Does "Made in China" Make an American Olympic Uniform Un-American?

Does "Made in China" Make an American Olympic Uniform Un-American?
Ralph Lauren's team USA uniforms for the 2012 Summer Olympics
(Courtesy Ralph Lauren)

Last week, American lawmakers voiced criticism against the U.S. Olympic Committee for selecting companies to clothe American Olympians in uniforms manufactured outside of the United States.

ABC News discovered on July 11 that the white pants, navy double-breasted blazers, and collared button-up shirts made by Ralph Lauren for Team U.S.A. to wear at the opening ceremonies of the London Summer Olympics had labels that read  “Made in China.”

The report caused senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) to say, “They should take all the outfits, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Both sides of the Senate were so outraged that six senators — Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.), Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) — proposed the Team U.S.A. Made in America Act of 2012.

Even the fashion world lambasted the U.S.O.C.’s decision. “Why shouldn’t we have pride not only in the American athletes, but in the American manufacturers and laborers who are the backbone of our country?” designer Nanette Lepore said to ABC News. “Why? What’s wrong? Why was that not a consideration?”

Ralph Lauren tried to appease the critics on July 13 by promising to make the uniforms for the 2014 Olympic games in the U.S. “For more than 45 years, Ralph Lauren has built a brand that embodies the best of American quality and design rooted in the rich heritage of our country,” said the company in a statement, according to the New York Times. “We are honored to continue our longstanding relationship with the United States Olympic Committee in the 2014 Olympic Games by serving as an official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government to address the issue to increase manufacturing in the United States.”

The U.S. isn’t alone. Spain had its uniforms produced in Russia, and Adidas – which is making the Olympic kits for the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and Germany – produced uniforms in factories in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and the U.K.

The American fashion industry came to Ralph Lauren’s defense. WWD executive editor Bridget Foley called the outrage “ill-informed, misguided and silly on many levels.”  She went on to question if the politicians ever bothered to look if their own clothing items were made in China.

“Wake up,” Bud Konheim, president and chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, told WWD. “Everything is made in China. This is not new and it’s not unpatriotic. But manufacturing in China allows everyone in the world to buy these things versus making them here, which would require higher pricing. Eighty percent of our collection is made in New York City and nobody cares. For us, it doesn’t move one single thing but we still do it.”

American apparel manufacturing has been in a steady decline for several decades and the outsourcing of Olympic uniforms to China simply reflects that reality. And why is Ralph Lauren getting all the heat? Why hasn’t anyone questioned the manufacturing location used by Nike, which made the U.S. Olympic track and field and medal stand uniforms?  

If U.S. lawmakers want Team U.S.A. Olympic uniforms that are manufactured in the United States, the senators who are drafting the new Team U.S.A. legislation should suggest that American Apparel one of the only clothing companies that still promises its garments are Made in the U.S.A. – create the uniforms. As it turns out, American Apparel founder and CEO Dov Charney (who happens to be Canadian) has offered his L.A. factory to Ralph Lauren. A rep from American Apparel claims that the company will be able to churn out the uniforms in time for the Games, reports Fashionista. We’ll have to see if Ralph Lauren is willing to take him up on it.