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Working In These Times

Monday, Jul 19, 2010, 10:20 am

Fashion Designer, Makeup Mogul Sell Luxury Goods ‘Inspired’ By Dead Maquila Workers

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

(Image courtesy Rodarte)

Updated below with M.A.C.'s new promises

They say nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. If that maxim holds, high fashion designer Rodarte and trendy makeup manufacturer M.A.C. should do very well with their $4,000 dresses and $20 bottles of nail polish inspired by the "dreamy," "ghostly," "romantic" lifestyles of the maquiladora workers of Juarez.

Rodarte's designers, Laura and Kate Mulleavy, say their collection was inspired by the sight of women factory workers trudging to work at four o'clock in the morning. "At Rodarte, the designers were inspired by the idea of workers in Mexican maquiladoras walking half-asleep to the factories in Juarez, after dressing in the dark," explained the LA Times' fashion blog. 

Pretty romantic right? I don't know about you, but I'm always at my most fashion-forward during bleary-eyed early morning commutes. Mismatched socks are sexy. You know what would be even more romantic? Dead commuters. As we all know, dead women are sexier than live ones. Casting your models as ghosts is also a good excuse to make them very, very white.

Catherine Piercy of Vogue gushed that the Mulleavys were "conjuring the spirit world" in their February show in which "their haunting new muse sleepwalks through Texan border towns in a shredded gown of brightly colored wildflowers." Their shrouds were edged with burnt sequins. Laura Mulleavy told Piercy that she wanted to make the pale-skinned girls look “like beautiful ghost versions of themselves.”

At first, the world of high fashion was charmed by the Mulleavys' fetchingly ethereal army of ghostly maquila workers. Apparently no one in the fashion press thought there was anything untoward about young American designers making $4,000 dresses inspired by the exhausted Mexican factory workers.

Rodarte finally went too far, however, when it teamed up with M.A.C., Estee Lauder's edgy urban brand, to create a line of co-branded cosmetics.

Last week, Jessica Wakeman of the Frisky was appalled to notice that the M.A.C. line included nail polishes with names "Juarez" and "Factory." If the average American has ever heard of Ciudad Juarez, it's in connection with hundreds of unsolved murders of young women, many of whom worked in the maquiladoras. These foreign-owned manufacturing plants deliberately recruited a predominantly female workforce on the assumption that women would be more docile and less likely to organize.

As of February 2005, 800 bodies of murdered women had been found, many bearing signs of torture and mutilation. There are various theories about who is responsible. Some of the murders are probably the work of a serial killer or killers. Some may have been victims of family violence, organized crime and/or corrupt police officers.

The point is that from the early nineties onwards, economic and social conditions made Juarez an ideal hunting ground for anyone who wanted to kill young women with impunity. (Working In These Times contributor Kari Lyderson has written extensively on the femicides of Juarez.) It's not clear whether the femicides have trailed off in recent years, or whether they've simply been drowned out by the ferocity of the drug war on the border.

Here's the real story behind that "romantic" commute: The population of Juarez exploded between 1990 and 2000, with the implementation of NAFTA accelerating growth in 1994. The Mexican government bent over backwards to attract foreign plants with tax breaks and lax regulations.

Thousands of young people travelled to Juarez in search of work in the maquilas. The city's infrastructure did not expand to accomodate the influx. Wages were low, but the cost of living was high compared to the rest of Mexico. Many maquila workers ended up in shantytowns far from their factories.

Just getting to work became a perilous journey for many young women who had come to Juarez seeking a better life. Many femicide victims were abducted on their way to or from the factory. One young woman died trying to get home after her boss locked her out of the factory for showing up a few minutes late to work.

M.A.C. and Rodarte finally issued a statement after Jessica Wakeman's post caught the attention of major fashion bloggers. Therein the firms apologized for offending "some of their consumers and fans" and issued a vague promise to give "a portion" of the proceeds of the joint collection to "help those in need in Juarez." It's a classic "I'm sorry if you were offended" apology which sidesteps the issue of whether the companies are sorry for what they did, or whether they're simply sorry to have offended potential customers. I'll be surprised if anyone in Juarez gets a cent.

I have some ideas for next season's Rodarte collection. Maybe next year's collection should draw inspiration from the dreamy, ethereal cross-border cocaine trade that fuels New York Fashion Week. Better yet, they could cash in on the current vampire craze with a line inspired by the fashions of CEOs who outsource jobs to exploit workers.

UPDATE 7/20: On Monday, July 19, M.A.C. sent an e-mail to fashion editors promising to change the names of certain cosmetics.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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