Marc Levin is still finding pins under the floorboards of his loft in New York’s Garment District. He ended up digging far deeper to find the hook for his latest doc about the economic crisis — “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” a startlingly prescient history of the clothing industry from 7th Avenue to Bangladesh which airs on HBO on October 19th, having made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
Like a lot of American industries, the “schmatta” (Yiddish for “rags”) business was once booming, but has diminished in the face of globalization, leading to the stunning statistic presented by Levin that now only five percent of all American clothing is produced domestically. As his documentary puts it, where the clothing business goes, so goes the economy.
A year ago, Levin found himself at a Marc Jacobs show after hearing the news of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. “I thought I was the kid in ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes.’ I kept thinking the economy has no clothes,” said the director, who made a name for himself with the poetry drama “Slam” and the doc “Protocols of Zion.” Even in the midst of a busy fall, the documentarian still found the time to talk about the expense of cheap clothing and the importance of documentaries in a 24-hour news cycle.
How did you get interested in the Garment District?
The Garment Center is a character — that was my starting point. Street smart, ballsy, humorous, full of vibrancy, soul, heart. How do you bring that to life? It happened to be 2008. Little did we know it would be such an epic historic moment, but from the February shows to the September shows, there was tremendous fallout. People were losing their companies, their jobs, their work. We look at what was happening in a season, but we go back and knit together a history of this almost fabled magical kingdom that had its problems and issues, but was this gateway for immigrants, especially Jewish and Italian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, to enter America.
They were the vanguard of a labor movement that wrote up a new social contract for America. Unemployment, health care, housing — all these things that we take for granted came out of the Garment Center. After the war, 7th Avenue [made] America the center of the commercial clothing business. And then the ’70s, ’80s and the ’90s, the emergence of designers as superstars, and marketing and lifestyle that was more than clothes — it’s a cultural force. When I grew up, music was the leading cutting edge and certainly movies, but in many ways, fashion has eclipsed everything in popular culture around the world as [something] young people want to be part of and plugged into and understand.
It also seems like there’s a growing disconnect between the American public’s knowledge of how things are made.
If we can get a deal, whether it’s fast food or a shirt or a dress for under $10, it’s attractive. But you don’t think of the connection to that, how it’s made and what it says. Maybe it’s giving somebody an opportunity, but maybe in my neighborhood, people that worked in this business are out of work [because it was made overseas]. You don’t see it all interconnected, and it is.
Do you see documentaries becoming increasingly important in making those connections?
I think [documentaries are] important. Look what happened this summer with health care — the 24-hour cable news cycle, there’s no context. It’s just a food fight. So cinema, indie film, documentaries, they are, in a way, filling the gap of a hunger that we have to try and comprehend and make sense of our world where we have access to information, but we overload on it. A lot of opportunities come out of crises, and I’m an optimist just by nature, but I do feel that context, story, humanity, heart and soul need to be part of the mix, so that people can make a more informed discussion of where we go from here and we look at ourselves. We like to dress up and look in the mirror and see how we look. Now, the real question is: How do we want to look?
“Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” premieres on October 19th.
[Photo: A scene from “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” Blowback Productions, 2009]