New York City’s garment district has been a microcosm of the American economy for the past century. It was the place for new immigrants to start climbing the ladder. During the early twentieth century, the industry absorbed Italians and Eastern European Jews who called it the schmatta business (Yiddish for “rags”). Later, Latinos and other ethnicities flowed in. For a period, the clothing industry was the biggest employer in the United States, producing ninety-five per cent of the country’s garments. Today that figure has plummeted to five per cent.
In Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, director Marc Levin explores this dramatic shift in statistics by looking at the historical context and human faces behind it. In his long and diverse career, Levin has made documentaries about gangs, prisons and anti-Semitism. He has had two films screen at the Festival, including Slam, a dramatic feature that captured the zeitgeist of street poetry in the nineties. His keen ear for urban language is put to good use in Schmatta as he interviews a wide range of garment-district inhabitants, from cloth cutters to shop owners. These outspoken New Yorkers are the authentic versions of ethnic characters that Hollywood often turns into stereotypes.
Recent documentaries such as Valentino: The Last Emperor and The September Issue have shown us life at the top of the fashion industry. In Schmatta, we see all the steps below. With well-chosen archival footage, Levin looks back to key historical moments. The deadly 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory gave momentum to organized labour. By 1960, politicians like John F. Kennedy were actively courting the mighty garment union. But in the eighties, Ronald Reagan rolled back unions while new trade agreements sent jobs abroad.
Against this backdrop, Schmatta documents the current post-crash economy. We hear from freshly unemployed workers who put on a brave face, preserve their humour and try to make sense of the changing landscape. The shops stemming off Seventh Avenue that once hummed with sewing machines are being converted for upscale renters. If this gargantuan industry can be reduced to such a fraction, what does it mean for the rest of us? [Thom Powers, Toronto International Film Festival, 2009]