The Impact of Immigrants on American Fashion

This 4th of July has stirred up mixed feelings.

Through the excitement of fireworks, friends, star-spangled fashion and food, we are celebrating living in the land of opportunity.  However, we can’t help but think about how the current political climate threatens the fabric of the US fashion industry. And as we honor those Americans who have come before us and have paved the way for successful lives and businesses in America, we are concerned about the future lives of those who make American fashion possible.

At the University of Fashion, we fully support those who are designing and producing their garments in the US. Yet we also recognize that production in the U.S. relies heavily on immigrant workers—both documented and undocumented.

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Put a face to those who made your clothes by searching #whomademyclothes on Instagram. Seaching this hashtag will also reveal why safe jobs in manufacturing in the US (and around the world) for all people is a cause worth fighting for…

And as educators, we value the contribution international students make to our educational system. We believe all fashion design students should have the opportunity to continue working and producing in the US following their programs if they choose to do so.

We aren’t the only ones concerned with retaining immigrant workers and international students in fashion.

In April, the CFDA in conjunction with the immigration reform organization published a study highlighting the critical contribution immigrants make to the U.S. fashion industry. The report laid out both concerns of fashion industry leaders and suggestions for how to move forward in a time where travel bans, border security and the deportation of immigrants are the topics of heated debate.

Key findings include:

• 70% of study participants indicated that foreign talent is either “very important” or “absolutely essential” to the growth and success of their business, using primarily the H-1B and O-1 visas to recruit talent in highly-skilled specialties like atelier work and design.

• Given the limited availability of H-1B visas, the difficulty in qualifying for an O-1 visa, and the lack of an entrepreneur visa, 64% of survey respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that uncertainty within the immigration system negatively impacted their ability to successfully recruit foreign talent and/or foreign students.

• 43% of survey respondents indicated that they have been unable to hire the best candidate for a job because of complications with the visa system.

• Companies in the industry need additional resources to help navigate the complicated immigration system, and a majority cited high costs, $5,000 -$10,000 or more per foreign employee.

Important to note is that international students make up a significant portion of enrolled students at top US fashion designs schools—12% at Parsons and 40% at FIT, for example. These students are eligible to apply for Optimal Practical Training (OPT), a type of work permit which allows them to work in the US for up to twelve months. However, when their OPT permit expires, it’s up to their employers to sponsor their visas. Often times, one year is not enough time to both find a job and then prove themselves worthy of the high cost of keeping an international graduate on board.

In addition, the study estimates that nearly 20% of garment workers are undocumented. And when it comes to undocumented workers, often employers and immigrants themselves are unable to navigate a confusing and expensive path toward citizenship.

While these policies were in place prior to the current administration, recent moves to restrict people from entering the US and deporting those who are undocumented (no matter the positive contributions they’ve made in the US) don’t paint a picture of a brighter future for those who keep the US fashion industry designing, innovating and producing.

In response to this bleak outlook, the CFDA and have three recommendations:

1. In order to retain foreign students, study and consider expanding the definition of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) exception under Optional Practical Training (OPT) to include the fields of fashion design and fashion technology. These are majors that involve research, innovation, and development of new technologies using engineering, mathematics, computer science, or natural sciences but are excluded from the STEM extension. Including fashion design and technology in the STEM extension would give international students up to 24 months (instead of only 12) to work and figure out sponsorship in the US.

2. To improve access to foreign talent, increase the number of H-1B visas offered, expand the definition and reform the O-1 visa to suit the specialized needs of the fashion industry, create an entrepreneur visa, and provide more resources on navigating the immigration system to companies hiring foreign talent.

3. And to provide a pathway for the undocumented community, create a pathway to legalization and/or citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which would include many seamstresses, tailors, and garment workers.

While it’s unclear whether this study will lead to additional studies, legislation or change, we appreciate hearing the voices of fashion leaders advocating for all in our industry. And during this patriotic time of year, we salute all who contribute to the success of the fashion industy in America.

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Kara Laricks is a regular contributor to the University of Fashion. She’s also a New York based women's wear and accessories designer. As the first winner of NBC's Fashion Star, Kara has designed collections for H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her masculine meets feminine line, Kara Laricks, debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2012 and her S/S 2013 collection sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue. Kara's designs have been featured on the Today Show and HBO's True Blood as well as covered in Women's Wear Daily and on Kara holds Master's degrees in both Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Kansas and in Fashion Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. An educator turned designer, Kara is dedicated to supporting emerging designers and inspiring others to follow where dreams lead.