Poverty-Chic: Diesel's New Line

TUCSON, Ariz.--As the number of undocumented, would-be migrant workers found dead in the deserts of the Southwest since last October climbs into the hundreds, why does a multi-million dollar European clothing company want me to dress like a Spanish-speaking laborer?

Earlier this summer, as I read news reports of deadly crossings along the U.S.-Mexican border, I caught a preview for the new fall line from Diesel, the Italian clothing company, on display at one of its New York flagship stores. Mannequins dressed in gray-blue and green uniform-like garments stood with shovels and pickaxes at their sides and stacks of burlap sacks at their feet. Spelled out in the lower left-hand corner of the window was the line's title: "Trabajadores," Spanish for "workers."

I tried to piece it all together.

Though Diesel's jeans are made solely in Italy, many of its other garments are manufactured overseas, where offshore production zones (in Mexico, Guatemala and Taiwan, for example) provide the benefits of low taxes, low wage standards, lax regulations and limited unionization. That meant that some of the workers who had stitched and sewn the clothing in the window had probably labored in countries where they really would be called "trabajadores." And then there were the hundreds of thousands who have left such jobs in Latin America and migrated to cities like Chicago, Omaha, New York, Rome, and Madrid, where chances are they're still called "trabajadores."

Borrowing (or co-opting) real-life "looks" and marketing them to the masses is standard fashion fare. Remember the ripped-jeans heroin addict and the baggy-pants gangster looks from the 1990s? It's been hip to look poor for a few years now. But why the toiling attire? I went inside the Diesel store to dig up more.

"Personally, I think it's about Communism," the Diesel sales rep whispered to me. "The shovels, the drab colors, the similar styles for men and women. It's all very equal. It's, like, celebrating the worker."

Possibly. After all, Diesel clothes, as the company's subhead proclaims, are "For Successful Living." But the last time I checked, washing dishes, digging ditches, and sewing garments -- the jobs that trabajadores often do -- weren't considered glamorous. More important, the illegal status of many immigrants means they are easily exploited and grossly underpaid. If we really want to celebrate the trabajadores, we'll have to do a lot more than dress like them.

So maybe this was some new utopian vision. According to the downloadable press pack available on its Web site, Diesel views the world as "a single, borderless macro-culture." Maybe the sales rep was right. Maybe we are all equal. Or maybe, as advertisers know so well, we just want to pretend we are.

A few years ago Diesel put out a series of advertisements that aimed to turn everyday media representations of Africa (poverty, AIDS, civil war) upside down. The ads showed black models (hence, Africans) in Diesel clothing frolicking at luxurious parties a la bella gente. Superimposed on the images were faux newspaper headlines reporting strife and financial collapse in America and Europe.

The point? I'm not sure, but in 2001 the campaign won the Grand Prix for Press and Poster Award in Cannes.

It's the kind of advertising that tricks consumers who have a certain dose of social consciousness. It banks on the fact that some of us will eventually relax our commitments to justice in exchange for hip-ness. That we'll see the drab worker clothing and fall for it: "Sweatshops are sooo passé. Workers unite!"

The UHC Collective, an organization based in Manchester, England, that makes political art and propaganda, doesn't agree. They've run "subvertisements" mocking Diesel ("Die Sell," they call it) and hope that the advertising strategies of companies like Diesel will eventually backfire. As one UHC member wrote in an e-mail message, "They sell 'anarcho-styled' clothes, so why not take them at their word and organize a mass shop lift? If companies are going to dabble in these kinds of politics they'll get what's coming to them."

Perhaps. More likely, people will simply buy the "Trabajadores" clothing without much thought. Even if the ads do create a stir, in the end, the success of such campaigns comes from the fact that eventually shoppers forget the controversy and simply remember the brand name.

After a few weeks the fall preview display came down, leaving me to wait until September to see what comes of the "Trabajadores" line. In the meantime, I wonder if we're truly moving toward Diesel's borderless world of cultural equality. Or, to paraphrase a character in George Orwell's "Animal Farm," we're all equal -- but some of us are more equal than others.

Kimi Eisele lives in Tucson, Ariz., where she mentors teenagers in writing and interviewing for 110 Degrees, a magazine about urban culture.

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