At the Olympics in London, U.S. athletes are set to parade proudly behind the American flag in opening ceremonies later this month, but their made-in-China uniforms from designer Ralph Lauren are already creating a stir — and it’s not just those wacky berets.
The decision to have the red, white and blue uniforms manufactured in China has provoked a storm of criticism in Congress, where “made in America” is always a popular election-year theme. The issue has rippled across the nation with frustration, resignation and understanding as the preppy outfits unveiled this week drew some unexpected attention.
In response to the controversy, Ralph Lauren Corp. announced Friday that it was committed to producing Team USA uniforms for the 2014 Winter Olympics in America.
“Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government addressing the issue of increasing manufacturing in the United States,” the company said.
But in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest apparel design and manufacturing hubs, the 2012 uniforms were provoking much discussion, outrage, amusement and yes, eye-rolling.
“It’s unpatriotic, and it really speaks very poorly for what we represent as Americans if we send our Olympic team to London wearing garments made in China,” said Galina Sobolev, the designer of high-end Los Angeles clothing line Single. She said she was “appalled” that New York-based Ralph Lauren did not manufacture at least a part of the Olympic uniform in America.
“The Italians would never have their uniforms made in China, they would make them in Italy,” she said.
In the Fashion District downtown, Simon Kay, salesman for an apparel wholesale company, was more resigned. “I don’t like it, but what can I do?” Kay said. “There’s nothing produced in this country anymore except war and bombs.”
In fact, the globalization of manufacturing has long touched Olympic uniforms for Team USA. Many designers pointed out that before Ralph Lauren took over as the official outfitter for the 2008 Olympic Games, Canadian apparel company Roots had designed uniforms for U.S. athletes since 2002.
“Uniforms have been made overseas before. The only difference right now is that the economy is in such bad shape,” said Bonita Mitchell, sales agent for L.A. contemporary clothing line House of Eleven. The firm is providing several outfits for Olympic contestant Dawn Harper, who won a gold medal in 100-meter hurdles in the 2008 Beijing Games.
Mitchell said the U.S. Olympic Committee should have foreseen that worries over a stagnant economy and jobs disappearing overseas might spark anger over uniforms made by China.
“We actually felt sorry for Ralph Lauren because the people handing the PR for this didn’t understand the sensitivity people feel about made in the USA” after the recession, Mitchell said.
The U.S. Olympic Committee defended its choice in a statement.
“Unlike most Olympic teams around the world, theU.S. Olympic Teamis privately funded and we’re grateful for the support of our sponsors,” the committee said. “We’re proud of our partnership with Ralph Lauren, an iconic American company.”
Politicians seized upon the issue this week, with both Democratic and Republican leaders decrying the use of Chinese workers to outfit America’s finest athletes.
In a letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee on Friday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered up Rochester, N.Y.-based male apparel company Hickey Freeman as an alternative to Ralph Lauren to dress Team USA for the opening ceremony.
“I urge you to reconsider your decision to use a Chinese manufacturer for our Olympians’ uniforms and instead give your business to companies such as Hickey Freeman,” Schumer wrote in the letter.
“They should have known better,” House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio) said to reporters Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested that the committee should “burn” all the China-made outfits and “start all over again.”
“I think they should be embarrassed,” Reid said during a news conference Thursday. “If they have to wear nothing but a singlet that says USA on it, painted by hand, then that’s what they should wear.”
Lonnie Kane, president of Los Angeles women’s wear brand Karen Kane, dismissed the hullabaloo as an “uneducated controversy” stirred by politicians eager for the limelight in an election year.
“Obviously Harry Reid doesn’t know much about apparel manufacturing,” Kane said. “I truly understand that it’s nice to have pride in your country and say that everything they are wearing should be American. But in the globalized economy, it just can’t happen like that anymore. You buy an American car and half the parts are from somewhere else.”
Kane questioned why Ralph Lauren was held to a different standard than other retailers providing gear for American athletes.
“If you pick on Nike and look at the track stars racing around in their little track outfits, I doubt they are made in the USA,” Kane said. “I doubt when swimmers get into their full-body swimsuits that they’re made in the USA. They say USA across the front, but they are not made in the USA.”
Even Dov Charney, chief executive of Los Angeles-based American Apparel Inc. and a staunch defender of U.S. manufacturing, was blase about the issue. “The whole thing is ridiculous. No one needs to burn any uniforms,” he said.
And it’s not just the Americans who are compelled to outsource, Charney said. The Russian Olympic team recently approached American Apparel about making their uniforms in the future, he said.
“Everything could be made in L.A. or New York, for probably the same price as overseas,” he said.
Craig Carr, a self-employed costume designer in West Hills, said he “would have preferred to see our Yankee engineering produce the uniform.”
He did like most of the uniform, however. “It’s probably the nicest and cleanest our team has looked in the last four games,” said Carr, 42. “It’s just the military beret stuff. Yuck.”
Clotee McAfee, a former Los Angeles designer who now advises other retailers, said the Olympic uproar was just another sign of how much U.S. manufacturing has changed.
“It’s a commentary on the culture of America because the commitment we have as companies to make things in America is not what it used to be,” McAfee said. “There used to be pride in the ‘Made in USA’ label, and that was what you wanted people to know.”
But now things have become so competitive, retailers want lower prices, consumers want lower prices and everyone is looking for the best deal, she said. “Our priority for where we get garments has become insignificant.”
Times staff write Adam Tschorn contributed to this report.