, he sees workers grinding jeans with stones and sandblasting them with sand guns. He interviews employees at their homes and comes to the conclusion that even if they don’t live well – they earn only about $60 a month, half of which they send back to the villages to support their families - they are a lot better off than if the garment industry didn’t exist there. We may think of them as sweatshops, but they are also opportunities for desperate people who might otherwise be picking through trash dumps to earn a living.
Timmerman believes in being a conscientious consumer and even provides some resources on how you and me can become one too. That means supporting companies that support fair working conditions. And it means understanding where our clothes come from. This book is a step in the right direction.
Where am I Wearing? is available in hardcover now.
Fun Fact: One of Tommy Hilfiger Denim's most expensive pair of jeans is made in Italy and hand scraped with brush of iron nails to give it its lived-in, vintage look. Now that even sounds kind of fun!