This dissertation explores the global fashion industry through Material Intimacies, the social relationships and intimate encounters of new classes of fashion workers in the material and immaterial making of fashion. Countering the impersonal forces of economics and anonymity that often characterize the global fashion industry, this dissertation illuminates the intimacies involved in the everyday work of fashion among new classes of fashion workers. While scholars continue to describe the emergence of the global fashion industry through its global commodity chains and circuits of consumption, this dissertation argues instead for the intimate realms of fashion production: in the affectations for fashion worlds and imaginaries, in the formation of new social relationships and practices which have connected vast garment industries with fashion worlds, and the socialization processes which have inspired new workers into fashion. These fashion workers have refigured the meaning of labor and creativity in their everyday work, the meaning of value in the things they make, and have powerfully shaped new material realities in their forming of new social and cultural worlds. In search of “the global fashion industry,” Material Intimacies locates it in the intimate encounters and social relationships which are the global connections that enact and drive the industry.
Based on three years of ethnographic field research in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Guangzhou, and Seoul, and drawn from participant observation, interviews, and social and oral histories, this dissertation explores design studios, corporations, showrooms, factories, and schools to connect the experiences of fashion workers with new forms of creative practice and labor emerging from the global fashion industry. Ironically, these new collectives of fashion workers emerge from the most peripheral of spaces and have become central to the creation of material and immaterial values that now drive and reproduce the industry. They include immigrant garment workers creatively making the runway collections for New York Fashion Week; Asian American fashion students attending New York design schools and as fashion designers, redefining the aesthetics of American fashion; Korean fashion migrant workers working as technical design laborers in Seventh Avenue design corporations; and first generation Korean Brazilian American fashion designers connecting their parents’ manufacturing factories in Asia with the giants of corporate retail in the Americas. Drawn to fashion to pursue creativity in work, they expose a puzzling paradox; while reproducing a system that endlessly values profit and capital accumulation, they themselves seek and embody values of the opposite: the pursuit of creativity, beauty, work with family, creating social ties through their everyday practice of work. Countering the impersonal forces of economics that reduce the global fashion industry to a world of buyers, sellers, producers and consumers, these fashion workers paint an intimate landscape of ongoing transnational social ties and cultural exchange, challenging the anonymity of how global capitalism operates.