The tapestry dress was heavily decorated, with a contrasting pattern of gold, red, and blue radiating from the bodice to slim elbow-length sleeves and on down to a skirt hitting mid-calf. It looked like something off the racks at London’s Biba, with a boho edge but sharp detailing that hinted at hours of painstaking labor. The label? French couture house Lanvin.
The piece (priceless secondhand clothing is called that, much like a Damien Hirst print or Tracey Emin embroidery) isn’t for sale in any of the high-rent vintage boutiques dotting Manhattan – at least, not yet. Instead, I spotted it in a box of similarly precious cast-offs at a textile recycling factory in Clifton, New Jersey.
Trans-Americas Trading Co. sorts through a whopping 70,000 pounds of used clothing every day. Less than 1 percent of that reaches the discerning eyes of its vintage department manager, Emma Allen, who sorts the awe-inducing (YSL ‘70s utilitarian jacket, a paper-like Issey Miyake column dress) from the simply stellar (Norma Kamali zebra-print silk pants, a black Margiela blazer). The rest of the good stuff, perhaps sans designer label but in impeccable condition and possessing an au courant silhouette, is classified into scores of categories for easy browsing. The forty or so regular clients of Trans-Americass’ vintage department – expensive, carefully-curated shops that make New York’s best-of lists year after year – trek out to the factory to stock up on looks that Allen, with the help of an experienced line crew, have culled from the innumerable bales of clothing unloaded at the warehouse each morning at 7 am sharp.
Looking for sweaters? No problem. Trans-Americas has pre-sorted them into “fisherman/folkloric,” “mohair,” “metallic,” “cardigan,” “patterned ‘80s,” “ethnic” and more. One box of dresses yields a trove of “special costumes” culled from The Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Opera in London. Newer categories are created to fill a demand for trendy items: riding pants, bomber jackets, vintage wedding dresses, boy-fit oxford shirts, rompers or playsuits, acid-wash denim and ‘80s windbreakers, which Allen informs me are especially popular in London. “I don’t see the fashion world as a linear progression of trends from the top down,” she says. “Working here you see how vintage stores and stylists influence street style as well as high fashion, and vice versa. People in the industry find drop-crotch sari pants here at the factory to use for styling or to sell, and then you see those same pants being manufactured [for the mass market] the next season.”
At the end of the day, after the breakfast bell at 9:10 am and the lunch bell at 12:10, Allen invites me to do a little perusing of my own – all in the name of research, of course. Wading through a chest-high cardboard box of ethnic dresses, I stumble upon a Mexican shift in white cotton with colorful crocheted embroidery across the neckline and sleeves. Done. I also pick up a blue-and-white checked boy’s Western shirt, an alligator envelope clutch and a Liberty print silk scarf (contemporary Target collaboration be damned!).
The real score is a piece that previously existed only in my wildest sartorial dreams. As a jacket whore, I was seduced by its bracelet sleeves, swingy silhouette and stand-up collar. As someone who is frequently called cold-blooded, I was enamored with its black wool and cashmere shell, smooth to the touch and absent of pilling. As an aspiring label snob, I was downright tickled with the Gianni Versace Couture tag stitched in metallic thread inside. Who in the hell would throw this away?
It is estimated that around 80 percent of the 2.5 billion pounds of clothing donated by Americans each year is trucked off to places like Trans-Americas, which pay charities – and county-run collection bins – a rate of ten to fifteen cents per pound for the privilege of sorting through them first. Textile recycling is a thin margin, high volume business (Goodwill Industries, according to a 2002 New York Times feature by George Packer, estimates its own number of re-recycled materials at around 50 percent.) There simply isn’t enough retail space to hold the volume of donated clothing, and much of what’s given away is unwearable anyway. The lowest tie of used clothing – called “wiper grade” at Trans-Americas in reference to its eventual fate as recycled cleaning textiles – amounts to half of what the factory brings in on a daily basis.
Despite what Packer describes as the “whiff of secrecy and even shame [that] still clings to the used-clothing trade, left over from the days of shtetl Jews and Lower East Side rag dealers,” Trans-Americas owner Eric Stubin – the third generation of the Stubin family to operate the business – sticks to the party line, highlighting both the money made by charities in the resale process and the viewpoint that “Used clothing is the only affordable means for [third world citizens] to put quality clothing on their bodies.”
The final destination for the used clothing not recycled into insulation or furniture stuffing, or pored over by fashionista’s looking for the couture bargain of the season is the third world. The clothes are repackaged and shipped overseas to secondary markets at a bulk rate: “Premium” goes to Eastern Europe, where demand dictates pristine clothing that may be a year or two behind the fashion trends; “Grade One” heads to more affluent African nations; “Grade Two” is resold in vast secondhand markets in the poorer regions of Africa. “Grade Two” (embodied by the Penn t-shirt in Packer’s feature for the Times) retains some utility but may have holes, rips or stains.
Morning at the New Jersey factory
Despite the fact that modern rag houses keep those 2.5 billion pounds of donated clothing out of a landfill (textile waste comprises approximately 4.5 percent of landfills, and closer to 7 percent in New York State), they’re still, largely, hush hush locations. As fascinating as the textile recycling supply chain may be to outsiders, upscale shoppers would rather hear that an “estate sale” or “great-aunt Mimi” is the provenance of that vintage Pucci caftan. So while a costume director shopping for a film (Son of No One! Starring Al Pacino and Channing Tatum! Out in 2011!) may be willing to confess where she found her costumes, boutiques and retail corporations looking for one-of-a-kind designer pieces or a boatload of perfectly worn denim are keeping their lips zipped on where they find their stash.