Popsugar: Meet the Asian American Designers Reclaiming the "Made in China" Label

Over 65 percent of the world's clothes are manufactured in China, yet a "Made in China" label is often met with disdain or skepticism. The stigma behind the phrase is still so common, particularly in the US, that a 2020 survey of more than 1,000 US adults found that 40 percent won't buy products made in the largest textile exporter in the world.

Despite rapid advancements in China over the past few decades, stereotypes about the Chinese manufacturing industry abound, linking it to exploitative labor practices, complex trade relations with the US, and mass-produced fast fashion. Shoppers continue to assume goods made in China are of poor quality and prefer manufacturing in the West or any other Asian country. Yet the truth is, while not marketed widely, the majority of luxury fashion houses like Prada, Balenciaga, and Coach dedicate some part of their supply chain to production in China; they just aren't transparent about their practices. So, why does "Made in China" carry such shame?

The stigma dates back decades. In 1979, China opened its doors to foreign trade and reestablished a trade agreement with the US, paving the way for Chinese exports to the US and American access into Chinese markets. China's explosive trade surplus with the US brought the country into the World Trade Organization in 2001, further inciting a massive increase in Chinese exports to the US. This rapid growth, coupled with a lack of regulations in China, created unethical and unfair labor conditions to meet the demand in the US. Most notably, in 2008, China's abusive labor ring was uncovered, following increasing labor disputes and severe abuses. These incidents likely established the stigma against goods made in China, causing "Made in China" to become synonymous with cheap, unregulated labor (and goods).

Due to a clear need for regulations, China introduced a labor law in 2008 that, among other worker protections, required employers to provide workers with employment contracts. With the textile industry as one of its biggest markets, China became the world's number-one manufacturer in 2010 for its efficient, cost-effective labor; advanced automotive technology; and skilled technicians.

However, illegal labor practices do continue to exist in China. Most recently, China came under fire for its reported forced labor among thousands of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, implicating major international companies, including Ralph Lauren, H&M, and PVH Corporation, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. While these practices still exist in China — just as they do in all manufacturing countries like Italy, India, and the US — it's not about where garments are produced, but rather who pays for the manufacturing. As is often said, there is a supply where there's a demand, and if companies are in search of cheap mass production, there are always factories and workers willing to meet that request. And where there's a demand for ethically sourced goods, Asian American designers are rising to meet that growing need.

A new wave of Asian American designers is leading the charge in ethical, transparent manufacturing in China, working to fight the deep-rooted stereotype, despite the politics, economics, and fashion ideals standing in the way of their work. With transparency at the forefront, these brands want to tackle the stigma behind "Made in China" head-on — because they're prouder than ever to manufacture their beloved pieces in China. Ahead, hear from the talented Asian designers reclaiming what "Made in China" means in the American fashion industry.

Karen Lee and Tanya Lee, founders of Lezé the Label

Image Sources: Getty / belterz, Brian Van Wyk, Kate Whyte and Photo Illustration: Becky Jiras

Both born in Asia but raised in Canada, Karen Lee and Tanya Lee launched Lezé — workleisure that feels like pajamas — in 2018. Lezé's fabrics, made from coffee and recycled plastic bottles, are sourced in Taiwan, then shipped to China to knit and dye. Afterward, these fabrics are cut and sewn into their Instagram-famous soft, comfortable clothing. Sewers are paid competitive living wages 15 percent above industry standards, with structured days, legally binding permanent contracts with medical and pension packages, and advancement opportunities that bring 80 percent of women into leadership positions. All this and more of the brand's supply chain is detailed clearly for Lezé's consumers. Here, the founders open up about fighting the stigma against the "Made in China" label amid anti-Asian hate.

When the Atlanta spa shootings happened, we were extremely conflicted on how we wanted to show up on social media. Should we stick to clothes? How do we handle this situation? We were both emotional, but at the same time, we thought, is this too personal? We talked about the most authentic way for us to show up, and we decided our lane was through speaking to manufacturing because it's so important to the brand, and it's also advocating for people living in China.

That's what opened the door to our series called "Made in China," where we posted Reels breaking down the stuff that happens behind the scenes. The comment section was lit. Everyone came with different perspectives, and it was cool because we were able to have this open conversation and learn from one another. But it was also hard because people come for your decisions, your morals, your character. There were definitely comments that said, "I liked it better when you just stuck to clothes," or, "Where do you manufacture? Because I don't want to buy anything that's Asian-made or made in China." Before we would put out a post, we'd have to be ready. We had to be in a space to have these tough conversations.

But I think as long as we're responding with grace — that's been our key — we're OK with these interactions because we've got each other, too. The best thing we can do is continue to share the behind the scenes of our factories: being thorough about who's making our clothes, the process, the machines, and being able to receive questions like these with grace and not with offense. Hopefully, that changes the narrative a little.

"Manufacturing in China was an intentional choice for us."

Manufacturing in China was an intentional choice for us. When we launched on Kickstarter in 2018, we actually first started manufacturing in Taiwan. It made sense to start there because we wanted to use what we had on this Earth. Then we found the sewers there for the cut and sew portion of our garments were actually an aging group, so we started looking again. We were not fashion designers, so it made sense for us to go where all the knowledge and technology was available: China. We needed every tool that we could get to help support us in this journey.

Because we're both Chinese, we were also curious to explore the stigma behind "Made in China" and learn why this was happening. We're really proud of the processes we've taken in our manufacturing, and we wanted to shed light onto it because a lot of people just don't know. And when you don't know, you're afraid of it. We wanted to create a safe space to have this kind of dialogue and hope someone could learn something.

Brands are afraid to have that open conversation about why they're manufacturing in China. Bad manufacturing actually happens everywhere. Even in North America, there are people who are overworked and underpaid, but people will see the "Made in Canada" or "Made in USA" label and automatically think it's OK. We want to shed light on the fact that it's not where you manufacture, it's who you manufacture with because there are exceptions in pockets, no matter where you are in the world.

But until a lot more brands jump in on this conversation, it'll take some time to reverse the stories a lot of us are very used to. I think we're getting there. People are starting to ask more questions, so we're heading in the right direction.

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