Invisible Seams is an augmented reality walking tour of SoHo centered on the globalization of the fashion industry. SoHo, once a center for garment manufacturing in the United States, has evolved to become an international center for fashion consumption. Users of the Invisible Seams app will be invited to walk the streets of SoHo, listening to a narrative that blends the voices of garment workers, fashion activists, and cultural theorists with soundscapes from factories abroad.
At designated storefront locations participants will be invited to use augmented reality, which uses image recognition software and GPS coordinates to trigger a smartphone to superimpose videos and images directly on the storefronts of major fashion brands. For example, an H & M logo could trigger footage of a garment worker in Sri Lanka, superimposed on the H&M storefront, speaking directly to the participant about making clothes for Western brands. Throughout the walk, participants will learn about the history of SoHo, the globalization of the fashion industry, the rise of fast fashion, and the ethical and environmental considerations of purchasing clothes. Operating at the cutting edge of media art, this project ties together present-day garment factories in Sri Lanka, India, and other locations with the history of manufacturing and labor movements in SoHo. This focus provides a framework for examining the broader consequences of globalization and its relation to climate change, uneven economic growth, and human rights violations.
To bring the voices and experiences of garment workers abroad to the center of the story in Invisible Seams, we went on a trip to Sri Lanka and India in the summer of 2016 to interview garment workers and collect audio, photo and video content. On our trip, we toured several denim factories outside of Bengaluru as well as a carbon neutral factory called Thurulie a few hours from of Colombo. In addition to conducting worker interviews, we also interviewed people working in sustainability and/or upper management in the factories. This trip gave us an inside view into the complexities of the supply chain, as well some of the existing barriers to fair labor and more sustainable practices.
The rise of “fast fashion” in the new Millennium has made this project especially urgent. In the 1990s, widespread anti-sweatshop movements introduced consumers in the West to the unacceptable labor conditions created by globalization of the garment industry. Boycotts and bad press for big name fashion brands led to some positive changes and model factories, but conditions for workers abroad have largely worsened since then due to the “fast fashion” cycle. Today, instead of producing two to four preplanned lines per year, which allowed fashion companies in the last century to work with one garment supplier, companies now design and manufacture clothes on demand, continually producing new products to serve constantly changing fashion trends, which they track in real time on the Internet. Because a single supplier cannot keep up with these instantaneous demands, the companies hire megasuppliers to outsource the jobs to multiple factories and home sweatshops, many unregulated or in countries with poor regulations. The cost of this system is unsafe and unjust conditions for workers and a lack of environmental regulation and accountability. According to the Danish Fashion Institute, fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry, after oil.
Solving this quagmire requires multiple and complex solutions, and demands that an engaged citizenry wrestle with how to transform the fashion industry into a force that uplifts workers and protects the earth’s natural resources. The goal of Invisible Seams is to invite consumers to join the conversation about where and how their clothes are made and to feel engaged with changing this system. Markets often alienate consumers from makers, divorcing the products in our lives from the people who make them and obscuring abuse and inequality. This project, recognizing the realities of a globalized economy, seeks to use technology to reanimate the relationship between consumer and maker, a relationship that convoluted supply chains and the spectacle of advertising have obscured. Invisible Seams will connect the people who buy and wear mass-produced clothing to the workers who make these garments by hand, and connect a place of consumption to a place of production. By making this relationship visible, we hope to participate in efforts to transform the fashion industry.