The New York Fashion Industry Member Report
"I Don't Eat Shark Fin Soup"
- by Stacy Lomman

Fashion designer & writer Stacy Lomman at the rally

I refused to eat the shark fin soup. It sounds crazy, but I’m convinced that played a major role in the recent loss of my design job. Over the past fifteen years, I have held some rather difficult jobs and worked with some seriously crazy people. It’s definitely been character building, to say the least. I had been working in my latest role for just over eight months and I walked on egg shells every day because I feared that I could lose my job at any moment. I knew it was coming, the pattern had long been established. I heard from a girl in the production department that the owner fires a designer every six months or so. Apparently, some of them had quit long before that and walked out in tears because they were treated so badly. I was there when the designer from the other division was fired after she had put in eight months. “I can’t work with you,” the owner told her. Hmm, I thought she was a lovely person.

The author in Hong Kong

A little while later, with my eighth month rapidly approaching, I was informed that I had to make a trip overseas. I spent twelve excruciating days working in the factories in Hong Kong and China with my boss, and then I returned to New York, tied up the spring line in a nice little package and awaited my fate. I felt excited in a way -- like I was about to be released from prison. A couple of weeks ago, I went into the office and discovered that my password on my computer had been changed. Great, now I was forced to march into my boss’s office and practically fire myself! “So, you must know my password doesn’t work, right?” I said. “Yes,” he replied and handed me my expense check that was sitting on his desk. This is so surreal, I thought. “Is there anything you want to say?” I asked him. “I can’t work with you,” he replied. I resisted the temptation to snap, “It’s because I wouldn’t eat the shark fin soup in Shanghai, isn’t it?” Instead, I just marveled and the insanity of the situation and went home and took a run in Central Park. The noose I wore around my neck for almost nine months had been cut.

Textile "factory" in China

This story is not uncommon and I’m not writing this article because I’m feeling sorry for myself, but rather to speak up and try to change the way that creative people are treated in this industry. The fashion business has always been challenging, finicky, cutthroat and unorthodox, but these days, more than ever, designers face adversity. We’re totally dispensable. We are being phased out due in part to the economic situation as there are less companies and less jobs, but also because creativity is no longer a priority. Many of my design colleagues have noticed this over the past several years. While senior level positions used to demand ten years of work experience, now the ads for senior designers sometimes request only three to five years of experience. I call them “CopyCAD’s.” It’s standard practice these days for companies to simply buy garments from a store and pass them to a junior level designer to copy and send overseas. Therefore, it’s sufficient to employ an individual who can create a half decent sketch in Illustrator (Computer-Aided Design), measure a sample and pack a Fed Ex. And it’s cheaper than hiring a designer with significant industry experience and knowledge. Price points have become such an important factor with the American consumer that quality has suffered as a result. Manufacturers must source the cheapest labor in order to meet their margins and this means producing offshore. In many cases, the factories have become so powerful that they are the ones paying our salaries and making the decisions. Garment manufacturing has moved almost entirely overseas and has taken along with it, jobs and opportunities for New York designers, technical designers, print artists, patternmakers, etc. The recent HBO documentary, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, confirms exactly how much apparel we actually manufacture in the U.S. today. A whopping 5%! That figure has decreased from 50% since 1995. I have witnessed this drastic drop-off over my fifteen year career and I am dealing with the ramifications right now.

Garment industry veteran and former cutter, Joey Raico said in the film, “The garment center was once the biggest employer in New York City and now we are losing blue collar jobs and white collar jobs. We are giving it all away.” I saw Joey speak with the same determination at the rally to save the garment center, held October 21st. I applaud Nanette Lepore, Robert Savage, the CFDA and the many other contributors for their passion, drive and concern in organizing I was truly moved by many of the speeches that afternoon and was inspired by the feeling of unity in the atmosphere. “Stop exporting the American dream!” yelled Roger Cohen of Regal Originals (one of the first factories to work with Nanette Lepore). Everyone cheered. Roger also said my favorite quote of the day... “Does it make sense that Broadway has become a park for pedestrians?” No, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s kind of bazaar. While I completely agree that something must be done regarding the garment center’s zoning laws and rents in order to bring production back to New York, I also believe that we need to protect the creative jobs in the industry as well. Larry Geffner, President of Vogue Too factory said at the rally, “Without the companies in the garment center that provide all the skill sets and materials that the designers need to function, we will ultimately lose the American designer and it’s no joke.” My eyes welled up. I thought about the predicament I’m currently facing. I thought about Maryanne Dimatteo, a print designer who starred in the HBO documentary. “I have not found work in a year,” she said. “I will not have an apartment anymore because for the first time in my life, I will not be able to pay my rent. I desperately need work.” I whole heartily feel her pain.

