Immigrant Fashion Designers Respond to Trump's Travel Ban

We talked with foreign-born US designers about xenophobia, import taxes, and the impact of Trump's executive order on the fashion industry.

by Erica Euse
Feb 1 2017, 5:00am

Twice a year designers from around the world come together to showcase their latest collections during New York Fashion Week. While last-minute alterations and seating arrangements are some of their most pressing concerns, for some designers this season, it is President Donald Trump's controversial executive actions that are weighing heavily on their minds. This is especially true of US fashion's immigrant and international designers, who are feeling uncertain about their future in light of Trump's actions and contentious rhetoric.

The most striking move of Trump's first two weeks is the executive order that froze the US refugee program for 120 days, suspended refugees from Syria indefinitely, and implemented a 90-day travel ban into the US for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. All of these targeted countries are predominantly Muslim, and many see the ban as being a form of religious discrimination. 

"This industry is an international industry and President Trump doing the ban affects it so much," said New York–based designer Linda Abdalla, who has worked for labels like Proenza Schouler and Alexander Wang. "It even affects the tailors and the seamstresses, and some of the best ones come from countries that are on the banned list."

Abdalla was born in Ireland, raised in Ohio, and became a US citizen last year. "The process for us being Muslim and Sudanese was a lot harder. It normally doesn't take 18 years [to become a US citizen]," she said, reflecting on what it would be like to become a citizen under Trump. "But I can't even imagine if we had waited one more year, I don't even know if I would have a passport. My parents definitely wouldn't because [Sudan] is where they were born.

Photo courtesy of Linda Abdalla

"I think that people of the Muslim faith should never feel unsafe, stereotyped, misunderstood or attacked, in a country that is supposed to represent freedom in this world," said Dana Arbib, the founder of the New York–based brand A Peace Treaty. Arbib was born in Tel Aviv and is heavily influenced by her father, who was a Jewish Libyan refugee.

"Since A Peace Treaty's inception, we have employed countless artisans that are of the Muslim faith, and whose artistic talents have resonated with customers in the United States and around the world," she said. "The Muslim world, like any other culture, is a wonderful source of talent, artistic traditions, history, and inspiration that should be respected and honored."

Photo courtesy of Dana Arbib

While award-winning menswear designer Robert Geller isn't from one of the banned countries, even he fears his status as a non-citizen could put him at risk under Trump. Geller came to New York City from Germany more than 15 years ago to pursue his career in fashion. This year will mark the tenth anniversary of his namesake label, but the current political climate has put worries over his latest collection on the back burner.

"We are having a fashion show, but it's not the first thing on my mind," he told me over the phone. Having moved to New York just three weeks before 9/11, Geller is no stranger to political turmoil in the US, but he has become increasingly apprehensive about the current administration and how it will affect him and his business.

"Who knows what the next step is. I have a green card, I am not an American citizen," Geller said. "I am an immigrant, most people here are immigrants. We have to stand together."

Designer Robert Geller at his NYFW: Men's show on January 31, 2017. Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

To this point, he used his most recent collection to show support for those facing the brunt of Trump's recent executive orders. His show on January 31 at NYFW: Men's featured gear fit for a political insurgency: There were militaristic epaulets, camouflage prints, and a face mask that could come in handy during a protest. And when Geller did his customary wave to the crowd at the close of the show, he came out in a T-shirt with the word "immigrant" printed across it as a sign of solidarity. 

Opening ceremony designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, who are both second-generation immigrants, also made a statement on immigration this season. The duo presented their spring/summer 2017 collection this week with a ballet titled The Times Are Racing that specifically celebrated immigrants and aimed to empower through garments emblazoned with the words "Act," "Defy," "Protest," "Shout," and "Change."

"The fashion industry has always been a reflection of what America is all about... inclusion and diversity," Belgian-born designer and CFDA chairwoman Diane von Furstenberg told Business of Fashion in response to the Muslim ban. "I am personally horrified to see what is going on."

Members of the Council of Fashion Designers Association, which is behind New York Fashion Week, reportedly met last week to discuss how immigration policies could better benefit the fashion industry, but it's hard to say how welcoming Trump's America will be toward foreign talent.

"Having designers and artists coming from those countries, having this ban on people coming to visit, or study, or work for these brands is a big deal," said Abdalla. "I just started meeting more African designers who are coming to the states, but this is just another block."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer caused an uproar when he hinted that a controversial tax on any goods coming into the US from Mexico could be used to pay for Trump's border wall. (He later said that was only "one idea.") That tax, if adopted would have a huge effect on the fashion industry, which relies on factories and mills abroad. For large, fast-fashion brands, this overseas production is comprised of ethically questionable cheap and unregulated labor. But luxury designers like Geller who show during NYFW, they employ high-skilled craftspeople across the globe to make their high-priced garments. According to the New York Times, 97 percent of clothing and footwear is constructed in other countries before it is imported to US for sales.

"Who can afford 20 to 50 percent taxation on imports? It doesn't work. For me as a designer, I would have to rethink my strategy, it could kill my business," Geller explained.

Arbib shared similar concern, especially since many of her products are homemade and artisans often set the price. "President Trump's views on commerce, including the renegotiation of trade agreements that are essential to the global economy, as well as the threat of a tax surge on imported goods, has the potential to impact the whole structure of my business to say the least," she said.

The duo behind the brand Namilia, who will present at NYFW this month, shared a similar sentiment. Although they are based in Berlin, the bulk of their sales happen in the US and a tariff could be detrimental. "Most of our sales are going to America, if this administration decides to put huge taxes on international import goods that would definitely affect us and American customers," Namilia co-founder Nan Li told me over the phone.

As the New York Times points out, the additional tax would leave many in the industry with three options: They can close up shop, try to move their production to the States (if they can afford it), or pass the extra cost to the customers.

Photo of Namilia

Beyond the taxes, some see Trump's pledge to "buy American and hire American" during his inaugural address as another problematic issue for an industry that relies heavily on resources outside the US. Many US designers use factories overseas as a way to keep labor costs low, something Trump knows firsthand, since he was producing pieces from his own clothing line in China and Bangladesh. If designers are forced to bring their production to the states, prices will increase significantly. This is an issue for large brands who rely on unregulated labor to produce fast fashion. But those who would be most negatively impacted are the brands who produce a much smaller number of expensive goods by skilled workers in countries like Japan and Italy, and subsequently have a much lower profit margin. 

But prices aren't the only issue with the idea of buying American. As historian Dana Frank recently wrote in the Washington Post, historically the slogan "buy American" has encouraged racism and even violence by framing immigrants and overseas labor as the reason for the nation's economicproblems.

"Many of the countries that are being excluded right now, or marked as 'terrorist states' have skilled artisans who know how to make beautiful handmade items that the world has and wants to see," explained Arbib. "When trade agreements or certain people or countries are being threatened, the beauty that we try to highlight of these family passed down arts have little or no room to survive."

Luckily, many of the immigrant designers in the US are committed to fighting back. 

"When something like this happens, it's similar to movements like punk—it could make art and fashion stronger," said Abdalla. "It is about resisting and using our voice through our craft."

Top image: Robert Geller Fall/Winter 2017 Collection during NYFW: Men's. Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

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