The bitter complexities of fashion found Hoda Katebi long before she found them.
“Growing up in Oklahoma, wearing the hijab, I had to come to terms with being visibly Muslim,” the Iranian American organiser and activist said. “People would call me a terrorist or pretend to run me over.” And when policymakers held up the hijab and women’s rights as part of the rationale for military action in Afghanistan or economic sanctions on Iran, she said, “that’s when I started really thinking about clothes.”
A decade and a half later, Katebi, 27, has become a leading critic of the global garment industry, particularly its fast-fashion sector. Where many of us might avoid peering too closely at our wardrobe’s iffy provenance, Katebi has devoted herself to that hidden world — and to ultimately tearing it down.
“Rather than just, say, campaigning to get garment workers paid a dollar more,” she said, “we’re calling for an end to the system that puts workers in these positions to begin with.”
The “we” there is Blue Tin Production, a small apparel manufacturing workers’ cooperative in Chicago run by working-class women of colour, which Katebi founded in 2019. Blue Tin executes clothing contracts in ways that are antithetical to the contemporary sweatshop: full equity and transparency, no exploitation, abuse or greenwashing (a term applied when a company exaggerates its eco-consciousness). The goal is to produce high-quality luxury apparel while shining a light on systemic issues stitched into fashion.
In addition to running Blue Tin, Katebi works as a community organiser, speaker and writer, all while attending law school at the University of California, Berkeley. “I run on saffron ice cream and coloniser tears,” she said. (The following interview has been condensed and edited.)
Q: What does abolitionism mean in the context of your work?
A: Fast fashion is a very specific type of manufacturing, basically focused on speed and output. While the rest of the fashion industry usually works on a four-season year, fast fashion works on 52: There’s a new season every week. There’s no way that amount of product can be created in a way that’s ethical or sustainable. The system requires violence in order to function. Assaults on workers by managers are common, on top of the general subjugation and enforced poverty that give people little choice but to do this work.
That violence can’t be reformed away. An easy analogy is slavery — you can ask slave owners to be nicer, but the institution is inherently violent. So Blue Tin is an abolitionist response to the fast-fashion industry.
Q: How did fashion become your focus?
A: I discovered fashion blogs just before college. It was a fun outlet. But some of my favourite people were working with brands on the BDS list, (a list of companies and individuals that support Israel). They weren’t thinking about the politics behind the aesthetics. When I created my first website, it was to push people to think about their clothes in a more complex and nuanced way.
Everything relates to fashion. Fashion is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, for example — it contributes more greenhouse gases than all of maritime shipping and air travel combined, (according to figures from the United Nations Environment Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
Then there’s the connection between sustainability and policing, which upholds the ability for cheap labour to exist. That, in turn, allows certain neighbourhoods to be disproportionately impacted by, say, a coal power plant that pollutes the air, which in turn keeps the community there from thriving. Any issue that you care about, you can find in fashion.
On top of that, 1 in 6 people in the world works in the fashion industry. No one knows this because the majority of them are working-class women of colour and farmers.
Q: Can you provide an example of how this system resists change?
A: In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, factories will intentionally hire undocumented workers and then not pay them for months. When the workers get upset, management calls (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and has a self-reported raid of their own factory. Some of our former Blue Tin members have gone through that process.
Q: What are your biggest challenges at Blue Tin?
A: Abolition means putting an end to this industry, and it also means thinking about the world we want to create in its place. How can we create clothes in a way that’s not violent? That feels like a low bar, but it’s extremely complicated and stressful. I cry about once a week.
Q: How does that play out on a day-to-day basis?
A: At Blue Tin we try to prioritise people who are “unhirable” by the labour industry’s standards. That means people who may not speak English, or who have child care needs, or maybe they need to sit and process the trauma that they’ve been through because they’re domestic violence survivors. People who our systems have harmed in different ways.
The year we started, one of our members got a call that her uncle and his 8-year-old son were killed in bombings in Damascus, Syria. We asked her, “What do you need in this moment?” We stopped production to go on a walk with her and to build care around her. So we were very behind on our production, and we lost that client. At the end of the day, we live in a capitalist world. We can’t create a utopia — so the question is, how can we create the best of what this can be, even if it’s flawed?
Q: I’ve noticed that you tend not to use the word “refugees” when describing the Blue Tin team, though others do.
A: For me, the class part is more important than the identity part because I hate identity politics. And “immigrant” and “refugee” have become catchphrases in the fashion industry. People are like, “Aw, a cute sewing circle of immigrant women.”
The team didn’t want to be framed by their trauma. We’re trying to completely reimagine the fashion industry and build garment worker power, so brands should work with us because of these incredible skill sets and backgrounds, not because they feel bad. Oh, sure, go for the PR; I don’t care. But really it’s the beautiful clothes, and them bringing art and craftsmanship back to fashion where it belongs.
Q: What’s everyone working on now?
A: Right now they’re in “panty purgatory,” as they call it. They’ve been making underwear nonstop, for a big client. I think that’s finally done, but we’re basically panty entrepreneurs now.
Q: How did your consciousness around these issues take shape?
A: A lot of my values come from Islamic values of divine compassion and divine mercy. Those don’t sound radical, but it actually is a radical demand that we instead live in a world of compassion and mercy.
So I’m all for an assault on empire and capitalism. But some nurturing is required, too. You have to hold both at the same time. I guess you throw your Molotov, but you also give someone a hug. — NYT