It’s a case of fashion on the front lines.
The topic of immigration and the current administration’s stance regarding undocumented workers has galvanized the industry. With a largely foreign-born engine, it’s mission critical for the fashion world to not only retain the workers and talent it has, but to help foster reform to make the pathway to growth an easier one to tread.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America and Fwd.us released a report Monday calling for critical reforms in the U.S. immigration policy to create jobs in the U.S. fashion industry.
A press conference was held to detail the results. Speakers included CFDA chairwoman Diane von Furstenberg; CFDA president and chief executive officer Steven Kolb; Fwd.us president Todd Schulte; Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and designers Phillip Lim, Maxwell Osborne, Dao-Yi Chow, Bibhu Mohapatra, Robert Geller and Waris Ahluwalia were among those in attendance.
Fwd.us is a bipartisan organization started by leaders in the tech and business communities to promote policies to keep the U.S. and its citizens competitive in a global economy, beginning with immigration reform and criminal justice reform.
The speakers highlighted critical policy changes that would promote industry growth and create opportunities for international designers and investors to come to the U.S. and create American jobs. They also discussed reforms to address the legal status of the largely foreign-born workforce of seamstresses, tailors and garments workers, many of whom are undocumented.
According to the report, the two key concerns are access and retention of top foreign talent, and the difficulty and high cost of navigating the country’s existing immigration system. The report makes several recommendations to remedy these concerns including reforming and expanding the H-1B and O-1 high-skilled visas, creating a start-up visa so that foreign-born entrepreneurs can build companies and create American jobs, and establishing a process for undocumented immigrants to earn legal status after successfully passing a background check.
The report noted that commonsense visa reform that revamps the visa system strengthens border security and creates a path to legal status for the undocumented community would expand the U.S. economy by roughly 5 percent in GDP.
Kolb said the joint report details “the impact of the broken and outdated immigration system on the U.S. fashion industry.”
“As an industry we are struggling to navigate uncertainty over the future of immigration policy under the current administration. It has impacted the ability of designer brands and schools to recruit foreign talent and students,” said Kolb. He said that if the U.S. wants to lead the world in fashion innovation, “we need immigration policies that embrace talented foreigners who want to come here and build and grow.”
As an immigrant herself, von Furstenberg spoke about how she left Europe in 1970 with a suitcase full of dresses. “The soul of this great nation called to me then and provided me with an opportunity to build a global fashion business and become the woman I wanted to be. I was welcome here with open arms and I’ve lived the American dream.” She has built her brand around the world with the help of “many immigrants who shared my dream,” she said.
In the fashion world, stories like hers are not uncommon. “Immigrants have been the heart of our industry. They have built the largest fashion houses of America. “Just listen to the mosaic of languages you hear in showrooms and backstage at fashion shows. Immigrants are American fashion,” she said.
Today, entrepreneurs no longer have the same opportunities to come to the U.S. and succeed, she said. “It is more challenging to hire and retain foreign talent. Our immigrant system is confusing. This must change, to remain competitive and create jobs for our country,” she said.
Underscoring the importance of the fashion industry, Schulte pointed out there are 900 fashion companies in New York, two schools are at the center of the universe (Fashion Institute of Technology, and The New School’s Parsons School of Design), and 6 percent of the New York City workforce is in fashion, or 180,000 people.
“When we talk about the economic impact, it’s about an industry that brings jobs here to the U.S., that by being an industry, is creating more jobs with an incredibly economic multiplier,” said Schulte.
He spoke about how dated the current immigration legislation is. Schulte said The Immigration and Nationality Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The last time it was updated was 27 years ago, under the Immigration Act of 1990. “We think we should modernize our legal system and should have a pathway for the undocumented,” he said.
The first priority is to retain foreign-born students. “We have the best and the brightest, [who] are going to school here and are being educated,” he said. The question is whether they’ll be able to stay in the U.S. and build a company here that employs thousands of American workers. Or will we say, ‘Thanks for coming here to school, New York City is great, go back and create jobs somewhere else?’”
