Dynamist Blog

Fashion & Trade

In a piece that nicely unites wonks and fashionistas, Reason's Kerry Howley examines the fashion implications of restricting (or liberalizing) textile and apparel trade, especially with China. Here's the beginning:

No sane person considers Washington D.C. to be fashion-forward, but trend watchers should take note: The capital is gearing up to decide what the rest of us will be wearing next season.

We may not all be forced into bowties or pantsuits, but a congressional push to re-impose quotas on Chinese imports will determine how well, and how cheaply, America dresses. Ever since trade quotas on Chinese textile imports fell away in the U.S. and Europe on January 1, and the U.S. has been buried in a downy avalanche of cheap tees and underwear. Imports of knitted shirts are up 1,250 percent this year. Cotton pants are up 1,500 percent; underwear, 300 percent. The dramatic surge in imports is an indication of just how obscenely low the old quotas were set, and how needlessly high clothing prices were. Recent studies put the cost of protectionism for the U.S. textile and apparel industry at as much as $13 billion annually.

The domestic textile industry was given ten long years to prepare for the deluge, but instead of modernizing, trade groups are legislating. With the support of the Bush administration, The U.S. Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) has announced "China Safeguard Proceedings" to protect us from all Commie underwear, the first step in what will likely end with re-imposed quotas or worse. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says "it is time to bring out the big stick" and defines "stick" as 27.5 percent tariffs on all things Chinese. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman has promised "a tougher approach" with Beijing, as if decades of onerous quotas were an example of American largesse.

If politicians can resist the urge to stem the flow of imports, cheap Chinese clothing will create a better-dressed America and a sleeker fashion industry. Clothing prices have been falling for a decade, helped along by the rise of cheap chic a la H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. These stores have earned fat profits ripping off the work of Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and other fashion luminaries. By pumping out cheaply made imitations from the developing world, the shops have created a world of disposable fashion, letting teens stay trendy without sinking hundreds in a look that won't last. A $10 H&M camisole — likely China-made — will last about as long as the trend it's following, which is to say, a wash or two. It's not just moral depravity driving your 14-year-old to stuff her closet with trampy knock-offs; she can afford to approximate Beyonce's bling and Lil' Kim's decolletage like never before.

Read the whole thing.

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