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Minnesota artist Rachel Breen on clothing that kills, visible mending, and her new show at Mia

By Diane Richard

Rachel Breen’s exhibition “The Labor We Wear” is sitting in the U.S. Bank Gallery, on the second floor of Mia, waiting for the doors to open. “I literally finished installing it right before the museum closed,” she says, noting the museum’s decision to temporarily close on March 13, ahead of the statewide shutdown, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Breen, who teaches art at Anoka Ramsey Community College, makes art about consumption—what we buy, what we toss—and, most of all, the treatment of the workers who make our stuff. Now that many stores are closed, and shopping (including retail therapy) has shifted online, she has another idea.

“This is a great time to be mending, darning, embroidering,” she says. “Go through your clothes. Patch your jeans. Think about what stuff can be remade into. I’m really into visible mending right now.”

Minnesota artist Rachel Breen installs her MAEP exhibition, “The Labor We Wear,” at Mia.

In fact, she was going to hold a public mending circle as part of her show, to honor the 109th anniversary of the deadliest garment factory disaster in the United States. That will have to wait, even if garment work need not. “I think of my sewing machine as my third arm,” she says.

She also recommends going online and querying the companies that made your clothes in the first place. “Hashtag your garments and send it to the brand,” she says, “asking them how it was made.”

Here, in a recent conversation, she explains her views on the global garment industry and how that’s reflected in her show at Mia, which is part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP).

Your MAEP exhibition, “The Labor We Wear,” asks visitors to think about the workers who sew their garments. Why do you think it’s important?

In a nutshell, because they’re being treated unfairly. It really feels that simple. In part, it’s because of how we shop and consume clothing in the U.S. We’re not encouraged to see where our clothes come from. We don’t see it, so we don’t think about it. Once we see the supply chain, I hope that will move people to be more conscientious about how they consume clothes, which could have a positive impact on garment workers. One of the challenges is that this connection is invisible. That’s a big problem. My work becomes a catalyst for seeing these connections with workers.

You interviewed women workers in Bangladesh, where many U.S. and European retailers outsource garment production, and these women asked consumers to please not boycott their clothes. This is their livelihood. But if Americans can’t be sure the workers are being treated equitably and humanely, how else should we engage with these companies?

I wish there was a simple answer. There’s not.

Here’s an amazing statistic: In 1960, about 10 percent of our household budget was spent on apparel, and 95 percent of clothing was made in the U.S. Today, only about 3.5 percent is spent on clothing and 2 percent of the clothing we buy is made in the U.S. This incredible shift has happened for a lot of reasons. But one of them is because labor is so cheap in other places. Why? Because brands don’t have to worry about workers’ safety there. That’s a crime.

So, most importantly, we need to support organizations that are working to unionize garment workers. [Workers] need to have their voice so they can advocate for themselves. In Bangladesh, it’s dangerous for women who want to organize. They can be fired, harassed. A lot of garment workers, they can’t read or write, so the role that the union organizers play [as educators] is critical. [Workers] don’t know they have a right to go to the bathroom on their shift, or that the emergency door shouldn’t be blocked.

There are things we can do individually. We can buy less. We can buy used. We can mend what we have. Those who can buy more sustainably, equitably, often expensively, should. But we can’t shop our way out of this. Brands don’t own the factories where their clothes are made so they avoid responsibility. Our job is to pressure brands, to hold their feet to the fire. I also want my work to be about the importance of the collective, our collective action.

Do you see momentum behind forcing the garment industry to establish transparent methods to protect workers’ safety and livelihood? If so, what independent regulators’ labels do you look for and trust?

Shirt sleeves in Rachel Breen’s exhibition, “The Labor We Wear.”

Some really great organizations are there to educate consumers. One is Fashion Revolution. It sprang from the fashion industry, acknowledging they have a role in this. Fashion Revolution asks you to take a photo of your shirt with the label outside and hashtag it: “Who made my brand?” Brands are starting to respond. Locally, WeAreThreaded.co is a great resource. [You’ll find Breen’s full list of resources at the end of this article.]

Do you see any thread, as it were, between the two deadliest garment factory disasters, nearly a century apart: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and the Rana Plaza Collapse of 2013?

What I hope is that people see them as one story. They’re intimately connected. They’re both tragedies where garment workers died because of choices factory owners made. The people working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were working under the same kind of conditions that the people of Rana Plaza were working under—underpaid and unsafe. The demographics are similar: They’re poor, rural people who came to the city for jobs so they can feed their families and send their kids to school. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory people were immigrants, Jewish and Italian. And [in both tragedies, most of the victims were] women.

What did you think when you heard about the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh?

I was like, what year is this? How does this happen in the modern world? I thought we won this battle of factory safety. There are hard-won victories for garment workers dating to the early 1900s.

After the Rana Plaza Collapse, I made a connection with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. I’ve known about it all my life … it was this tragedy that led to important safety laws in this country. The importance of labor unions in their role of advocating for people is something I have always valued.

A ton of artwork has been done about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: plays, operas. The Rana Plaza Collapse is much more recent. I thought I needed to go to Bangladesh to find out more about it. It was really eye-opening and heartbreaking. It bestowed this weight of responsibility on me: how do I share their stories?

You have said your artwork “makes visible numbers that are hard to comprehend in an effort to remind us of the human labor present in the clothes we wear.” I was overwhelmed by the number of those killed in both disasters, whose individual names you listed in your labels. What reaction do you hope viewers will have?

Shirt collars in Rachel Breen’s exhibition, “The Labor We Wear.”

I want people to rethink how we shop, how we consume, and about the individuals who make our clothing. We have to consume less. Look at the organic food movement and how it’s changed over the past 20 years. A lot more of us are buying organic food. Or, if not organic, local. A lot of people now think about how and where their food is grown. That can be the model.

It’s also true that the making of clothing is complex. If you have a cotton shirt, it may be grown in the U.S., then sent to India or another country, where it’s dyed. Think about the conditions of the people who dyed it—did they have gloves or masks? And what happened to the chemicals of the dye?  Then it was sent to a factory, or factories, to be made. So the supply chain is complicated.

Your artwork features visible stitching of used garments—is that a hint?

With fast fashion, clothes are made poorly, so we get rid of them more quickly. It’s disposable. But if a button falls off a shirt, don’t give the shirt to the Salvation Army—sew the button back on.

I approach my work from an ethical perspective. I want to address injustice in my life, not just as an artist but as a human being. Individual action is good, but it’s not enough. We all buy our underwear from Target; we are all a part of this system. Ultimately, my work is really a critique of capitalism. There, I’ve said it.

A lot of people salve their anxiety with “retail therapy.” Where do you turn for a sense of relief and hope?

Fortunately, I’m an artist. Making is where I go. But there are good reasons to buy well-made objects. Buy less but buy better. If you buy from a big brand, send an email asking about the working conditions of that brand. Demand they be better! Keep the pressure on.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Rachel Breen’s Source List

Organizations working on labor rights in the global garment industry:

Fashionrevolution.org

Cleanclothes.org

Labourbehindthelabel.org

Laborrights.org

For college students, the group Students United Against Sweatshops:

Usas.org

Apps for ethical buying:

Goodguide.com

Ethicalbarcode.com

Goodonyou.eco

Notmystyle.org

To find local designers, brands, artists and leaders working to make fashion a tool for good:

Wearethreaded.co

Podcasts on fashion and sustainability:

• Wardrobe Crisis with Clare Press

• Conscious Chatter with Kestral Jenkins