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Going Inside Donald Trump's Chinese Tie Factories

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“You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product,” Donald Trump said in his opening statement at last week’s presidential debate. Trump, of course, has had China make his own product for years. This is why Racked sent reporter Spencer Woodman to track down the candidate’s factories in a small Chinese city known as the necktie capital of the world. Guess what: he found ‘em.

What is life like inside these factories? What do the workers think of the man they make ties for? And just how secretive are the companies that help brands like Trump’s facilitate foreign production? Read on for all that and a whole lot more. —Julia Rubin, executive editor

Trump, China, and the Ties That Bind
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Story by Spencer Woodman, and illustrations by Allegra Lockstadt

As we sped toward downtown Hangzhou, past hulking construction projects that could each rival the skylines of most American cities, my cab driver seemed stumped. "Shengzhou? Where is that?" he asked me, amazed to encounter an American who hadn't come to Hangzhou for its Buddhist temples or pagoda-lined West Lake. I had flown into his cosmopolitan city instead for its bus station, from which I would take a two-hour trip to a nearby town he'd never heard of. "What on earth are you doing there?"

The answer was complicated, a bit too much so to explain in my rusty Chinese. Had I been honest, I would have told him that I had arrived in Hangzhou on a journey of last resort.

Encased in Ziploc at the bottom of my shoulder bag was a Donald J. Trump-€”brand necktie with silver checks that I purchased just days earlier for $60 in the lobby of Trump's flagship skyscraper on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Made in China, the tie had now traveled twice across the Pacific Ocean and, as Trump had just weeks earlier secured the Republican presidential nomination, it now carried more political weight than ever.

For more than a year, Trump's opponents had continually seized upon his foreign-made goods to call out the hypocrisy of a campaign centering on a pledge to repatriate jobs that, in Trump's telling, global trade had wrongfully taken from American workers.

The ties in particular had become a fixation of Hillary Clinton. Just days after slamming Trump for making neckties in China on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, Clinton hoisted a glittering red Trump tie over her head while addressing a group of workers at a factory in Colorado. "I'd really like him to explain why he paid Chinese workers to make Trump ties," Clinton said, gripping the folded garment.

Although the Chinese provenance of his ties had formed a primary line of attack against Trump, nothing much else was known about them. And Clinton wasn't the only one with questions. During the preceding year, a variety of labor groups had quietly tried and failed to find the Chinese factories that manufactured the candidate's apparel lines. On shipping records collected by the US government and compiled by databases like ImportGenius and Panjiva, the Donald Trump name was almost totally absent (with a few older exceptions, all in smaller countries), causing researchers to throw up their hands.

Over the summer, I too had searched fruitlessly for Trump's Chinese factories.

As I groped for clues, I sent Trump's former apparel agent, Phillips-Van Heusen — a massive yet little-known intermediary often referred to as PVH that links mostly American brands to foreign factories — a series of requests asking whether it would provide me with any details regarding the factories. Although my queries seemed straightforward enough, the company had steadfastly refused to respond. The one entity on earth that I was certain held the complete set of clues to Trump's manufacturing puzzle seemed intent on keeping me in the dark.

This is not surprising. American corporations have mastered the art of supply-chain secrecy. And, as the election neared, it seemed that the Chinese factories that made Trump's ties would remain another closely guarded secret relating to his fortune.

That is until, in early August, when a supply-chain researcher gave me a startlingly simple piece of advice: Go to the Trump store and take a look at some of the fine print on the labels.

A tidy shelf of neckties at Trump's retail store on Fifth Avenue, which sells an assortment of Trump-branded souvenirs and grandfatherly outerwear, contained a veritable, if indirect, clue. In tiny font, the label on each tie read RN# 121148. This is the US government's unique identifier for products made by PVH Neckwear Inc. Although it was known that Trump did much of his outsourcing through PVH, the ties appeared particularly consistent in their PVH affiliation and country of origin, with their uniform registered identification numbers and "Made in China" tags.

