Define American talk at Levi's

President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration is less than a month away but Jose Antonio Vargas is already working to engage fashion companies in one of the most important issues facing the industry in 2017: immigration.

Vargas, the founder and chief executive officer of a Los Angeles-based media and cultural organization called Define American that aspires to highlight immigration issues in a similar way that GLAAD has checked lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning coverage, is scoping New York Fashion Week as a venue to reach designers, several of whom are immigrants or employ immigrants in jobs ranging from models to sewers at their companies.

“It’s the first fashion week of the Trump administration,” said Vargas, an undocumented immigrant who was a staff writer on The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. “Immigration is the least-understood issue in America. People don’t know how it works. Raising awareness and starting conversations is one way to start. We want to do that in the fashion industry.”

Vargas took the first step on Dec. 16, speaking at Levi Strauss & Co.’s San Francisco headquarters through an invitation from the denim company’s foundation. While a couple of employees questioned why an undocumented immigrant who broke the law should be allowed to have a platform there, Vargas recognized the significance of speaking to a crowd of some 100 people, including Levi’s former ceo and current chairman emeritus Bob Haas. In addition to creating a globally recognized American fashion brand, Levi’s pioneered a staple of the American uniform and evolved into a progressive corporation.

“It’s like Coke and M&Ms,” Vargas said. “You know they are American.”

Levi’s acknowledged that a topic like immigration, which stirs a mix of reactions and emotions, fits within its brand. “If we are an American icon, what we say about America matters,” said Daniel Lee, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, who moderated the Q&A with Vargas. “A hallmark of our 164-year-old history is our legacy of standing at the forefront of championing basic human rights issues like HIV-AIDS, LGBTQ equality and immigration. Living our values, time and again, we’ve seen company leaders, employees and family shareholders put the company and its voice, reputation and influence on the line to stand up for what’s right.”

Define American has received a $50,000 grant from Levi’s foundation. Elise Haas, Bob Haas’ daughter, sits on Define American’s board of trustees. Vargas’ talk at Levi’s provoked attendees to delve into the issue.

“Given that LS & Co. is a values-driven organization, Jose’s challenging remarks were well-received and prompted a great deal of reflection,” Bob Haas said. “I doubt that many other companies would have convened a session like this.”

Added Mary Jo Nash, Levi’s human resources director: “A proud moment at LS & Co.”

The fashion industry is one of the high-profile sectors that Define American aims to influence. Founded five years ago, it opened its office in L.A.’s Fashion District. Still, it’s made more progress within Hollywood, having invested in a department that focuses on entertainment companies’ portrayal of immigrants. Chris Weitz, the Oscar-nominated producer and director who has made movies such as “About a Boy,” “A Single Man” and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” is a member of its advisory board.

“In some way, this industry has been relatively quiet about this issue,” Vargas said in reference to apparel companies’ reluctance to take a public stand on immigration. “There is certainly a lot of visibility about LGBTQ issues and to a certain extent the Black Lives Matter movement and definitely climate change.”

Even though Vargas conceded that he, like millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., is at the mercy of Trump and the uncertainty of his administration’s stance on deportations, he plans to continue raising awareness about immigration across the country. Over the past five years, he’s held more than 800 events in all of the 50 states except Alaska and Mississippi and visited 370 college campuses.

“Creating bridges of empathy is more important than ever,” he said. “That not only happens in our schools and churches and community centers, it also happens at work.”