Sweatshop-free fashion on stage


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – The models sashaying down the aisle were young and gorgeous, but that wasn’t the point of this fashion show in San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall.

Four Jewish organizations presented “Rags to Righteousness: From the Red Sea to the Red Carpet” April 24 to promote clothing manufacturers that employ fair labor practices, eschewing the sweatshop conditions still present in the industry.

“The sweatshop issue is a feel-bad issue, so this is a feel-good moment where we are celebrating people who treat their workers right,” said Rachel Biale, director of the Bay Area branch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. “And you can shop while you’re at it.”

The other presenters were the American Jewish World Service, Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps Partnership and The Hub of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The connection between fair labor practices and Jewish values was front and center in a show that gleefully lampooned the fashion industry.

Young activists from Bay Area Jewish organizations modeled as the emcees read their social justice credentials like fake bios.

The show followed the order of the Passover seder, as models pranced and preened on the catwalk, showing off clothing and accessories made by 11 local companies that employ good labor practices and use sustainable, recycled and/or organic materials, according to the show’s organizers.

“Here’s Karpas, a green activist,” said Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Temple Emanu-El, the co-emcee for the evening, as she introduced one young woman sporting a gown made from organic cotton and a sprig of green leaves in her hair.

“Urchatz,” or the ritual washing of the hands, was represented by Ariel Vegosen brandishing a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s organic soap. Cole Krawitz demonstrated “yachatz,” the breaking of the middle matzah, by cracking a matzah in half across his knee before showing off his sweat-free shirt and pants.

The show was an outgrowth of the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s Kosher Clothes campaign, which has persuaded a number of Jewish summer camps and youth groups to buy T-shirts and other clothing from an approved list of sweat-free manufacturers.

The campaign targets Jewish teenagers with the message that unfair labor practices did not end with the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 but continue today, particularly in the Third World countries that produce most of the clothing purchased in the United States.

Last week’s show, as well as a similar one held recently in Los Angeles, was intended to show clothes buyers how to put their money to ethical use, according to the alliance’s program associate, Zach Lazarus, the producer of both shows.

“I’ve given a lot of workshops, and people always say, ‘I’ll get my organization to buy sweat-free, but how can I do it myself?’ ” Lazarus said. “Retail is a cutthroat industry. To hold onto your values in that situation is so hard, we want to honor those that do it.”

Zach Wasserman, 17, of Berkeley was one of the models. He represented Jewish Youth for Community Action, a teen organization that promotes social justice.

Wasserman, who photographs demonstrations as part of his activist work, said he wasn’t really aware of the sweatshop-labor issue until he became involved in the fashion show.

“This is about bringing together activists from many organizations to focus on this one issue,” he said. “And it’s easy – there’s a store four blocks from my home that sells sweat-free clothing.”

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