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December 11, 2017
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Team USA's Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms. Source: forbes.com.

As the world readies itself to behold the spectacle of collective, unrestrained national pride converging on London, numerous nations have begun revealing the sporting ensembles of their prospective heroes. With the navy, double-breasted, gold-buttoned blazers and matching blue berets, Ralph Lauren proffered his proud role as official outfitter of Team USA.

Yet the decorated designer, who famously turned Robert Redford into Jay Gatsby, has been publicly felled by the most unlikely of causes. While the fashion fraternity was busily dissecting the "Americanness" of berets, ABC World News had other matters in mind - namely the origins of Ralph Lauren's Olympic creations. Despite consistently manufacturing Team USA's uniforms in China since taking over the outfitting license in 2008, Ralph Lauren's seemingly unpatriotic production systems became the target of vitriolic political and public debate in the wake of ABC's report.

Yet, [Ralph Lauren] remains a sovereign corporation that, like the United States Olympic Committee, receives no government funding. Should it therefore not be free to pursue the most profitable means of production in the competitive global economy without nationalistic restrictions?

America's political discourse became awash with unlikely alliances as both Republicans and Democrats reproved the designer for demonstrating such blatant disregard for the local apparel manufacturing industry. The admonishments ranged from uncensored disappointment to unapologetic fury. Democratic Representative, Steve Israel from New York opined, "This is the country that landed a man on the moon. We should be able to manufacture clothing for our Olympic athletes." Meanwhile fellow Democrat and Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid insisted, "They should take all the outfits, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over" - a scenario Dov Charney, CEO and founder of American Apparel seemed more than happy to expedite.

Charney gleefully told Fashionista, "The American Apparel factory makes more than 50 million garments a year and that isn't all for our stores. A huge part of the company's business is wholesale and private label... American Apparel could start working on uniforms today and have them in London within 7 days." 

Eager to ensure that American Olympians will never again be subjected to outsourced ceremonial uniforms, six Democratic senators speedily drafted the Team USA: Made in America Act 2012. The legislation is designed to mandate a "procurement policy that requires ceremonial uniforms the USOC purchases or commissions be sewn or assembled in the United States." In explaining the proposal, co-sponsor, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand argued, "The pride of our Olympic athletics [sic] goes hand in hand with the pride of American innovation and manufacturing." Such a whiplash response is perhaps the most obvious nod to the protectionist fiscal policies and nationalistic economic ideology America has been struggling to navigate during this period of prolonged global instability.

American Apparel-style "patriotism."
Source: americanapparel.tumblr.com.

With such a seismic political response to the outsourced uniforms, Ralph Lauren's manufacturing procedures seem to have become a contemporary illustration of what some perceive as The Grapes of Wrath-like exploitation of American industry in the globalised economy. The designer has seemingly become a scapegoat for an apparel industry repeatedly dogged by rising labour costs and troublesome retail returns. As American designer Nanette Lepore argued in ABC's report, "Why shouldn't we have pride not only in the American athletes, but in the American manufacturers and laborers who are the backbone of our country?"

What Lapore failed to mention is that the national apparel manufacturing industry has been in steady decline for more than ten years and currently provides jobs to only 147,300 Americans (a mere 0.04 per cent of the population).

Ralph Lauren, on the other hand, has created more than 10,000 American jobs in the last ten years, mostly in the creative and corporate infrastructure of his company, according to Business Week. Furthermore, the company, which has a market value of approximately US$9 billion, is not alone in furnishing American closets with goods manufactured overseas. The American Apparel and Footwear Association believes up to 98 per cent of clothing sold in America is assembled abroad.

Perhaps the debate surrounding this issue alludes to a greater loss of faith between a patriotically branded corporation and the public. The disenfranchisement of Americans with one of their most iconic national ateliers, based on the origins of its wares, may be a sign of displaced blame for larger economic and infrastructural concerns in America.

Many commentators have suggested that political discourse surrounding this issue was quick to ignite given the patriotic platform it provides politicians, particularly in an election year. Others have noted the ignoble hypocrisy of refuting Olympic products made in China, whilst commending American exports to the world. Xinhua, the Chinese government-run news agency picked up on this note of bitter, unsporting behaviour as it commented, "The Olympic Spirit, which has nothing to do with politics, chants mutual understanding and fair play, so tagging the uniforms with politics by those U.S. politicians exposes narrow nationalism and ignorance, and violates the original Olympic Spirit." Words that must surely grate against an American administration eager to share, not forfeit, future wealth and influence with China.

The Ralph Lauren website home page.
Source: designtrend.com.

Ralph Lauren has consciously scaffolded its brand in glorious, aspirational incarnations of the stars and stripes. Yet, it remains a sovereign corporation that, like the United States Olympic Committee, receives no government funding. Should it therefore not be free to pursue the most profitable means of production in the competitive global economy without nationalistic restrictions? Such free market ideals are indubitably complicated when matters of patriotic Olympic pride and national ceremony intercede. However, in a globalised economy, profit cannot be expected from parochialism. Ralph Lauren may be America's premier luxury outfitter but it is also a publicly listed corporation beholden to the interests of its shareholders. Whilst such concerns may seem indifferent to the Olympic spirit, they are of vital importance to a corporation whose economic success has afforded it the role of a major sponsor of America's Olympic aspirations.

For its part, Ralph Lauren has vowed to produce all further Olympic attire in America, commencing with the wears for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, a move established to restore good faith among the brand and its American consumers. It is doubtful that Ralph Lauren should incur lasting financial or character diminution from this saga, for by the time the dust settles on the gold medal tally, America's shared sporting ambitions will be draped in the patriotic glow of Olympians past and present. 

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