The Bulldozing Powers of Cheap

June 28, 2013 | 4 books mentioned 4 7 min read

This is the history: there was a time when Prato, the capital of the Province of Prato in Tuscany and a historic center of the Italian textiles industry, was fueled largely by an intricate network of small companies, many family-operated, some tiny, involved in various extremely specialized niches of the textile trade.

Among them was Lanificio T.O. Nesi & Figli S.p.A., founded in the 1920s by Edoardo Nesi’s grandfather, Temistocle, and his brother Omero. Like many family companies, T.O. Nesi & Figli was a shot into the future, a company intended to last for generations, to be passed down the bloodline like a gene or a name. In the 1920s, going into textiles in the city of Prato must have seemed like a supremely safe bet. “Try to imagine a product,” Nesi writes, “that for thirty years never needs to be changed.

Imagine a company that only manufactures that product and whose one problem, if it has any problem at all, is that it can’t keep up with the demand of a market that is so strong and vast that the threat of competition is not worth worrying about. Imagine being able to set your watch by the punctuality with which invoices are paid ten days from receipt, never a protest, never a deduction for unjustified complaints, never a bankruptcy, with checks pouring in with the morning mail in pastel-hued, square-format envelopes. Zero expense for research and development, trade fairs, advertising, or fashion consultants.

But you’ve no doubt guessed where this is going. By the beginning of the 21st century, the flood of pastel-hued, square-format envelopes had slowed to a trickle. Globalization was wreaking havoc on the city’s textile industry and business after business was going under. The culture of the industry had changed. Designers demanded ever-deeper discounts, even while selling clothing marked up to ten times the cost of production. Everything could be done more cheaply in China than in Prato. Clients began to force textile companies into bidding wars, and all that seemed to matter now was the price; clients were disinterested in a company’s commitment to quality, in their reputation, in their history.

The bidding wars were impossible to win, Nesi writes, because “there was bound to be someone somewhere whose desperation was greater than ours.” Desperate companies competed for contracts in which they could not possibly turn a profit. “And so, self-fulfilled and self-fulfilling, the certainty spread unstoppably that, with no one making profits, the textile industry no longer had a future. ”

In 2004, Nesi sold his family’s company. It seemed the only reasonable option, and yet:

I can’t manage to get out of my head that & Figli—& Sons—that seals the end of the name of the woolen mill, that announcement of continuity that was at once an evocation and an invocation, a promise made to me sixty years ago now by a grandfather I never knew. I can’t say whether I was a sly fox or a miserable coward, whether I did the right thing or betrayed my birthright, as if the same daring and courage were demanded of a captain of industry as of the captain of a ship, as if it were a moral requirement that he stay with his command until it settles on the bottom of the sea, that he stay with the company that bears his name.

cover Story of My People is an angry, eloquent, and beautifully written book, a hybrid of memoir and social commentary that took Italy’s prestigious Strega prize in 2011. This is a story about a man who loved his company and had to sell it, but this story is a microcosm for the decline of the Italian textiles industry and, more broadly, for the decline of manufacturing in the first world as industry has turned to cheaper labor markets elsewhere.

Clothes are armor. One of my countless day jobs was at a now-defunct luxury chain in Canada that sold housewares, furniture, clothing, and overpriced little aloe vera plants potted in glass vases. My job was mostly based in the stock room, because I’d discovered at previous day jobs that standing around on retail sales floors carries some risk of actually dying of boredom. But of course every now and again I’d have to venture out onto the floor, which was apparently somewhat embarrassing to our managing director. He wore crisp white shirts and the shiniest shoes I’d ever seen. “I’d like to challenge you to dress for the floor,” he said once, in a performance review. Another time, in a staff meeting, he addressed the following to all of us: “You dress a certain way, people treat you a certain way.”

I already knew the truth of this, because I’d grown up dressing out of thrift stores, which had proved an effective route to social suicide in my teenage years, but this line crystalized the matter. Since then, I’ve tried to dress well. Lately I’ve been making some of my own dresses, in part because I like the meditative aspects of sewing and in part because the dresses I make from scratch are generally nicer than the dresses I can afford to buy off the rack. The dresses I can afford to buy off the rack, I can’t help but notice, have seemed a little shoddy lately. The fabrics are usually synthetic. There’s usually no lining. Seams come apart quickly.

After I read Nesi’s book, I turned to Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion in search of a wider context for the decline that Nesi describes.

cover In her account of the precipitous freefall of the American textiles and apparel industries, Cline makes a compelling argument that the demise of this sector in western countries has to do not only with the obvious and relatively new pressures of globalization that Nesi alludes to, but with the changing nature of fashion itself. Our clothing has become less formal.

Our grandparents relaxed at home on weekends in structured dresses, button-down shirts, and tailored trousers. Now fast-forward to 2013, and consider the t-shirt: our default article of leisure clothing consists of two pieces of stretchy fabric with rudimentary sleeves. “The less skill involved in making our clothes,” Cline writes,

the cheaper [our clothing] becomes, and the less we are willing to pay for it. The more basic clothes are, the less it matters where they’re made. A tank top can be made anywhere in the world. Does this mean we should return to wearing dresses so elaborate we have to be helped into them? Probably not, but I know that these changes are all tied up in the bulldozing powers of cheap.

In past decades, a decent wardrobe would have consisted of a very few well-made pieces, carefully maintained, taken to a seamstress to be let in or out as required. Few people owned more than a few outfits, because clothes were expensive. Now our wardrobes bulge with articles of clothing purchased for the price of lunch. The shift in apparel jobs to low-wage countries has shifted the cost of clothing downward, and with it, our expectation of how much an article of clothing should cost.

