Trump's Economic Nationalism Could Cripple the Fashion Industry

When you look back at the way Hitler's nationalistic policies decimated fashion in Nazi-era Germany, you see what could be in store for the US's garment industry if Trump can put "America First."

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Mar 13 2017, 1:07pm

In the early weeks of February, thousands of people from around the world flocked to New York City to take in the latest shows at Fashion Week. Over the course of seven days, designers from countries like Germany and India dressed models hailing from Jamaica and Ghana in collections produced in countries like Italy and Japan. The bi-annual event, which is also held in other cultural capitals like Paris, London, and Milan, is the perfect encapsulation of the global nature of fashion.

But, since Trump won the election in November, many Americans in the fashion industry see his presidency is a serious threat to their business. Since the start of his presidential campaign, Trump has embraced a platform rooted in hyper-nationalism from his economic policies to his crackdown on immigration, but fashion is not an industry that can be contained by borders. As France's minister of culture Audrey Azoula recently explained, "populist powers" are "absolutely incompatible with the idea of fashion and freedom."

Historically, we've seen this type of hyper-nationalism and the detrimental effects it can ultimately have on a country's fashion industry. Adolf Hitler's obsession with Germany's self-sufficiency was in fact a driving force behind the downfall of Berlin's once thriving fashion business. Of course, Trump is not a fascist, but there are similarities worth noting in regards to the way his economic and cultural perspectives and policies endanger the US's $343 billion garment industry.

Hitler and Trump have both used nationalistic fervor to unite citizens against a common enemy. Hitler insisted that the Jews were to blame for Germany's economic problems, which he used to justify the horrific mass genocide of 6 million people. While Trump is certainly not a perpetuator of genocide, he has used xenophobia to target immigrants by claiming that they are stealing US jobs and committing serious crimes. These stereotypes have been employed to justify his push for the deportation of immigrants.

Before Hitler came to power in 1933, Berlin was an acclaimed fashion capital known for its impeccable ready-to-wear. Its success was fueled by hard-working Jews, who had been mastering their craft since the early 1700s. At it's peak, Germany was home to approximately 2,400 Jewish clothing firms.

"[Jews] often times had these very fine salons, whether inside larger department stores or self-standing businesses," Dr. Irene Guenther, author of Nazi Chic?, explained to me over the phone. "They were known not just for their design, but also for the meticulous tailoring. Because they had been in the industry for so long, many of them also became very important for manufacturing buttons, zippers, and fabric."

In the US, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have a related deep-rooted history in the fashion industry. In the early 20th century, a surge of European immigrants came to New York City, where they set up shops and worked in factories. Many of these European immigrants were Jews fleeing the Nazis in the same way that refugees from Syria to El Salvador are seeking asylum here today. They brought with them their expertise in design and garment manufacturing, which helped make the US a global fashion powerhouse.

The integration of immigrants in the fashion industry has continued ever since. In 2005, over 75 percent of the garment industry workers were immigrants with their influence spanning from manufacturing to modeling. Despite the fact that immigrants are often working in unsafe conditions and for lower wages, garment factories continue to be one of the top employers for new immigrants in the US, especially for those who have come to the US illegally. According to a 2012 study by PEW, 20 percent of the apparel manufacturing workforce in America is undocumented.

When Jews were targeted under Hitler, it proved extremely detrimental to the German fashion industry. In 1933, Hitler attempted to Aryanize the industry and rid any Jewish-influence. His efforts were supported through boycotts and illegal-buyouts of Jewish businesses. The Nazi's also founded an organization called Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutsch-arischer Fabrikanten der Bekleidungsindustrie (ADEFA) to promote the purchase of Aryan-made products.

By January 1939, the Nazi's had eliminated the Jews from fashion. "Because of the Jews's century-old integral role in establishing the German fashion world... the purge had taken six full years, longer than any other economic sector in Nazi Germany," author Lisa Pine's explained in her book Life and Times in Nazi Germany.

Under Trump, a significant portion of the industry is now under siege due to his recent executive order on immigration that requires the "expedited removal" of illegal aliens" who he believes disregard the "rule of law and pose a threat" to people across the US. Research has already estimated that the deportation of the 11 million undocumented immigrants would cost the American government $114 billion. But, it's not just the work they do that enriches this country, it is also the culture they bring that helps make the American fashion industry so successful.

"They are coming from somewhere else with different cultural practices and histories that they can overlay onto American fashion and make it something completely different and exciting, whether that is Raf Simons or Diane von Furstenberg," explains Dr. Guenther. "That was the short-sightedness of the Hitler regime, their xenophobia ruined their exports and pushing the Jews out meant pushing out the majority of the best designers, but it also meant that there would be no new injection of vision and entrepreneurship, or even color and arrangement of textiles."

Trump has also pushed Americans to "Buy American, Hire American." The president recited this nationalist slogan during his inaugural address in January, implying that the US should focus on exporting, but not importing goods. He's also proposed terminating the North American Free Trade Agreement and has abandoned Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could threaten the trade deals designers and retailers have with other countries.

"We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs," Trump told the crowd during his inaugural address. "Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."

Mussolini shared similar goals for creating a self-sufficient Italy, which included the domestic production of apparel and textiles. "[To produce garments in Italy, the Mussolini] regime required approval, a textile produced in Italy, but also a trademark or warranty that it was Italian," Eugenia Paulicelli, author of Fashion Under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt, explained to me. "The idea was to convince Italian women to spend their money in the Italian couture instead of going to France."

As K. Ferris writes in her book, Everyday Life in Fascist Venice 1929-40, "supporting local and Italian businesses through increased spending was the new mark of the patriotic consumer."

"Hitler in a way cut off his own nose because he was desperate for export dollars, but he was occupying all of Europe, so Belgium is occupied and the Netherlands are occupied—they couldn't buy German fashion, and certainly the US wasn't going to buy German fashion," said Dr. Guenther. "So it is all fine and good to say 'America First,' but already in the 40s that wasn't working."

To further discourage American companies from producing around the globe, Trump has suggested a border-adjustment tax that would eliminate tax breaks for American companies that produce overseas. As Thomas Naskios explains in The New York Times, should the tax reform be passed, designers will be faced with three options: close up shop, pay more to produce domestically, or push the extra cost onto consumers, with the latter being most likely.

Earlier this month, the National Retail Federation, who strongly opposes the GOP's proposal, aired a commercial warning about the effects of a border-adjustment tax. The infomercial, a parody of those over-the-top Oxiclean ads, claimed that the BAT would make "disposable income disappear" through its tax on items like clothing.

According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, in 2014 the US imported 97.5 percent of its clothes. Despite efforts to keep fashion production in the US, many small brands and retail giants continue to turn to overseas manufacturing in countries like China and India due to the lower production costs. Even Trump has a history of outsourcing items for his clothing line "Donald J. Trump Collection" from sport coats to cufflinks that were made in countries like South Korea and Bangladesh.

"In fashion you have to be free. Today we have an economic industry, but they want to promote the American industry, the Italian industry, and so forth," explained Paulicelli. "There is always this sort of ambivalence that you want to promote a national brand, but fashion is something that has no nationality."

Lead Photo: A model walks the runway for the Anniesa Hasibuan show during New York Fashion Week. ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

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