There's a quiet revolution happening in Long Beach, and it goes by the name of Institute 4 Labor Generosity Workers & Uniforms (or ILGWU, in tribute to the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union). Housed in a modest storefront in Long Beach's East Village Arts District, where it is an active member of the Long Beach Art Exchange, ILGWU works to raise awareness around global labor issues and history through a variety of performative and participatory projects. Among these are the weekly Sewing Rebellion, which empowers working people by teaching them sewing skills, and "For Life," a recent exhibition and giveaway of donated materials from a deceased Long Beach crafter.
An engaging blend of social activism, art making and garment production, ILGWU is the most recent manifestation of the multifarious practice of artist Carole Frances Lung. The descendant of a long line of female tailors and seamstresses, Lung grew up in Huntington Beach and studied textiles and clothing in college. In the 1980s and 90s, she worked in the garment industry as a professional seamstress, cutter, pattern maker, production manager and designer. During that time, she was witness to the industry's many questionable practices as well as the negative effects of globalization on workers worldwide.
In the early 2000s, she decided to go back to school and earned first her BFA, then her MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her experiences in the garment industry, coupled with her feminist roots and her research into labor histories and contemporary issues, became the foundation for her art practice. Through residencies and visiting artist gigs, she has developed a nomadic series of projects that work to unmask dubious production practices and empower people to make more conscientious decisions about the clothes they buy and wear. These have included the popular Sewing Rebellion, which has chapters in several cities including Chicago, New York and now Long Beach, and SL Mode: One Size Fits All, a pop-up factory and retail storefront that both engages with and critiques local garment practices.
To execute her projects, Lung gets help and inspiration from her good friend (and alter ego) Frau Fiber, a labor activist and former garment worker from East Germany. As the legend goes, the two met while Lung was studying at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. The Frau, a member of the "lost generation" of workers who were displaced following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, came to Lung's SL Mode store and the two quickly bonded over shared experiences and interests. Today, the Frau lives with Lung and her husband in Long Beach, and the two like to joke that Frau Fiber came out from behind the Iron Curtain while Lung escaped the confines of the Orange Curtain.
Lung sees Frau Fiber as something of a superhero, representing and fighting for the rights of workers everywhere, and herself as the Frau's collaborator, manager and archivist. ILGWU is the Frau's headquarters, experimental factory and archive; Frau is the one who leads the Sewing Rebellion. She has also done some pretty great guerrilla performance interventions, such as the time she visited chain retailers at the Del Amo Fashion Center wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "IN YOUR FACTORY, ARE THE DOORS LOCKED?" -- a reference to the heinous practice that led to the deaths of 146 workers in the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. She proceeded to engage store clerks in conversation about the clothes on the racks, where they were made, and the garment industry's wages and working conditions. Rather than throw her out, the clerks -- who don't generally enjoy great working conditions themselves -- were very interested in what she had to say.
A Fashion District Field Trip with Frau Fiber
I recently had the pleasure of participating in Tailor Made, one of Frau Fiber's ongoing performances in which ILGWU is transformed for a time into a pop-up tailor business. Anyone could go in and ask the Frau to do a mend, an alteration, or even a designer knockoff. The hourly wage for the job would then be determined by spinning the Wheel of Wages, which depicted the typical hourly earnings of garment workers in eight different countries. The highest wage was $3.35 in Mexico, while the lowest was 57 cents in Bangladesh. I decided to have the Frau remake an old wool jacket of mine that had nearly disintegrated from age and wear. I spun the wheel and got the Dominican Republic for $1.39.
I also had to choose and pay for the materials that would go into my new jacket, and the Frau very generously offered to accompany me to Los Angeles' Fashion District to make my selection. I showed up at ILGWU early on a Monday to find the Frau waiting for me in full regalia: a smart uniform that she had made out of a deconstructed men's suit, a worker's hat bearing the label from inside the suit, and a bobbin and sewing scissors hanging from a chain around her neck. Together, we took the Metro Blue Line downtown. It was only a 35-minute trip, but it may as well have been an 11-hour plane ride to any of the countries listed on Frau's wheel. We walked on foot to areas of the city that I have never seen before, or even really knew existed, into a sort of quasi-underground marketplace that was vastly different from the slick, corporate front-end retail outlets I was used to.