After returning from the Trump store, I zeroed in on PVH's necktie operation. As I scrolled through digital reams of the company's import records, I noticed something. All of the factories from which PVH ordered ties — to the tune of more than 20 million pounds since 2007 — were situated in one small Chinese city called Shengzhou sitting in a valley in a mountainous region within Zhejiang province. Very little information about Shengzhou was publicly available in English aside from the fact that it is the international epicenter of necktie production, with estimates asserting that the city produces at least half of the entire globe's ties.

If my reasoning was correct, I had just narrowed down my search for Trump's factories from the 3.7 million square miles of the People's Republic of China to just a handful of industrial parks in the obscure necktie capital of the world.

On the road to Shengzhou, the garden-lined boulevards of Hangzhou quickly gave way to an expanse of rice fields, which ended in an abrupt outcropping of lush, jagged mountains dotted with rustic agrarian communities. As our bus cut through the steep topography on a highway meandering along the fast-flowing Cao'e River, I pored over my list of factory addresses with my interpreter Jackie.

I knew no one in our destination town; my only task for the next four days would be to visit PVH's top tie factories scattered throughout the city, and try, somehow, to find out whether they had in fact produced Trump's ties. According to US customs data, each of these factories relied on PVH as its biggest buyer. As I would soon learn, we were not heading to a city where PVH is simply another major foreign customer. In recent years, PVH had become by far the largest buyer of the town's specialty product, according to the Panjiva database, giving the Manhattan-based firm a profound degree of power over the fate of the Chinese city.

As abruptly as they'd risen, the mountains emptied us into a valley that had been presaged by an increasingly thick mantle of smog. We had arrived to the outskirts of Shengzhou. Almost immediately, it became clear that this was anything but the quaint mountain town I'd envisioned.

Its pollution was denser than Hangzhou's and its six- and eight-lane thoroughfares were lined with seemingly interminable high-rise apartment complexes at varying degrees of completion. There were many more people in the city — hundreds of thousands more — than I had been primed to expect. Shengzhou exuded the ambitiousness of a boomtown, its layout interrupted by sprawling construction projects adorned with bold-face Chinese lettering encouraging residents to help make it China's best, cleanest, healthiest city.

That such a teeming metropolis could exist with such anonymity, not even known by its closest neighbors in Hangzhou, astonished me. The city's size also caused me to fret: In focusing on Shengzhou, I turned out to have narrowed my search to a far larger haystack than I'd wagered on. During the waning hours of daylight, my fears grew as I began to immediately fail in my attempts to gather information.

After visiting the address of a factory that had been shuttered for months, I spent hours with Jackie wandering around a working-class neighborhood filled with residents less than excited at the prospect of chatting with a note-taking American about his necktie. As we finished our first day, it seemed that Shengzhou's industrial secrets could prove as impenetrable as the Rolodex of PVH's sourcing department.

"It seemed that Shengzhou's industrial secrets could prove as impenetrable as the Rolodex of PVH's sourcing department."

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The next morning, the city's smog had intensified, turning the surrounding mountains into burly apparitions. According to my iPhone, the temperature would reach 102 within a few hours. After breakfast, Jackie and I ordered a cab to the next address on my list, a facility called Maidilang, which sends PVH tens of thousands of pounds of ties each year.

Like every one of the PVH-connected factories I would later visit in China, Maidilang was a fully walled facility with a front entrance featuring a shiny, retractable metal gate that moved on wheels controlled from an adjacent guard booth. The view from outside suggested Maidilang's factory complex was formidable. Gray high-rise dormitory buildings and boxy factories rose above the wrought-iron fence surrounding the campus.

During our cab ride, Jackie had mentioned that Shengzhou's larger factories, including this one, kept necktie showrooms within their security perimeters — perhaps our best hope at getting a foot in the door.

"Hi, sir! Could we have a look at your showroom?" Jackie asked the guard, who without hesitation waved us into the compound and pointed toward a set of sleek glass doors leading into an office building. Within its gates, Maidilang had an almost collegiate feel, its bulky buildings connected with garden-lined pedestrian walkways.

Groups of non-uniformed workers traveled between the buildings. Pairs of women huddled beneath neon-colored parasols with locked arms and men strolled along the sidewalks unhurried, their heads exposed to the intensifying sun. It was Saturday, and, having just finished their morning shift, the workers were off for the weekend.

