In a break with other trade groups in the apparel business, the National Retail Federation has decided to support a Smithsonian Institution exhibit on sweatshops, a project it had previously opposed.
The federation had joined the American Apparel Manufacturers Assn. and the California Fashion Assn. in denouncing plans for the exhibit, which is to open April 22 at the national museum in Washington, D.C.
The retail association had said that the exhibit, which will include a re-creation of the slave-like conditions imposed upon Thai immigrants at an El Monte sweatshop, would be an unbalanced presentation that would portray retailers and apparel manufacturers negatively.
However, the retail group said it changed its position after one of its officers toured the nearly completed exhibit.
"Based on our early discussions, we believed they would point the finger at us and portray us as callous and unethical," said NRF head Tracy Mullin. "Since then, we learned that the exhibit will be much more balanced. . . .
"It's a chance for us to begin to show the American people how difficult it is for retailers to tackle this problem," said Mullin, who disclosed the federation's new position in interviews with The Times this week. "There has to be a partnership with manufacturers. And there has to be a partnership with the Department of Labor. . . . If we have a partnership, we can deal with this problem, and I think the exhibit moves us toward that partnership."
The Washington-based retail group hopes to raise $20,000 from its membership, which includes more than 2,000 retail companies, to help finance the exhibit. The NRF will also provide a facsimile of a 1996 newspaper ad in which it outlined an anti-sweatshop code of conduct and principles.
On the other hand, the Arlington, Va.-based American Apparel Manufacturers Assn. and the California Fashion Assn., a group that represents apparel producers in Southern California, remain opposed.
"If the exhibit is based on the original proposal, we have to oppose it," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California group. Peter Liebhold, co-curator of exhibit, said the Smithsonian has made no changes.
The exhibit's centerpiece chronicles the ordeal of about 70 illegal Thai immigrants working in peonage to sew garments for brand-name apparel makers and retailers. The workers, who were held against their will at an El Monte apartment complex by a ring of Thai nationals, were liberated by state labor department officials and police in a 1995 raid.
The exhibit--dubbed "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialogue on American Sweatshops, 1820-Present"--will also delve into broader issues such as the historic relationship between immigration and sweatshops and how the pressure of low-priced imports prompts some domestic contractors to underpay workers to stay competitive.
However, the exhibit will also include "best practices" sections that cite models of conduct by retailers and manufacturers. Curators say they have sought such material from those industries since the project's conception.
Kmart Corp. and Levi Strauss, companies that agreed to support the exhibit last year, contributed materials. TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford, caught up in the sweatshop controversy when it was revealed that some of her signature line of clothing for Wal-Mart was produced in sweatshops, will provide an essay.
The exhibit will be unveiled at an April 21 opening featuring U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and apparel union labor leaders, a gathering the NRF now plans to attend.
"It was a matter of raising their comfort level by informing them of what we're trying to do and explaining why it's important for Americans to see a show like this," said co-curator Liebhold. "History shines a light on heroes but it's equally important to remember the bad and the tragic because we need to learn from those experiences."