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Domestic manufacturing has long been the beating heart of the Mexican economy. Textile production accounts for 1.2% of Mexican GDP and is the country’s fourth largest manufacturing sector, employing millions of Mexicans, and remaining a source of cultural pride and identity through its ties to Mexico’s indigenous heritage.
Clothing is a sector the country fiercely protects. In 2001 when China - Mexico’s biggest competitor in low-cost clothing production - joined the World Trade Organisation, the country imposed import duties of up to 1,000% on Chinese goods.
“In the 1990s when all the cheap manufacturing was travelling to China, Mexico, instead of hiding from the textile industry, changed the mentality,” says Guillermo Garcia, the Director of ProMexico for France and North Africa. ProMexico is a government agency in charge of strengthening Mexico's participation in the international economy. “We’re making a differentiation within the textile industry.”
What exactly is that differentiation? How is Mexico different to other countries offering cheap clothing production?
In the last few years, scandals involving sweatshops and child labour in India and China have publicly shamed brands including Marks and Spencer, Next and GAP. In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, when in 2013 a Bangladeshi factory collapsed, killing 1,129 textile workers, clothing retailers are acutely aware of the risks of operating in countries with an unsteady record on working rights. Moreover, the ethical cost of clothing is something consumers are beginning to consider.
Throughout these outrages, Mexico’s reputation has remained pretty intact, and the country stands out as a base for low-cost manufacturing with a good ethical track record. Some might say this is the differentiation Mexico has marked out for itself in the textile industry.
According to manufacturing contractor MFI International, Mexico’s safety and labour laws are stricter than those in Asia and Bangladesh. Assessing how rigidly they are enforced is difficult, and the country is certainly not free from working rights issues, with a shockingly high poverty rate of 52.3% that hasn’t eased since 1994. However, Mexico’s clothing industry hasn’t had a fire, serious accident or labour strike in the last three decades.
“Any garment production or textile factories that I have visited in Mexico have been super big spaces, clean, with great equipment and staff that are all treated as professionals,” a designer operating in Mexico tells me. “Mexico is huge, but what I have seen has been the opposite of ‘sweatshops’.”
For a region with such an established clothing production industry, Mexicans have an unusually complex relationship with home-grown fashion.
Beatriz Calles is the Director of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Mexico, the country’s largest Fashion Event. “In Mexico all designers fight against the habit of the national consumer to always prefer things made outside of our country,” she says.
In 2012, the international brands H&M, Gap and Forever21 all opened their first stores in Mexico, and have proved popular among locals. It is clear that Mexicans are interested in fashion. The challenge is to get them interested in Mexican fashion.
A curious quirk in Mexico’s consumption of fashion is that the country’s clothing retailers lose $4 billion, or 18% of some $22 billion in domestic sales each year to returns, with the main reason being sizing problems. Women’s Wear Daily reports that Mexican shoppers have long been complaining that western fashion’s sizing does not cater to the typical Mexican build.
It would seem that locals would rather buy poorly fitting foreign clothing than shop around for Mexican styles - 40% of the country’s brick-and-mortar sales are controlled by an oligopoly of just nine chain stores. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of clothing produced in Mexico isn’t for Mexicans, but is exported to western countries, and it would seem that Mexican clothing – that is, clothing made for Mexicans - is an industry whose potential has yet to be untapped.
With a new and growing force of ‘Made in Mexico’ designers, this might be about to change. The brand Carla Fernandez runs a workshop that travels the country, harnessing the heritage of craftsmanship to create high-end sustainable fashion. Emma Stone and Amy Adams have sported Mexican-American designer Raul Melgoza on the red carpet, and Trista, a Mexico City-based design duo, are achieving international acclaim with their experimental tailoring and edgy modern separates.
However, young designers in Mexico still face a rocky road. The country lacks a support system like a fashion council, meaning there are few channels for mentorship. And while it’s not a problem confined to Mexico, emerging brands struggle with the costs of showing at fashion weeks.
“The problem of not having enough money to invest in their fashion shows is something all Mexican designers suffer,” Beatriz Calles acknowledges. She says Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Mexico is making specific efforts to ease designers’ financial burden.
“We are the only fashion week in the world, I think, where designers don´t absorb the cost of their presentation.” According to Ms Calles, designers at Fashion Week Mexico pay only 20% of the costs of showing, and the fashion week covers the rest through its sponsors.
The event has also partnered with ELLE Magazine, running a contest that offers three emerging designers the chance to showcase their designs, and the fashion week offers a platform to students from two major Mexican Universities.
“What we want to do now is help Mexico work in the worldwide scene, the European scene,” explains Guillermo Garcia. This year ProMexico will welcome four French buyers to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, to promote the work of young Mexican designers in the international scene. Mr Garcia also informs us of ProMexico’s plan to launch a showroom in Paris for Mexican designers.
“The main challenge we are working with now is that there are misconceptions about what Mexico is doing in terms of design. We want to bring foreign buyers to Mexico to get them to know not only the final product, but the quality, the shops, the training, universities and design centres.”
Mexico has the skilled garment workers, a glorious fashion heritage and a real interest in contemporary style. What it currently lacks – but is steadily building – is the structure or support necessary for its budding fashion designers to thrive.
However, with its young population – the median age in Mexico is 26 – the country is a prime target for youthful fashion brands. And as its fashion institutions,such as Centro begin to flourish, it seems likely that the next fashion-savvy generation of Mexicans will not only be the hands that stitch global fashion, but the consumers and designers of it too.
by #Kate Abnett #NOT JUST A LABEL
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