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Television Review

HBO stitches stories of N.Y. garment trade

Joe Raico, a fabric cutter, in HBO’s “Schmatta.’’ Joe Raico, a fabric cutter, in HBO’s “Schmatta.’’ (Blowback Productions)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 19, 2009

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New York has a way of linking its street map to its better-known businesses. Broadway is synonymous with theater, of course. Wall Street indicates finance, 52d Street once meant jazz, and Seventh Avenue encompasses the garment industry - everything from sweatshops to Fashion Week.

For decades, that industry was New York’s largest employer. “Schmatta: From Rags to Riches to Rags,’’ which airs tonight on HBO, is a very lively - and rather muddled - documentary about the city and the garment trade.

“Schmatta’’ means “rags’’ in Yiddish; and at every level, from lowliest seamstress to flashiest designer to wealthiest executive, the business has been an ethnic enclave and haven for immigrants. The predominant group has been Jewish, but as “Schmatta’’ shows, Italians and now Hispanics and Asians have populated Seventh Avenue, too.

Traditionally, the garment trade has been a ladder to the middle class. That that has changed is a prevailing theme of “Schmatta.’’ Period footage shows the rise of unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America during the ’30s and ’40s. And various talking heads testify to how a rising tide lifted all boats in the business during the ’50s and ’60s.

Then manufacturing began to shift overseas. In 1965, 95 percent of all clothing purchased in the United States was made here. Today, the number is just 5 percent. “Nobody wants to manufacture,’’ laments a factory owner. “Everybody wants to broker.’’

The free market that giveth also is the free market that taketh away. We hear in “Schmatta’’ from workers and union officials on one side, and owners and executives on the other. Normally opposed, they both decry the loss of manufacturing jobs.

What we don’t hear from is the third leg in the stool that is Seventh Avenue: the consumer. Consumers may or may not look for the union label (“Schmatta’’ includes a 1979 ILGWU television ad with workers singing the phrase). They definitely look for the less expensive price tag. If there’s a finger to be pointed, it’s not at a wages-hungry overseas “them,’’ but a bargain-hunting domestic “us.’’

“Schmatta’’ opens and closes with “Rhapsody in Blue’’ on the soundtrack, a defiant declaration of the American-ness of Seventh Avenue. “Foreign’’ is a fighting word on the lips of all these talking heads, and there’s something of a Lou Dobbs vibe to the documentary. It’s not pretty.

Attempting to take in the full sweep of the rag trade, “Schmatta’’ touches on a dizzying array of subjects. Some appear on screen for just seconds, others get fuller treatment. They include the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which nearly 150 workers were killed in 1911; the legendary labor leaders David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman; Bryant Park shows; the emergence of such American designers as Halston, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger; logo-ization; Kathie Lee Gifford’s difficulties with foreign child labor; and Wal-Mart. Any one of these subjects merits an entire documentary (well, maybe not Kathie Lee). Instead, they flap around like partially sewn pockets on some fabulous garment.

The thread comes from several recurring talking heads, all of them engaging: Joe Raico, a fabric cutter whom we see on his last day of work; Irving Ruosso, owner of Russ Togs, who has the unapologetic swagger of a Garment District gangster; and the designer Stan Herman. “I don’t think the Garment District, as we know it, will ever be the same,’’ Herman says. Well, no, nothing ever is - especially nothing that can be so glossy and lucrative.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

SCHMATTA: From Rags to Riches to Rags On: HBO

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30

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