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.


  • aalienlady says:

    They Ain't Seen Nothin Yet!

  • Arne' says:

    After watching Schmatta, my heart is broken irreparably. I am 52 years old now. I went to FIT and my first job as a designer was with Russ Togs. Irving Russo loved my line I did for JCP and Sears. I didn't know Irving was an actual real person. If I had known that, I would have talked to him more and not have been so afraid of him. I would have went over the head of Sandy Garber. I'm no longer a designer and I am doing relatively well for myself because what I do they can't outsource...Good looking out Yahweh...thanks. But in watching the total film, I feel saddened by what has befallen my old beloved profession, NYC and all of America. I was able to relive my time in the garment industry through this film and I went through a myriad of emotion...sadness, anger, ah-ha moments of clarity, moments of regret, gratitude for what I have experienced and for my moving on from those experiences. But anger tops them all because our politicians and our presidents and government have raped all of us so that we have nowhere to turn...nowhere. What can we do as a people, citizens of this once great nation, who had so much and we now realize that it was taken away from us under the guise of NAFTA and globalism and the New World Order? Can we rise from the ashes? Will these dry bones live once again? Not unless we come together for the whole. Until we recognize that we are One and what we do for ourselves affects us all, even in the most subtle of ways, we will continue our demise. What say you?
    Arne' NYC transplant living in Atlanta

  • Eileen says:

    Its all about union clout