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Organized Crime and Fashion Part II Camorra and the Factories

Page history last edited by mascarenhas@... 12 years, 3 months ago
Organized Crime & Fashion
Part II: Manufacturing – The Neapolitan Camorra & Garment Factories
Anthony Mascarenhas
“Behind every fortune, there is a crime.” – Epigram to the Godfather
“All merchandise has obscure origins. This is the law of capitalism.” - Roberto Saviano
Who really knows the source of what they are wearing, if they did, they might think twice about buying it. “Who makes the best clothing and accessories in Italy?” asked our study abroad director on my first night in Italy. After no one replied, she answered her own question saying “the NAPOLITANI!” and continued by advising us to avoid the designer stores in Rome and instead go to the knock-off stores and markets run by the Neapolitans, or go to Naples itself. We eventually took her advice and rented a car only to get let lost in the tangle of highways surrounding Naples. We ended up in the middle of a massive multi-leveled freeway interchange with ghost ramps leading to nowhere in between massive high rises that brought to mind Stuyvesant Town after a war with Peter Cooper Village. Once we finally ended up downtown, a fellow student who was raised in Haiti couldn’t help but comment that Naples seemed more like Port-au-Prince than Rome, especially after we were harassed by men muttering “hash, coca, cheap” by the train station. We could not understand how Naples could be so magical and produce such beautiful apparel, yet at the same time seem more Warriors instead of Dolce Vita. 
            Gomorrah, the product of years of investigative journalism by Roberto Saviano, points to the Camorra as the nexus between Neapolitan high rises, boondoggle highways, drugs, and of course fashion. By taking odd jobs tangentially connected to the Camorra, he uncovers the intricate dealings between the fashion houses, the drug dealers, the politicians, and the ordinary workers hunched over their sewing machines for twelve hours a day. The Camorra, once a disciplined organization specializing in extortion and bootlegged cigarettes, evolved into a loose network of warring drug dealing clans. (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/world/europe/08naples.html?scp=21&sq=camorra&st=nyt). Fashionistas would be shocked to learn of the dark side of their beloved haute couture industry, part of a criminal empire that has resulted in almost 4,000 murders in the Neapolitan metropolitan area since 1979, the year the author was born (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/books/14grim.html?scp=3&sq=roberto+saviano&st=nyt). His exposé has earned him the ire of the Camorra, who “despise him, so much so that Mr. Saviano, 28, has been forced to live in hiding under state protection, a sort of Salman Rushdie in Italy’s still unresolved struggle against organized crime” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/03/world/europe/03saviano.html?sq=roberto%20saviano&st=nyt&scp=1&pagewanted=all). Despite decades of aggressive prosecution aided by thousands of Mafia turncoats, it appears that the Italian government is winning many small battles but losing the war. For example, a recently released study by an Italian small-business association found that “organized crime accounted for 7 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product, or $127 billion in receipts a year — the largest segment of the Italian economy” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/25/books/review/Donadio-t.html?pagewanted=1&sq=roberto%20saviano&st=nyt&scp=2). Though drugs, arms, and prostitution are the organized activities that attract the most headlines, fashion is actually just as profitable.
            While haute couture ends on the runways and showrooms of Rome, Milan, London, Paris, and New York, it begins in the slums of Naples.  After massive deregulation in the 1950s, small family owned factories sprouted up all over Campania full of high-skilled, low paid, and mostly female garment workers putting in 10 hours a day (25). The utter lack of regulations, administrative or economic planning allowed anyone to live their dream and open a factory because “[s]hoes, clothes, and accessories were clandestinely forced into the international market. . . . the more silent, the more secretly the goods were manufactured, the more successful they were” (18). This low-cost business model attracted companies from Italy, Germany, and France to invest in these small garment factories producing “the best in Italian fashion . . . thus the best in the world” (id). 
            What makes these factories so profitable is that, like the smuggled Chinese goods entering the Port of Naples, “[o]fficially these factories don’t exist, and neither do the employees” (26). Therefore, like the importers, they do not have the added overhead of taxes or complying with government regulations, including labor laws. Though the authorities are aware of the factories, they know that “[i]f the same work were done legally, prices would go up and there’d be no more market – which means the work would disappear from Italy” (id) and Neapolitan unemployment is high enough already. This shadowy existence became ripe for corruption because without government regulation, the factories could not rely on government services or protection.