International students can apply for Optional Practical Training, which permits them to work temporarily in fields directly related to their major area of study. While there is an extensive list of majors (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, for example) fashion design and fashion tech majors are not included.
He said the key is to make it easier for students to stay and get a different visa so they can stay permanently.
The second priority is to improve access to foreign-born talent, which has to do with the 0-1 visa. He said the question is how one fixes and modernizes the U.S. legal visa system, so highly skilled immigrants at U.S. universities or coming in afterward can be the centerpiece of job creation.
He also noted that 20 percent of the fashion workforce, nearly 30,000 people, are undocumented in this country. “We believe we should create a pathway so they can earn legal status and eventually citizenship. That’s the right thing to do for them, it’s the right thing to do for the workforce and the right thing to do for all of us,” he said.
Congresswoman Maloney also spoke of the impact of immigration reform on the fashion industry. She noted that fashion is the third-largest employer in the city of New York; the city is the fashion capital of the U.S., and New York City is the fashion capital of the world in terms of output and sales. “It is larger than Milan and Paris and Rome. It is big business and we need to do everything we can to help keep this business vibrant and growing,” she said.
She also said the fashion industry alone generated over $900 million to the economic growth of New York City, larger than the marathon, U.S. Open and the Super Bowl.
Maloney noted that the two fashion schools are among the top 10 fashion schools in the world. Forty percent of the students coming from FIT come from other countries and over 12 percent come from other countries to Parsons. “We need to make sure they can stay here, not only to educate them but to be able to contribute to our economy and be able to help make it grow.”
She also cited the Optional Practical Training exemption for the STEMs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to allow international students to stay. “We need to have an exemption for fashion which allows them to stay. We think we should have our own fashion visa,” she said.
She noted that fashion jobs are growing not only in New York, but also Los Angeles, San Francisco, Memphis and even North Carolina. “There are fashion hubs around our country that are employing a great number of people,” she said. “If we don’t reform our immigration laws and bring them to the 21st century so that we can keep the base of talented young people, we are only hurting our country,” said Maloney.
She plans to work with Fwd.us and the CFDA on legislation that they can collectively get behind “that will allow us to train and keep fashion students and to bring talented designers, cutters and seamstresses and other parts of this dynamic business here to our country. It’s in our own national interest,” said Maloney, noting she will work on her part in Washington, D.C.
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, “We understand the reality of our immigration system is not just a Republican issue. It is Republican and Democrat and everyone’s issue. We have to come across the aisle,” she said. She said the concern is “this broken system is now on steroids,” and what the implications are of that. “We know immigration is about fashion, it is about food, and everything we breathe and eat,” she said. She said she’s grateful for leaders like von Furstenberg.
“It’s a part of who we are as a nation….it’s what makes this country exceptional. Here in New York City we know how true it is,” she said. She noted that roughly 60 percent of New Yorkers are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. “We know that in order for our city to thrive, it is imperative that immigrants, particularly those that are undocumented, remain active participants in city life and have the opportunity to contribute positively,” she said.
She said she was glad the report addressed “creating a pathway for citizenship which is so important.”
Mark-Viverito said some people are trying to push out “their alternative facts” about immigrants and are attempting to “villify an entire community, or road block every attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but the reality is immigrants are in many ways, the economic engine of our nation,” she said.
The Center for American Progress put out a study last year noting that in 2013, immigrants added $1.6 trillion to the total U.S. GDP. She said that there are other reports noting that many industries would suffer with the absence of immigrant workers.
Last year, she commissioned a study of what the implications would be for New York City if mass deportation were to happen. “Undocumented immigrants contribute $793 million annually in state and city taxes, and would contribute an additional $176 million if they got their pathway to citizenship.” She said deportation would lead to a decline of 340,000 jobs.
“At the end of the day, immigrants are part of the social and economic fabric of our city and our country, and we’re stronger because of them, and we are a safer city because of them,” she said. “We continue to look at policies and laws we can enact, that upholds those values which is an inclusive society that really rewards those that are contributing positively. Whatever next steps you choose to do, you know you have an ally in me.”