The Recession is in Fashion in TIFF Doc Schmatta
You may find the roots of the global economic meltdown on Wall Street, but Marc Levin might suggest looking further uptown in Manhattan for the most dramatic microcosm of the ongoing crisis: The Garment District. The prolific director Levin (Slam, Mr. Untouchable) was in Toronto on this week for the debut of his new docuementary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags (premiering Oct. 19 on HBO), which outlines both the history and demise of famous manufacturing zone over the last century -- and, more specifically, the last decade of outsourcing, layoffs and other industry devastation. According to Levin, you need look no further than the New York's recently completed Fashion Week for the first hints.
"When the shows were happening last fall after Lehman Brothers went under, I remember thinking at the Marc Jacobs show how they were playing 'Rhapsody in Blue,'" said Levin, whose film begins and ends with George Gershwin's tribute to the American melting pot from which the Garment District drew so much of its labor in the early 20th century. "We didn't add that; that was music he had planned. I remember thinking I was like the kid in The Emperor Has No Clothes. It was like the economy has no clothes. You look at the beauty and the glamour, and it's mesmerizing -- and it does symbolize the new gilded age we thought we were all part of. Then we woke up on Sept. 16, and we were $15 trillion poorer. We were naked! We were busted! We were broke! It was all a fantasy, a mirage, an illusion. What do we do?
"So the answer to that question is that you've got to have some kind of idea of how we got here," Levin continued. "The idea of trying to tell it through a neighborhood -- a small square block -- that was so essential to so many parts of the American experience was a great idea. I don't take credit for it, but I did struggle to make sense of it. And eventually I embraced it and certainly found my own personal strings that were attached to it."
Levin notes his great-grandfather Isaac Levin -- who invented the "adjustable dress form" that helped revolutionize women's apparel -- among those connections. Levin's father resisted joining the family business, embracing instead the labor movement that worked to break down the sweatshop status quo with strengthened unions in the '40s and '50s. But he had to stretch a bit to link the idea to the financial crisis he saw brewing in the summer of 2007, when he consulted his producer Daphne Pinkerson and HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins about an inside look at the hedge funds shaking down Wall Street.
"I said, 'I can get inside and do it verité; there's a lot of drama going on! These guys are under some pressure now, and I think this can be exciting.' Sheila said, 'Hedge fund? Nobody even knows what a hedge fund is, or derivatives, or subprimes. That's for your old friend Bill Moyers or public TV. This is HBO!' She pointed out her blouse, which was made in China, and her pants, which were made in Bangladesh -- just kind of free-associating -- and said: 'Look where we are: 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. Why don't you go over to the Garment Center?'"
"I was flabbergasted," Levin continued. "I said, 'You want to make a movie about the schmatta business?' She said, 'Schmatta. Great title!'"
Levin agreed, even if he couldn't quite determine what the film could be about. But as per usual he figured it out, bringing together a cross-section of tailors, cutters and other craftspeople left behind by the garment industry's flight abroad. Sadly, the filmmaker had his pick; since the days when the industry was the city's largest, with more than 100,000 workers producing 72 percent of the dresses in America, its production plummeted by more than 25 percent between 1982 and 1995. Then came NAFTA and the further Wal-Mart-ization of American retail, best characterized in Schmatta by the infamous Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshop controversy.
In present day New York, Levin hits up a job fair where distress and disillusionment have supplanted virtually any hope for a quick rebound. The then-and-now contrasts are stark and compelling, with self-made district titans like Irving Ruosso sharing time with Fashion Week founder Fern Mallis, designer Isaac Mizrahi and those aforementioned laborers to provide the crash context you probably won't get in Capitalism: A Love Story. These subjects are angry, too ("I wanted to kill someone," one tells Levin during a job-fair sitdown). However, their cravings for security match their earnest laments for a neighborhood that Schmatta depicts -- in all its bittersweet glory -- as the lost world full of those very opportunities.