Without labor laws or taxation to track the industry, “[n]o one knows the exact number of clandestine workers in these parts, or how many workers with contracts are nevertheless forced to sign a monthly pay slip for sums they never receive” (id). Since the workers are unprotected, they are easily exploited by their bosses and by the Camorra. However, the author seems to imply that the workers accept their situation because “[t]hey know they’re doing top-quality work, and that they’re being paid a pittance” (id). It seems the workers also realize that if they agitated for higher wages or better conditions, they jobs would disappear to either the Chinese factories in Italy or to Italian-run factories in China.
“There’s usually no rancor or resentment between factory workers and owners . . . the owner is a former worker, and he puts in the same hours as his employees, in the same room, at the same bench. . . . There’s no contract, no bureaucracy. . . . The owner and his family live above the factory. His daughters often babysit his employees’ children, and his mother becomes their defacto grandmother, so that the workers’ and owner’s children grow up together” (26). 
Though the lack of regulation and government oversight provide ample fertile ground for organized crime to infect the garment industry, it is the fashion houses that bring both sides together and facilitate their transactions. 
The fashion house auction is the link between the Camorra, the loan sharks, the factory owners, and the designers.   The author describes an auction that he went to with his Chinese boss, who was the only foreigner in attendance (27). The auction begins when the representative from a designer lists the number of garments needed, types of fabric, and quality of the articles (id). The manufacturers then bid on how soon they can have the required number of garments ready at the desired quality (id). Unlike standard auctions, no one wins or loses because once a manufacturer’s bid is accepted, the “other contractors decide if they want in; whoever agrees gets the fabric . . . sent directly to the port of Naples, where the contractors go and pick it up” (id). However, the caveat of the deal is that only the manufacturer who delivers the highest quality work will get paid on delivery (id). On the other hand, the unpaid manufacturers are allowed to keep the fabric because the “fashion houses make so much money that the fabric isn’t a loss worth considering” (28). To guarantee speed and encourage cut throat competition among the factories, the fashion houses will exclude from future auctions any manufacturers who try to game the system to procure free materials while continually failing to deliver quality merchandise on time (id). 
The winner of the auction then invited everyone, including the author, to his home to celebrate (29). Here, the ports, the cigarette smuggling, the fashion houses, the factories, and the garment workers were all finally tied together:
“After the toast, one of the guests took the owner aside, along with the others who had agreed to the auction price . . . the guest – the very image of a bank teller - was discussing interest rates. But he was not from a bank. Italian brands only pay when work is completed. Or rather, only after it has been accepted. Everything – salaries, production costs, even shipping –is paid in advance by the manufacturers. The clans loan money to the factories in their territories. The Di Lauros in Arzano, the Verdes in Sant’ Antimo, the Cennamos in Crispano, and so on. The Camorra offers low rates, 2 to 4 percent. No one should have an easier time obtaining bank credit than these companies, who produce for the Italian fashion world, for the market of markets. But they’re phantom operations, and bank directors don’t meet with ghosts” (id).
Ironically, the businessmen who make the garments for the glitterati have to turn to gangsters to get financing because the banks refuse to lend to an industry that is entirely unregulated with transactions that are unrecorded. 
The Camorra not only controls the employers with low interest financing, they also hold sway over the employees because “Camorra liquidity is also the only way for factory employees to obtain a mortgage” (id) because banks obviously cannot lend to a worker who can’t produce official pay stubs or income tax forms.  Unlike the American mortgage industry, the goal of Camorra financing is control, not quick profits. As a result, the employers get low interest business loans while the employees get low interest mortgages. As a result, even in the poorest working class suburbs, “where more than 40 percent of the residents support themselves by moonlighting, six out of ten families still manage to buy a home” (id). Presumably, if the Camorra holds title to a large percentage of the residences in a Neapolitan suburban municipality, and finances the majority of the businesses, they can leverage that control for political gain. 
            Once Camorra financing is complete, the race begins to see which bidder finishes the garments at the highest quality first. While the winners make the most money selling to the fashion houses, the others do not lose out because not only do they get the fabric for free, “the contractors who don’t satisfy the requirements of the designer labels . . . sell the garments to the clans to be put on the fake-goods market”(29). I, the counterfeit goods are made by the same workers, using the same designs, as the authentic goods. Though technically fakes, these goods are virtually identical to the originals, save for the label. Literally, the same hands that work for haute couture also work for the Camorra. Perversely, this seems to be the purest form of unregulated unbridled capitalism, fostering intense, cut throat, Darwinian competition among the sweatshops while providing jobs, mortgages, and protection to the thousands of people who either directly or indirectly benefit from the industry.
