[Reader-list] Poverty-Chic: Diesel's New Line

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Sun Aug 24 03:49:38 IST 2003

Poverty-Chic: Diesel's New Line

Kimi Eisele, Pacific News Service
August 20, 2003
Viewed on August 22, 2003

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

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

More information about the reader-list mailing list