Debate rages in Congress, public over U.S. Olympic uniforms made in China

July 13, 2012

Berets? Not ballcaps or cowboy hats? Ralph Lauren seemed poised to incite style wars when he chose to dress U.S. Olympians for the Opening Ceremonies in headwear that evokes French intellectualism more than American athletic prowess or even our frontier history.

On Wednesday, the debate careened to China — an economically more threatening rival than fashion-conscious France — after ABC’s “World News” announced that U.S. Olympians, the torchbearers of American athleticism, would wear navy blazers produced in China.

Now, an American label, Hickey Freeman, has recognized opportunity in the fray and offered to make the uniforms right here in the good ol’ United States — and in just two weeks flat. That would please Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and her Democratic Senate colleagues from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, who introduced a bill late Friday that requires the U.S. Olympic Committee to outfit Olympic athletes in ceremonial uniforms “sewn or assembled in the United States.”

The fashion to’s and fro’s have hit a range of nerves: from uncertainties about our national identity in a country with no national dress to economic worries and basic patriotism. It’s true: Our athletes can’t parade in furry ushankas as the U.S.S.R did in 1980 or wear grass skirts and leis as the Marshall Islands did in 2008. But shouldn’t the men and women representing these 50 states showcase clothes made by somebody somewhere here?

Maybe Levi’s? (No, sadly, Levi’s closed its last U.S. plant in 2003.)

Although sportswear designer Lauren works with select manufacturers in the United States, most of his apparel is produced abroad. His high-end Purple Label is made in Italy. Few pieces are made in the States.

The designer has responded to the pressure of the controversy, vowing to produce uniforms in the United States for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“We have committed to producing the Opening and Closing ceremony Team USA uniforms in the United States that will be worn for the 2014 Olympic Games,” the company said Friday in a statement, adding: “Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government to address the issue to increase manufacturing in the United States.”

American designers such as Lauren choose whether they are beholden to the dollar-conscious American consumer or the unemployed American worker. It’s no secret that the cost of manufacturing locally is often more expensive than overseas. And in a climate in which Target partners with luxury designers and fast-fashion chains such as H&M and Forever 21 dominate the retail space, designers often choose to remain competitive by manufacturing abroad. The American Apparel and Footwear Association says that 98 percent of clothing sold in the United States is manufactured overseas.

But the debate over where the clothes were made highlights an ongoing employment tragedy, one with political ramifications for Election 2012: the loss of American manufacturing jobs. Last month, the manufacturing sector contracted for the first time since 2009, despite being the relatively bright spot in the American economy.

For years, the fashion industry has also argued whether “designed in America” and “made in America” are two competing business models that appeal to separate demographics. Many publicly traded Americana brands — Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Michael Kors — have long manufactured their lower-priced diffusion lines in Asia and high-priced lines in Europe.

The political fallout has been unified. Democrats and Republicans, speaking with one voice, decried the outsourcing of Olympic regalia, showing that during an election season nothing spurs bipartisanship like Chinese competition and a shared fall guy.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) both made statements condemning the clothes. Reid went so far as to say the Olympic Committee should “burn them and start all over again.”

The burner camp continues to grow.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee suggesting custom suit designer Hickey Freeman as a replacement for Lauren.

“Team USA should wear American-made uniforms,” Schumer said in an e-mail. “Hickey Freeman can stitch these outfits right here at home without making any compromises cost-wise or fashion-wise.”

Doug Williams, chief executive of HMX Group, which owns Hickey Freeman, said that his company is ready to make new uniforms at its headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., for the entire team in the two weeks before the games begin in London.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), among others, sent a letter urging the committee to consider American-manufactured replacements, such as Hugo Boss, which has a plant in Ohio. (So far, the White House and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney are not commenting.)

Congress’s outrage, though, is limited to the razing of the ties and scarves. Ralph Lauren has become the fashion victim, but Congress has not yet suggested burning Spalding basketballs, Adidas leotards, Nike shoes or the Acer computers that the Olympic Committee will be using courtesy of their sponsors, all of whose products are manufactured abroad.

Nike, which makes most of its products in Asia, did not respond to requests for comment on whether Team U.S.A.’s competition uniforms were also manufactured overseas.

In addition, Lauren’s just-off-the-sailboat styles caused consternation: These athletes are shot-putters and gymnasts, not just rowers and equestrians. Does that style represent real America and its athletic prowess? And with the Olympic Summer Games coinciding with presidential elections, many Democrats may not want our athletes dressed in clothing that evokes a certain former Massachusetts governor.

Still, wearing clothes made in China during a ceremonial parade is what most bothers Congress and many Americans. The U.S. Olympic Committee disagrees. “All this talk about Olympic uniforms made in China is non-sense,” tweeted Patrick Sandusky, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee on Friday. “Polo RL is an American company that supports American athletes.”

In an e-mail to The Washington Post, he reiterated the Olympic Committee’s support of Ralph Lauren. “The USOC takes seriously the comments and recommendations we have received regarding the U.S. Olympic Team’s uniforms,” he said. “We receive no government funding for our Olympic team and are entirely reliant on private support. Our sponsors, including many U.S. and non-U.S. companies, who have operations all around the world, provide the resources that support Team USA.”

Ralph Lauren, which has designed ceremonial Olympic uniforms before, is an Olympic sponsor that offers the clothing to athletes for free and sells the designs on its Web site and in stores. (Beret? $55. And you can have a blazer for $795.) The company also designed the U.S. uniforms in 2008, which were also manufactured in China, when Olympians headed to Beijing — and when a similar, “burn ’em” outcry might have been impolite and impolitic. Who wants to demonize the host country before the Games begin?

Even before 2008, American Olympians wore foreign labels. Roots, a Canadian company, was a sponsor of Team U.S.A. at the 2002 Winter Games and sold thousands of its patriotic berets. As a result, the company’s popularity soared.

America’s allies, too, have wrestled with outrage over their uniforms. In April, Britain’s Independent announced that the country’s Olympic uniforms, designed by British designer Stella McCartney for Adidas, were made in sweatshops in Indonesia. Outcry ensued.

Still, wearing apparel created by a rising superpower may be a demoralizing symbol in a recession-weary election season, and politicians on both sides are likely to capitalize on the fury.

Bipartisanship: such sweet sorrow.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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