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Why the Team USA ‘Made in China’ Backlash is Such a Giant Story

American ApparelThought it might be safe to channel all your Olympics curiosity away from the Ralph Lauren Team USA made-in-China controversy and into something a little more fluffy and summery like, say, Italy's official Armani-designed sportswear (only in Italy do the athletes dress, convincingly, like club kids)? It's not.

All the debate concerning the provenance of our Olympics uniforms might seem like a lot of handwringing over nothing more than a few hundred tracksuits, but it taps into a lot of the issues and concerns which have become central to our current political conversation, particularly as we barrel toward the presidential election. The Olympics are a kind of costume drama of international relations, in which each country's team is an emblem of its national identity. And here in America, our identity is in definite crisis mode.

For a long time, and despite good evidence to the contrary, we prided ourselves on our economic supremacy. The stock market crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession spotlighted, among other things, the untenability of our current financial practices. I'm in absolutely no way an expert on any of this, but the basic narrative, as I understand it, goes like this: over the past few decades, America's corporations have been outsourcing manufacturing (and other) jobs overseas, where labor is cheaper (and might often be illegal or at least unethical by American standards) and companies can take advantage of various kinds of tax loopholes and financial incentives. This has transformed the US from an industrial economy into an information economy — so, we spend more time emailing back and forth and creating intellectual property, less time making physical objects. For example, most of the people working in the US fashion industry aren't manufacturing clothing — they're designing it, figuring out how to produce it elsewhere, overseeing its development, placing it in stores, and marketing it. This is just one of the factors which has resulted in a staggering number of shuttered factories nationwide and the decline of major industrial cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, and (famously) Detroit. This is a consistent trend across American industries and (unlike fashion trends, which can always be relied upon to change) shows no sign of reversing: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the textile industry is projected to lose 48% of its jobs between 2008 and 2018. Together with a variety of other factors — like the decline of unions and the de-regulation of the financial sector — the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs is seen as a direct cause of our shrinking middle class, which was once our national pride. Long story short: things are really complicated and seem really bad.

Even though outsourcing is the status quo and both Ralph Lauren and the US Olympic Team are privately owned, the decision to manufacture uniforms in China was a symbolic step too far for politicians in both parties. John Boehner, the House Speaker and a Republican, was confused: "You'd think they'd know better." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, was more incendiary, in the true sense of the word: "I am so upset. I think the Olympic committee should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should be embarrassed. I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again."

Image via Ralph Lauren

Ralph Lauren released a statement pledging to produce future Olympics uniforms within the US, but six Democrats in the Senate introduced legislation which will mandate that Olympic athletes be outfitted only in American-made clothes. The bill has an impossible-to-vote-against name: “Team USA Made in America Act.” Meanwhile, the NYPost notes that America's TSA workers wear uniforms manufactured in Pakistan.

Even more embarrassingly, today we learn (from the Post) that one of our former foes, Russia, has been in talks with American Apparel, the retail chain which manufactures all of its products in Los Angeles, to make its 2014 Olympic team uniforms. According to CEO Dov Charney, they've been planning this alliance since last year, well before this current controversy broke. Charney gloats: “[Russian Olympic team representatives] said they didn’t want anything that was made in China. It’s not just for the uniforms — it’s also the merchandise.” What follows reeks of spin from the publicity-crazed American Apparel head, but in a statement to Fashionista, Charney offered to help Ralph Lauren rush-produce the Team USA uniforms in his company's LA factory: "American Apparel could start working on uniforms today and have them in London within 7 days."

The debate about outsourcing extends beyond the current Olympics controversy. As part of his re-election campaign, President Obama has been aggressively challenging Republican candidate Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, a consulting firm which some argue pioneered the practice as it appears today. (For the record, I'm not sure whether that's strictly true. Based on my cursory reading, outsourcing has been evolving into a dominant corporate business strategy for several decades. Still, it does appear that Romney may have been one of the chief architects of its current form.) Even though the current election debate and the Olympics uniform backlash share the same underlying anxieties about offshore manufacturing as a factor in American economic decline, they've only today dovetailed into a single, damning story: it's been confirmed that in 2002, when Mitt Romney oversaw the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the American team's uniforms were made in Burma.

Top image via American Apparel Tumblr

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