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Garment

The battle over unionization in the apparel industry is moving to a new front the realm of publicly funded art.

With a $19,000 grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency’s Downtown Cultural Trust Fund, a Venice-based women’s group called Common Threads is about to unveil an exhibit detailing the history of the city’s garment industry from an unabashedly pro-labor perspective.

The mixed-media exhibition, which is being installed in nine display windows of a former Robinson’s-May department store on Seventh and Hope streets, at the edge of downtown’s garment district, opens Sunday, May 4 and will remain in place for one year.

The exhibit, entitled “Hidden Labor: Uncovering L.A.’s Garment Industry,” will feature archival photographs, historical artifacts and written text from interviews with scores of current and former garment workers in an effort, organizers say, to reveal the untold history of L.A.’s century-old apparel industry.

But historic tales often depend on who is doing the telling. And many in the city’s fashion business are not exactly welcoming the story to be told by Common Threads a group they characterize as little more than an auxiliary of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or Unite.

“Anything (Common Threads) would produce would have a very slanted point of view,” said Bernard Lax, president of the Coalition of Apparel Industries in California, which represents more than 300 clothing firms statewide. “I’m not sure that type of art project should be funded by the city.”

But Common Threads makes no apologies for the exhibition, which promises to be provocative.

“There are at least 100,000 garment workers in Los Angeles,” said Judy Branfman, a member of Common Threads and one of the eight artists contributing to the installation. “But all people see is the label (on the clothing). You never think of the people who actually make your clothes.”

The exhibition, Branfman said, will tell the story of L.A.’s garment workers, including artistic references to some of the industry’s most controversial flash points from the industry’s first major strike in 1933 to more contemporary troubles, such as the 1995 discovery of 75 Thai women working in slave labor conditions in South El Monte.

Common Threads is no stranger to controversy. Last fall, Guess? Inc. sued the group for libel, after it sponsored a poetry reading in support of garment workers. The company dropped the suit last month.

Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, noted that the CRA did not consult any of the area’s apparel industry groups before signing off on the project.

“We would have loved to have had some input into it,” she said. “People never hear the entrepreneur’s side of the story, what it takes to build a business.”

The CRA requires developers who receive assistance from the agency to contribute 1 percent of their development costs to a public art fund.

Mickey Gustin, the CRA’s public art program director, acknowledged that the CRA did not solicit input from the garment industry, and said the agency is not troubled by the installation’s point of view.

“It is a piece of history that should be told,” Gustin said. “This adds to a better awareness of the problems that the garment industry faces. It’s important for the workers to be heard from as well.”

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