Photos by Reuters
Li Guilian, owner of the Chinese clothing company that manufactured the U.S. Olympic uniforms for Ralph Lauren, is at once bemused and dismayed by the outrage many Americans have expressed about the garments’ overseas provenance. After all, nearly half of all clothing in the United States today is made in China. Most garment manufacturing fled U.S. shores years ago as designers and business owners took advantage of inexpensive labor elsewhere. “I have a simple question,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Can America really make the suits we make? We have cheaper costs here so you can have cheaper prices in America.”
Ralph Lauren’s critics should pay attention to the athletes’ performance, not their clothes, Li said. “Don’t you think we deserve credit?” she asked. “We’ve made so many customers happy over the years.” That’s no idle boast. A farmer’s daughter who started a textile workshop in 1979 with $3,600 and 65 sewing machines, Li now heads a $300-million company that stitches fine clothing for some of the world’s biggest names, including Macy’s, Donna Karan New York and Banana Republic.
“Can America really make the suits we make?” Li asked. “We have cheaper costs here so you can have cheaper prices in America.”
In fact, Daiyang Trands counts among its clientele luminaries such as billionaire Warren Buffet and President Hu Jintao of China. Listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Li’s 10,000 workers produces 5 million suits a year. (A custom cashmere suit can fetch up to $2,800 in stores.) Her staff, she said, can handle the demands because they’re eager to earn money. “Do you really think it’s possible to reverse roles today?” Li asked. “Designing in China and manufacturing in the U.S. is impossible right now.”
Would a similar dustup occur if China’s uniforms were labeled “made in the U.S.A.”? “”So long as they’re designed in China I think people here would accept it,” she said. “Then it would still represent the Chinese spirit. When people see the uniforms at the Olympics, they’re only going to see the country’s logo.”
It’s “highly unlikely” that America could rival China’s billion-dollar-a-year apparel exports in the next decade or two, Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a research firm in Massachusetts, told the Times “There are virtually no firms that would be willing to invest in new plants, spinning and weaving infrastructure in the U.S.,” he said.
In other words, it’ll take more than jingoistic bluster to make amends.