So, what can be done to protect designers? Unfortunately, it’s not the norm for creative professionals to receive a contract when we accept a position. Therefore, we have no security and can be let go based on a mood swing or jealousy or because one prefers to wear only neutral colors. There is a large representation of designers in the garment center who do not have their own labels. Instead, we are employees within companies that create apparel in a range of categories and price points. Why don’t we have contracts or agreements? We should. We should also have realistic job expectations and valid grounds for dismissal. Lately, companies are saving money by cutting the number of employees, therefore, the role of the creative designer has expanded and we are expected to perform the work of three or four people. Many establishments do not have a Human Resource Department to protect employee rights, to problem solve and mediate and to prevent abuse. I did not lose my job because I wasn’t capable of doing the work and I do not for a minute doubt my abilities. I knew what I was getting into when I accepted the position, but I was desperate. I was overqualified and underpaid, but I needed a job. A girl’s gotta pay her rent!

Prior to my “Year of the Dragon” as I refer to it, I had been working as the design director for a bridge sportswear company. One day, after two and a half years, I was informed that the owners in Hong Kong wanted to downsize the design department in New York and I was let go along with the Senior Merchandiser. At this time, I noticed a major shift in the industry. I can remember when the Help Wanted section in WWD covered at least two pages. Suddenly, it had dwindled to a quarter of a page which comprised of a few sales positions, showrooms for rent and advertisements for recruiting agencies. Weeks and weeks stretched by and I didn’t see any ads for designers apart from a Childrenswear position or two. I contacted and met with every head hunter in the game. I heard nothing. The silence was deafening. It took me nearly a year to find the job that I just recently lost and now I am starting over again. After hearing my colleagues in the film discuss the difficulties they are experiencing in their search for employment, I’m not exactly feeling hopeful.

I had an interview the other day. The creative director carefully scrutinized my portfolio and spoke without making eye contact. He complimented my sketching, admired the photos of my samples and praised my choice of fabrics and color. I was feeling confident when he said, “This is great, I’m just going to take this in the back to show the owner.” A couple of minutes later he returned and blurted, “She said we’ll call you, she came in late this morning and is really stressed out.” He shuffled me away so fast it seemed like he was scared for his life. Quite possibly they copied a few pages of my portfolio (which happens all the time) or perhaps the owner did, in fact, send him away like a scared little boy. When I relayed the story to my friend and former colleague, she was not surprised. She had actually worked at that very company a year ago and told me to consider myself lucky things didn’t go any further. “The owner will make you cry,” she said. “Everybody cried. It didn’t matter how tough a person was, she managed to make them crack eventually. That was her thing, she got off on it.” My friend told me about the day she finally broke down and walked out (therefore, forfeiting her right to unemployment). “The owner gathered the entire staff to watch and took all my sketches and stacked them into a neat pile and dumped them into the trash can. She said they were garbage and that’s where they belonged.” It sounds shocking, but I know that designers, artists, technical designers, patternmakers, sewers, etc. have to deal with this kind of behavior all the time. We are all talented, educated, hardworking people who deserve more respect. Hopefully, one day, when and if the garment manufacturing finds its way back to New York, there will be better opportunities for all of us. Meanwhile, I’m searching WWD and StyleCareers on a daily basis; I’m networking, reconnecting and keeping my skills sharp. I’ve pretty much given up on head hunters. Occasionally, one will contact me but it’s usually for a design job overseas. “I cannot live in Asia,” I always say. “I don’t eat shark fin soup.”

Stacy Lomman is a contributing writer to See her 'Masters of Fashion' Interview with 'Masters of Fashion' interview with exhibition designer Charles B Fromm