A recent blurb in the Jewish Virtual Library raised my eyebrows. It dug right into my shoe and clothing brand snobbery psyche. I look at the label before trying it on. I’m a closet Carrie Bradshaw sans New York City. Brands and brand names pull me into a vortex of special interest and curiosity. The heading “Hugo Boss and the Nazis” did just that.
Hugo Boss is up there with Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton in elegance, style, quality, and price. These are fashion giants that have graced cat walks in Milan, Paris, New York, Tokyo, and other major venues around the globe for decades. They are the Rolls Royce of brands. One enters their establishments without a price in mind. In my secret coveting for brands, and as I sniff the soft leather on a perfect Louis Vuitton, slave or forced labor, let alone Nazis never crosses my mind. But “Hugo Boss and the Nazis” sent chills down my spine as I stood looking at my closet. I own a few.
Hugo Boss started his tailor business in 1923, in Metzinger, Germany. A year later he opened a factory producing work clothes, sportswear, and raincoats. The 20’s were not conducive to a good economy and Boss eventually had to file for bankruptcy. But in 1931 he reached an agreement with his creditors to go back into business limiting him to six sewing machines. 1931 was also the year that Boss joined the Nazi Party. As the party flourished so did his business, and by 1935 he proudly labeled himself as the “supplier for National Socialist uniforms since 1924”. A small exaggeration on his part because he did not actually start providing “services” to the party until 1928. But by 1935 Boss was licensed to supply uniforms to the Sturmbleitung (SA), Schutzstaffel (SS), Hitler Youth, and other party organizations. By 1938 he was producing the Wehrmacht uniforms and later the black iconic uniforms of the Waffen, SS.
The current Hugo Boss brand was allegedly unaware of the dark past until 1997, when Swiss bankers publicized a list of dormant accounts, and Boss’s name was on it. Roman Koster, an economic historian investigated the founder’s alleged Nazi past. He found evidence that during the war, Boss employed 140 forced laborers, mostly women, and later 40 French prisoners of war. Although historical data is sketchy at best, it seems that Boss tried to redeem himself by allowing the laborers to eat in a canteen rather than their camp. However, one shouldn’t get sidetracked; working conditions were abysmal with constant threats of deportation to concentration camps and possible death. Hugo Boss was a card-carrying member of the National Socialist Party aka a Nazi.
The company profited tremendously from its association with the Nazi party. It employed 300 workers, most of whom were unpaid, and by 1940 earnings rose to 1,000,000 Reichmarks in comparison to 200,000 Reichmarks barely four years prior. According to German historian Henning Kober, Hugo was not the only one fascinated by the Nazi party, his company managers were also fervent members of the party and avid followers of Adolf Hitler. A 1945 photo shows Hugo Boss with Adolf Hitler at the latter’s Berghof retreat in Obersalzberg.
After the war, Boss was heavily fined and banned from doing business or voting; he was labeled as an activist, supporter, and beneficiary of Nazism. After an appeal, his status was however downgraded to that of a “follower” which allowed him to maintain his business. He died in 1948. In the late 90’s, his son Siegfred, then 83 years old, unabashedly admitted that his father had belonged to the Nazi party justifying it with “who didn’t? According to Siegfred: “all industry worked for the Nazi Army”. In 1999, US lawyers working on behalf of Holocaust survivors took legal action against the Hugo Boss company for profiting from slave labor. The company apologized and compensated those who came forward. The current Hugo Boss company has no ties to the original Boss family, but the brand still bears its original name.
Fast forward to present day China and we discover that slave labor did not die with the Fuhrer. A March 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a non-partisan think tank, accuses 83 known brands of allegedly having active ties to slave or forced labor in China. Evidence points directly to the Chinese Communist Party regime and its persecution of the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority Muslim group in the region of Xinjiang and Turkestan. Rounding them up, shipping them to concentration camps, and later to factories across China. Chinese propaganda attempts to appease the west by calling the camps “Vocational Training Camps”. ASPI reported that in 2019, hordes of Uyghurs were moved from these “training camps” to factories under the insidious pretense of “graduating”. Supposedly they were taught a trade.
Various news agencies across partisan and social ideology are accusing global corporations of aiding and abetting the systematic persecution and exploitation of the Uyghurs. According to reports, technology, clothing, and automotive industries all benefit from Chinese forced labor. Apple, BMW, GAP, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen are a few of well-known brands named as allegedly using forced or slave labor in their respective Chinese factories. ASPI estimated that between 2017-2019, some 80,000 Uyghurs were forcibly moved out of Xinjiang to work in large corporate factories. The Chinese pass off forced and slave labor to international companies as “qualified, secured, and reliable government workers”.