We’re caught in a spiral. “The joke in the industry,” Cline writes, “is that consumers want to pay $9 for whatever they paid $10 for last year.” The more cheaply a piece of clothing is made, the less we want to pay for it, and the more corners a manufacturer is forced to cut in order to meet an ever-dropping pricepoint: fabric becomes cheaper, details fall by the wayside, blazers are unlined, seams come undone.

We’re not stupid. We know cheap when we see it. “Most mass-market clothing is now so poorly made and ordinary,” Cline writes, “that many consumers intuit that it’s not worth much money.” If there’s a place in this landscape for exquisitely-made Italian fabrics, it’s much smaller than it was.

But what was lost in Prato, beyond the actual companies, the actual fabrics? Where Story of My People succeeds most brilliantly is as a vision of what a creative and ethical model of capitalism can look like. Nesi describes moments of exhilarating creativity: gathering with colleagues in the factory after hours, the conversation turning to the fabrics worn by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Nesi rushing to bring the books out of his office, designers peering excitedly at the clothes worn in author photos, a week later those same fabrics lying before them on the table. In the years before he sold the company, Nesi lived something of a double life. He was a manufacturer who wrote novels, and it shows in his prose.

His first three novels were written largely at the office, in any spare moments he could find “during a workday that began at nine and often dragged itself exhausted over the threshold of seven in the evening, because it just wasn’t right for the company to be open without an owner inside.”

Those italics are his, but if they weren’t already there I’d have added them. If you live and work in North America, you might’ve experienced a touch of wistfulness and/or laughed hysterically just now at the thought of ten hours constituting an unusually long workday. But adjusting for proximity to the Mediterreanean, the reason for Nesi’s long days is striking.

This attentiveness to the company dovetails neatly with a speech Nesi’s mentor delivered, when Nesi was starting out in the company and they’d gone on a business trip to Germany together. The profession, his mentor told him, wasn’t glamorous:

[B]ut it was a profitable profession, if practiced properly, and by properly he meant conscientiously, seriously, with respect for other people, and it could bring in plenty of money and provide jobs for many people and feed many families, and in his opinion, I’d be good at it, provided I learned German perfectly and always remembered the things he had just told me.

We’ve seen what the opposite model of capitalism looks like. At one end of a spectrum is Nesi’s mentor, speaking seriously with his charge about practicing the profession in a conscientious and ethical manner as they drive back to the airport. At the other end, a hole in the ground on the outskirts of Dhaka marks the place where the Rana Plaza collapsed two months ago on five garment factories full of workers.

The day before the collapse, cracks had appeared in the walls. Workers were evacuated, but the following morning they were ordered back to work. When the building collapsed an hour later, 1,127 of them died. There are certain parallels with the Tazreen Fashions fire the previous November. The Tazreen Fashions building was equipped with fire alarms, but a government report found that supervisors prevented workers from leaving their sewing machines when the fire alarms sounded. One hundred twelve workers were killed in the blaze.

And all this, all of these cheaply-made clothes at this unbearable human cost, for what? We might say that we can only afford to buy cheap clothing, and in some cases that’s true. There have been times when this has been true for me. On the other hand, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws out sixty-eight pounds of clothing and other textiles every year. At some point along the way, we decided that clothes were meant to be more or less disposable.

Globalization isn’t, of course, a black-and-white issue. Millions have been lifted out of dire poverty by overseas manufacturing jobs. There are trends that can’t be reversed. Beyond individual efforts to think about clothing differently—taking a moment to consider whether it might not be better to buy two or three exquisitely well-made shirts in a given year, for instance, rather than ten or fifteen disposable ones—the solutions aren’t entirely clear.

What is clear is that when we decided that price mattered more than anything, something vital was lost and the human cost was steep. Story of My People makes an eloquent argument for a marketplace infused with a touch of humanity and grace.

Image credit: Pexels/Ekrulila.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. Thanks for writing this piece. I recently wrote an article about a movement in Northern California called Fibershed, which seeks a return to locally based textile creation and artisan clothing as an alternative to the cheap, mass-marketed stuff that dominates the marketplace. I had no idea the true cost of a “$10 t-shirt” but have begun completely reconsidering and challenging my own shopping habits as a result of my research. It’s nice to see more people getting the word out there from different entry points!

  2. This is an extremely frustrating topic to me.

    Of course I would love to dress in clothes handmade by craftsmen, or better yet by me. But I will never, never be able to afford this. Never.

    The ability of average people to afford this is gone forever, at least unless there’s a collapse like the one you describe in Station Eleven.

    Another factor: back when people only owned a few outfits, they washed and dried them less frequently and arguably less thoroughly. If we are going to start doing that, we will lose the “armor” value of clothing as we develop our own personal odor.

    Then we are told that because we can’t afford the super expensive, tailored clothing, it is our fault that millions are suffering in sweat shops. Well, gosh, I certainly don’t want to be guilty of that! Could you please point me to some clothes, or even some fabric or yarn, NOT made in a sweat shop?

    It gets worse. Now, my shopping habits are to blame for the fact that a supervisor in a high power distance culture ordered his workers to stay at their stations when the fire alarm sounded.

    I realize there is a lot more nuance to this topic, both in the book and in your post. But as a lower middle class person with a social conscience, surely you can understand my frustration.

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