            When Robert Plant belted out “there’s a lady who sure all that glitters is gold,” he may have had the Naples fashion industry in mind. The beautiful women from around the world who strut down Fifth Avenue, Hollywood red carpets or Parisian runways have no idea where their couture comes from. Metaphorically, they are sure that since their gowns glitter, they must be gold. However, it is doubtful they know that their dress probably began its life in a rat infested Chinese container, offloaded in Naples by gangsters, finished by sweatshop garment workers doing twelve hour shifts in a Neapolitan slum, and finally trucked up north with a shipment of arms and drugs over highways built by the Camorra to siphon off public funds. Though seemingly exaggerating, the author is not entirely off the mark when he states that “[a]ll the runway fashions, all the glitz for the most elegant premieres, comes from here. . . . the principal centers for black-market fashion . . . from here, from this hole” (29). Though their couture may sparkle and glitter in the paparazzi’s flashes, the gold is merely a veneer concealing the garment’s rotten source.  
To illustrate this point, the author relates a particularly touching story about Pasquale, one of Naples’ most sought after garment workers, whom he befriended through his boss when they were all at the port inspecting imported Chinese fabric. He was so trusted that fashion houses sent designs directly to him intended for his hands only (29). Mr. Saviano soon found that Pasquale “was like a prophet when he spoke about fabric and was overly fastidious in clothing stores . . . . He could predict the longevity of a particular style of pants, jacket, or dress, and the number of washings before the fabric would start to sag” (33). 
He became particularly close with Pasquale and one night joined Pasquale’s family to watch the Oscars. They saw Angelina Jolie appear on the screen “treading the red carpet” wearing a one of those beautiful “custom-made outfits that Italian designers fall over each other to offer to the stars [that] Pasquale had made in an underground factory in Arzano” (34). It’s highly unlikely that Angelia Jolie, her designer, or stylist could have known the source of her glittery garments. Across the sea, Pasquale had no idea the dress was for such a world-renowned sex symbol because all he knew was that, like so many other garments he had made, this one was headed to America. 
Though most of the book contains graphically vivid imagery of the Camorra’s violence and degradation, there are examples of beauty, such as when the author describes Pasquale’s memories of the dress:
“He still remembered all the measurements. The cut of the neck, the circumference of the wrists. And the pants. He’d run his hand inside the legs and could still picture the naked body that every tailor forms in his mind –not an erotic figure, but one defined by the curves of muscles, the ceramics of bones. A body to dress, a meditation of muscle, bone, and bearing. Pasquale still remembered the day he’d gone to the port to pick up the fabric” (34).
Seeing the dress he made with his bare hands on the screen so far away filled him with “a rage that it’s impossible to express” because the gangsters knew who the dress was for, but “but no one had told Pasquale” (id). What seemed to enrage him most was that the entire world saw how beautiful the garment was, but no one would ever recognize the work as his. He couldn’t sneak into her hotel room late at night to chisel his name on the dress the way Michelangelo snuck into St. Peter’s in the middle of the night to carve his moniker on the Virgin Mary’s sash to prove it was his work. Since his factory did not exist, he did not exist, but “[d]eep in his gut he knew he’d done a superb job and he wanted to be able to say so,” however, “he couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t even whisper as he sat looking at the newspaper the next morning” (34). Apparently, the rage was too much to bear because two months later, the author found that Pasquale, “the best tailor in the world, was driving trucks for the Camorra, back and forth between Secondigliano and Lago di Garda . . . he’d chosen the job out of spite,” but in his wallet, he still kept a folded up newspaper photograph of Angelina Jolie dressed in his outfit (36).
            The story of Pasquale and Angelina is just one tiny snapshot of a global fashion industry that is not spoken about in Vogue, Glamour, or WWD. In fact, aside from book reviews and newspaper articles covering Gomorrah, there is little to no academic or legal research on the links between the Camorra, haute couture, Chinese organized crime, and black market counterfeits. For example, a Westlaw search for Camorra and couture, garments, garment industry, fashion, clothing, or merchandise produces not one remotely relevant result. There is clearly a dearth of research or even basic knowledge about the Camorra’s criminal fashion empire, which is why not even Mr. Saviano was able to think of any possible solutions to the problem. It seems that while the press, Hollywood, and prosecutors were focusing on the Sicilian Mafia, their American cousins in the Cosa Nostra, and Al Qaeda, the Camorra, known to its members as the System, was busy expanding their empire from the Neapolitan slums to the rest of the world.

 

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