Nike stands above others in ethical hypocrisy. A brand that barely a year or so ago endorsed Colin Kaepernick as their poster child for racial “injustice” has chosen to ignore forced labor in its Chinese factories. Investigative reporters claim to have seen watch towers, barbed wire fences and police guards surrounding a Nike factory in an Eastern province of China. Cheap and unpaid labor provides Nike and other high-end brands with profitable production and distribution chains sans conscientious responsibility. Eager to pass racial injustice judgement at home, overpaid US athletes conveniently dismiss the evil realities of forced labor that produces the sportswear they endorse in return for overpaid self-promotion.
Nike is not the sole perpetrator of human exploitation for profit. Similar factories in Eastern China have been reported as providing sportswear goods for Adidas and Fila. Investigative reporting found evidence of Uyghur displacement from Xinjiang’s camps linked to many other brand productions. ASPI lists well-known brands like Zara, H & M, General Motors, Ralph Lauren, Victoria Secret, Mercedes-Benz, Calvin Klein and others as having in one way or another ties to forced labor in their China factories.
In September 2020, the US House of Representatives in a 403-3 vote passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. An attempt at curbing US companies from doing business through Uyghur forced labor. But in December of the same year, a New York Times report alleged that Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple fought against the Act claiming that it slowed down their distribution chains from China. All three companies vehemently denied this allegation. The three representatives who opposed the Act were: Massie Thomas (R) Kentucky, Amash Justin (L) Michigan, and David Warren (R) Ohio. 22 bipartisans abstained.
The Washington Post joined in the allegations, and accused Lens Technology of Uyghur forced labor (December 2020). Lens Technology is an Apple Chinese supplier. Tech Transparency Project and other investigative NGOs went a step further and accused corporate tech giants like Apple of corporate hypocrisy. Apple’s public indignation at racial injustice and incarceration while turning a blind eye to its subsidiaries in China was strongly pointed out. ASPI called China’s permissive persecution of Uyghurs and global corporate acceptance “Uyghurs for Sale”. A scathing accusatory remark at a corporate world that has lost its ethical bearing in lieu of global profits.
Reports and allegations against China’s systematic “demographic genocide” didn’t materialize out of thin air. Interviews with former detainees revealed shocking practices by the Chinese government to curb proliferation of ethnic groups mainly the Uyghurs. Interviews revealed forced abortions, birth control, mass detentions, incarceration, and live organ harvesting. Uyghurs are either rounded up for deportation or forced to live under fear in poor neighborhoods. A page out of the Nazi playbook.
The fashion, sport, tech, and movie industry wave the banner of racial justice only when it suits them. The tech world which has morphed into the virtual morality police of the world, seems quite comfortable with questionable production chains in China. Out of sight out of mind. They market their products for a fortune at the expense of human misery and cost effectiveness. The perfect business plan.
In July 2020, over a 100 human rights groups and NGOs accused various fashion brands of using Chinese slave labor in harvesting cotton for the majority of fabric and textile used in the clothing industry. Called the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, they claim that 80% of the world’s cotton is now picked in China, particularly in the Xinjiang region and most “likely by Uyghur slaves”. This adds up to one in every five garments in the world being produced by slave or forced labor.
Rich Chinese investors are taking advantage of global acceptance and slowly infiltrating the fashion-garment industry especially in Northern Italy. Thousands of Chinese workers have been brought to large factories in Tuscany, assembling and producing everything from leather to fabric. These workers work and endure long hours for half the pay and better conditions of local Italian laborers. Florence might be the capital of luxury leather goods, but Prato, not far north, is the capitol of textiles and cheap materials from China. This area has the highest concentration of Chinese immigrants outside of Paris. Combine cheap labor with cheap Chinese textile, and brands like Guess and American Eagle Outfitters charge High Street prices for less than high-end products.
Cheap Chinese labor in Italy does not end with textiles. There is a great probability that the “Made in Italy” label at the back of a Gucci or a Prada was probably sewn on by a Chinese laborer in one of the factories dotting the Tuscany countryside. Chinese labor is also forcing some Italian family-owned businesses out of business. They can’t compete with the vast and fast production of cheaper goods and cheaper labor costs. Resentment has set in. The EU is also to blame; brands can claim “Made in” if assembled in the respective EU country regardless where the materials came from or who picked the cotton.
Human Rights groups and investigative reporters continue to blow the whistle on pervasive production operations in China. But nothing will probably change without a drastic change in consumer mindset. We are a self-indulgent egoistic society that cares little about what happens thousands of miles away from our front doors. It’s the brands and their corporate governances that must determine what sets them apart, cheap production costs versus ethical humane labor practices. A tough choice given that most are also the biggest lobbyists in Washington. I’m sure that if confronted most will echo Siegfred Boss unabashed haunting justification that; everyone’s doing it. What happened to Never Again?