Denim: Production and Consumption on the Globalised shop-floor
Dr Leila Zaki Chakravarti
Port Said is a city at the northern mouth of the Suez Canal, associated since the time of its construction in the 1850s with modernity and international trade. Its Export Processing Zone (il-istithmar) is dedicated to the production of garments – many of them denim - exclusively directed to the world of export. Within the Zone’s production outlets orders are undertaken on a C&M (Cut and Make) basis, under which factories compete intensely to be selected as a client’s supplier of labour – with the client providing everything else required for garment production: cloth or fabrics, all accessories (such a buttons, labels and other decorations), a computerised design, and a single completed sample (known in all the factories of the Zone as il modil). It is left to each factory to determine how best to organise cutting of the material and assembly of the garment so that exact copies of il modil can be produced in bulk, within tight cost ceilings and to demanding contractual deadlines. As a result outsiders to the Zone often describe its industrial and commercial activities as akin to ‘one big tailor shop’ - where clients arrive with their fabrics, material and specifications, and expect to collect their completed orders on a given day (and pay the agreed price), while the factory proprietors aim to persuade their clients to come back with further orders.
From 2003 to 2005 I did fieldwork in the Zone, working as a quality control monitor on the shop-floor of one of its factories. I came to see how (reflecting not only Port Said’s heritage, but also Egypt’s infitah reforms since the 70s towards economic opening, privatisation and globalisation) export-orientated production carries strong local connotations of ‘reaching out’ and being part of a wider commercial order of globalised garment production and consumption’. Denim as a particular category of fabric provided me with a focus for identifying close links between the rigid and deadline-driven factory processes for production of a garment, and the multiple and fluid opportunities created (on the same shop-floor) for its consumption as a product.
This first became evident in the effect of denim production orders on the reputation of the proprietors of the factories which had won them – usually in the face of cut-throat international and local competition. All the proprietors in the Zone (with one sole exception) were male, and one dimension of the masculine local image of a proprietor as ragil teqil (a man with cash and connections) was inextricably linked to the brand names known to dominate his production lines. In particular, owners who won contracts to produce denim fashion garments for international high-streets were frequently spoken of as zayy il ful (connoting sharp and cool). This contrasted both with international orders for garments made from alternative fabrics, and local orders for garments for the domestic market which were brought in to ‘keep production lines busy’ during the fluctuating and unpredictable order-book pipelines that are endemic to the globalised garment industry. I completed my field-work at a time of economic downturn and crisis. Since then business has picked up, and I see that the Zone’s factories have become more adventurous in their web sites, abandoning the ‘factory’ label altogether and preferring to reinvent themselves as ‘fashion houses’ for the production of denim garments.
On the shop-floor, each denim order that activated a new production cycle came to be given its own distinctive narrative, rather then being seen simply as a further supply of lifeless fabric to be routinely stitched and produced in bulk. Specific features such as the colour of the denim being used (which visually dominated the production line for weeks), the volume of finished garments to be produced, the markets for which they were destined, and the differing degrees of quality control stringency required by the client, were all important markers in the construction of an intricate narrative for each product. With this narrative came the attribution of human characteristics to each denim order, one aspect of the labour force’s personalisation of the production order of each working day. Thus for example momila (boring) implied an order that was slow moving; mo’rifa (disgusting) meant the fabric was giving trouble; hilwa (sweet) that the order was free of production glitches and holdups. As such, every garment under production was imbued with its own particular irfa (spirit), so that each order progressing along the production lines gave the shop-floor a distinctive ‘character’ and ‘mood’ for the period of the contract.
However not all the shop-floor connotations of denim were prestigious. This was most obviously the case in the informal hierarchy established among the workforce for the different skills involved in garment production. Within this hierarchy, denim work was classified as perhaps the least skilled. Because denim is regarded as somewhat coarse in texture (as compared to alternative fabrics), the skills needed to stitch denim components on industrial sewing machines were seen as constituting only the first stepping stone in the long process of becoming a ‘skilled machinist’. Denim garments were also classified as kaswel (casual wear), seen on the production lines as belonging to the more shaabi market of ‘working clothes for the masses’. More highly-skilled, ‘advanced’ machinists typically worked on producing fashion lines known as klasik (classic), such as tailored suits, dresses, coats.
In Egypt’s early industrialisation, garment manufacture was established as a sector reserved for female employment (as opposed to cotton and fabric production, where the workforce was wholly male). With more recent economic reforms, the growing skills shortage, and the pressure on young people to find work, private sector garment manufacturing factories such as those of the Port Said isthithmar have increasingly integrated young male workers into their previously all-female workforces. This has led not only to the masculinisation of certain skills (such as cutting), but also to a vigorous shop-floor dynamic between male and female workers within the integrated workforce. Thus in my factory the young male worker’s rewish (cool) look relied heavily, among other things, on wearing the denim which the workforce had itself produced – made available to them by management that sold its seconds to the workforce at cost price. Wearing ‘the look’ relied on emulating local film and pop stars, as featured on TV and video clips. During the time of my fieldwork the latest rage was for ripped jeans and stone washed denim (see illustrations). Workers further sustained the masculine ‘cool look’ by personalising their denim by means of a host of accessories such as dangling silver key rings, mobile phone ‘holsters’, thick studded leather belts and baseball caps worn back to front. For female workers, denim skirts and cloaks with hoods had also begun to infiltrate the Islamic clothing market. Deemed too fashionable for daily wear, and to be saved for special occasions such as engagement parties or other celebrations, the purchased denim garments were brought into the factory to be given a distinctive, personalised ‘new look’ by taking in the seams, shorting the hem line or giving the fabric a stone washed look. Denim headscarves were also worn in accordance with prevailing fashions of style and colour, with particular colours being ‘in season’. In each case denim’s versatility as a fabric helped give the selected ‘look’ – whether masculine or feminine - a more ‘modern’ dimension associated with youth culture, striving to make a statement of its identity and ability to earn hard cash.
This article is based on a PhD dissertation completed at SOAS in 2009.