Yimin Deng graduated from Parsons with a BFA in Fashion and a personal mandate to improve fashion industry practices around the world. While a student he made a life-changing visit to Sri Lanka with non-profit organization Remake, an event which steered his course since. When he observed forty people working on one T-shirt which would retail at under eleven dollars he not only wondered about the math but understood that the top-down structure of the fast fashion system in which Western brands set the rules and desperate workers scramble to obey or risk their lives as modern colonialism. Since Deng assumed the position of Remake’s Brand Ambassador he has been sharing his experiences, aiming to build empathy across the supply chain and spread the message that human rights are being sacrificed to feed our fast fashion addictions. FashionUnited caught up with the motivated young hopeful via email.
How did Parsons prepare you for the path you’ve embarked upon since graduation?
The focus on social justice at The New School and the emphasis of sustainability at Parsons––one of the five colleges of The New School––made me who I am today and I am proud of it. The school’s energy encouraged me to go beyond what people perceive a fashion design education to be, not just dedicating all my time to making a collection or preparing for design competitions, and I am forever grateful that it gave me the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka with Remake. Parsons places much emphasis on sustainable practices but I’m eager to see a heavier emphasis on human beings and ethical practices in general through education.
Describe the purpose of Remake’s “learning journeys” which since 2016 have taken people to Cambodia, China, Pakistan and India.
Remake takes influencers and future designers into garment maker communities around the world in order to meet the women who make our clothes face-to-face. It’s through these interactions they’re able to get a firsthand look into their lives, hopes, and dreams as well as gain a better understanding about the ethics of manufacturing and production.
What are your next steps within this industry so fraught with problems?
I feel purposeful through volunteering for Remake and grateful that it gives me a platform to connect with other inspiring practitioners. I will be studying development studies for my graduate degree in Europe in September. My research will combine my passion for Chinese craft preservation and workers’ equity to investigate fashion through the lens of political economy, finance, poverty reduction and socio-economic development of local communities in the global south. I believe literacy in these disciplines is necessary to take my mission of sustainable fashion to the next level. My work at Remake was indispensable to my application. I have already been accepted at SOAS University of London and Sciences Po in Paris.
Sri Lanka as a manufacturing hub has a reputation for advanced labor conditions compared to other countries––was this your impression?
I am from Shenzhen, China, which is a big manufacturing city. The living conditions of Sri Lankan garment makers were similar to what I saw in Shenzhen over a decade ago. The truth is, factory workers live in some of the worst conditions whether in Colombo or Shenzhen, which reveals just how we view them: as proletariats. Having a reputation for advanced labor conditions is relative because the Sri Lankan living standard is different from Cambodia’s or Pakistan’s, based on their economic development. In Sri Lanka, the average apparel worker earns approximately $120 per month compared to $80 for agricultural workers. However, this comes at the price of working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, living in isolation, encountering sexual harassment inside and outside of the workplace and more. There isn’t much collective bargaining power for workers in export processing zones (most Sri Lankan garment factories are located in these special industrial zones) which are difficult for labor organizations and activists to access because of ID checkpoints. I learned from the Solidarity Center in Colombo that Sri Lanka is experiencing a drop in its garment-making workforce because of labor conditions. However, we also met Ashila, a former garment maker now dedicating her time to educate garment makers on their rights through her organization, Stand Up Movement Lanka. She is such an inspiring strong woman!
We should stop talking about empowering women and start doing it
Remake's website contains the phrase "Let's stop talking about empowering women"––can you explain this message?
You find t-shirts with feminist slogans whether from a fast fashion brand or a French luxury house. Countless collections are inspired by feminism. Of the 75 million global garment makers, estimates put 80% of our garment makers across the globe as young women of color––is “runway feminism” providing these women upward mobility? That’s why Remake is saying we should stop talking about empowering women and start doing it. Remake believes that in our current society, educating consumers about the power they have to demand changes from companies through their buying behaviors is crucial to pushing the sustainable fashion movement forward, which is essentially a women’s empowerment issue.
And Parsons and Remake continue to collaborate as the school is hosting the premiere of the organization’s latest film, Made in Mexico, this month.
That’s right. Remake’s founder, Ayesha Barenblat, will introduce our film which features fashion activist Amanda Hearst and students from California College of the Arts, Parsons, and Duke University. Viewers will be able to follow along as they meet Olivia, Veronica, and Reina, fierce women makers behind our Made In Mexico fast fashion labels.The goal of the film is to inspire millennial shoppers and designers to become Remakers and to use their power to change the system for good. Attendees will also be able to meet and talk with other Parsons students who have been on similar journeys to Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Mexico.
If you could say one thing to an emerging designer what would it be?
There is ample space for us—between our current way of designing and the defeatist claim of “let’s just stop making clothes and wear nothing if we want to be sustainable”—to make meaningful changes, so we should always keep learning and remain critical.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.