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Through the double doors, we found ourselves alone in the Maidilang showroom, its white walls glowing blue from the heavy colored tinting of its windows. "Is anyone here?" Jackie called out as I stepped toward the closest display of neckties. After a few seconds, a woman with a prim, short haircut and a sleeveless apricot dress emerged from a side door. She introduced herself as Ms. Lu, the showroom's manager.

Somehow unfazed that I had arrived as a writer instead of a buyer, Lu took us around the showroom. Maidilang's corporate customers prohibit it from directly selling their branded ties, so the showroom's ties had been shorn of identifying labels, but still, none of them bore the garish checks or the almost rubbery under-fabric of my Trump tie. Corroborating what I'd seen in import records, Lu mentioned that PVH was Maidilang's primary buyer. The company, she said, even had its own headquarters in Shengzhou.

Glancing at her watch, Lu informed us that Maidilang's lunch hour was nearly finished and invited us to accompany her to the company's cafeteria. On our way out of the showroom, she offered us parasols for the half-minute walk.

The cafeteria was an echo-y room with bare concrete floors and steel-framed tables with porcelain tops. Most of the room's blue-tinted windows were slid open and three-bladed ceiling fans spun at widely varying speeds, none generating much wind.

Lu explained that Shengzhou's economy was in the midst of profound change. "Orders for neckties have been decreasing," Lu explained. Over the next few days, this would become a familiar story. Shengzhou's economy was being roiled by the steady rise of business casual in the West. The city's industrial specialty was going out of fashion. In the face of sliding demand for formal work attire, many of its tie factories had already shuttered, and those that remained were retooling. Maidilang, for instance, had started making scarves and silky bed sheets in large quantities. "Everyone here is shifting their production," Lu said.

As we finished lunch, I presented Lu with my shiny garment and asked her if she'd seen it. She didn't recognize the brand label but pulled out her iPhone and placed a call to a manager. After several quick bursts of speech in Shengzhou dialect, she spelled out the English letters of D-O-N-A-L-D-J-T-R-U-M-P, and, a moment later, placed her phone back in her purse and gave us the news.

"Yes!" Lu told Jackie. "We have made these ties here."

Keep reading this story >>
Feature
The Problem With ‘Something for Everyone’
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There cannot and should not be "something for everyone." A restaurant with a menu the size of the book that claims to offer you American, Chinese, French, and Italian probably isn’t serving up five-star cuisine. A movie focus-grouped to death in order to hit all the "demos" is called Suicide Squad, and we know how that turned out. And a fashion designer — whose mission is to create cohesion, a vision, a unique style — should not be rewarded for putting together a collection as universally beloved as white bread. I haven’t read the words "aesthetic" and "vibes" this many times so that we can praise collections trying to do it all.

The phrase "something for everyone" plagues menswear blogs, and fashion in general to an extent. I am guilty (and ashamed) of writing it in a headline myself. The phrase pops up too frequently across menswear sites Hypebeast, Highsnobiety, Complex, and GQ. There were at least 45 instances of the phrase "something for everyone" across these sites since 2011 — only once on GQ ("Supreme Spring-Summer 2015 Has Something For Everyone"), four on Hypebeast ("A Bathing Ape's 2016 Fall/Winter Collection Has a Little Bit of Something for Everyone"), 17 on Complex ("Snoopy and the Peanuts Gang Join A Bathing Ape for a New Collaboration That Has Something for Everyone"), and 24 were counted on Highsnobiety before I moved on ("the POOL aoyama’s "IN THE HOUSE" Collection Has Something for Everyone").

This is especially absurd when you consider some of the collections that were being written about. The line is used to describe Palm Angels’ psychedelic spring 2017 collection that features overalls, shredded acid-washed denim, a tiger-print coat, and a rainbow-striped knit tank top. There is something for one person in that collection, and he or she is currently drifting around Venice Beach looking for work. Another post used the line in reference to a sneaker release. It was one sneaker silhouette in two different kinds of camo, blue, and traditional green. That is a pinhole-sized view of "everyone."

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