Our first stop was the Allied Crafts Building on East Pico, a 1925 loft building that has housed designers and manufacturers for decades. We passed through some truly ornate mural work in the lobby and took one of the ancient lift elevators, which still have to be manned by operators, to visit Jane Palmer's Noon Design Studio, which the Frau described as the country's premier natural dye house. A friend and colleague of the Frau, Palmer had dyed a dress for her in exchange for some sewing work. While they talked business, I checked out Palmer's airy tenth-floor workshop, where two assistants tended to large bolts of white fabric that hung from the ceiling, awaiting the custom addition of color. Sunlight streamed in from the huge windows, illuminating a modern-day business taking place in a beautiful Depression-era setting.
In the hallway, we passed by two open doors that revealed roomfuls of sweatshop workers. These shops looked clean and organized, and Palmer assured us that all the operations on that floor were legal. "You can tell by who ends up staying late after work every night -- the owners or the workers," she explained. "In these shops, the workers all go home at 5 and it's the owners I always see still working at 9 at night." She lamented, however, the presence of a check cashing service in the lobby, where many of the workers line up every payday. Lacking the ability to set up accounts at financial institutions, the workers must fall prey to the service's exorbitant fees.
Back on the street, we continued our walking tour of the district, passing by colorful shops that were stuffed with popular, low-priced offerings like custom-torn denim pants, sun dresses, tank tops, leggings in every color, and of course, quinceanera dresses. When I tried to take photos at one of the shops, I was quickly shooed away by an attendant. Frau explained that people sometimes take photos of these knockoff clothes so that they can either knock them off themselves, or post them to the internet as their own work. I remembered that the same thing had happened to me when I tried to take photos of a high-end design store in Shanghai.
I also learned from the Frau that Los Angeles is one of the few places in the U.S. that still has a thriving manufacturing trade (it's pretty much left New York completely), and that much of it is based on junior jeans and t-shirts, a niche that turns over too quickly to be worth outsourcing to foreign countries.
In the Dominican Republic, You Could Get a Custom Made Jacket for Less Than $80
To complete our mission, we went first to the huge Michael Levine fabric store to get a sense of the range of materials that are on the market. Then we went to the Frau's favorite store, Carmel Fabric on Ninth Street, which boasted a wild selection of offbeat patterned fabrics, including what looked like corporate logo leftovers from the likes of Coca-Cola and Von Dutch. I selected an unusual pale magenta subtle plaid number from the many wools they had available. We also threw in a lovely silk floral to use for the lining. My total cost for about four yards of this stuff was $60.77.
Back in Long Beach, the Frau went to work on my jacket, inviting me into her workshop for two fittings. Between everything else she had going on, it took her a little over two weeks -- a total of about eight hours -- to finish the job. The cost of labor came out to $11.12, bringing the total price of my beautiful custom made wool and silk jacket to $71.89.
I was thrilled, of course, to own my very first piece of tailor-made clothing, that had been constructed by hand with my specific measurements as a guide. At the same time, I was horrified by the ridiculously low price I was paying for good honest labor, and felt complicit in the systemic global exploitation of garment workers. This wonderfully generous hands-on performance by Frau Fiber had given me a working intimacy with an issue that I normally only read about in the papers.
Upcoming ILGWU Events
As word spreads about the great things happening at ILGWU, the place is getting busier and busier. The month of March, which marks the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, is a particularly active one. The Frau will spend the month working on her ongoing Triangle commemorative action, in which she sews an adaptation of the landmark Triangle Shirtwaist workers' blouse with the doors of her space locked. Her eventual goal is to produce 146 of these blouses -- one for each worker who died in the fire.
Lung herself will actually be gone for most of the next several months, as various residencies and speaker gigs take her to the ends of the earth. Not to worry however, as Faux Frau Training took place on March 15 and there are now about a dozen people who are certified to play the role of the Frau while Lung is out of town. Lung has also invited like-minded colleagues, such as Pasadena's Craftswoman House and a few graduate students from Cal State Long Beach's fiber arts program, to conduct residencies at ILGWU while she's gone.
To stay abreast of everything that's happening, join the ILGWU Facebook page.