LOS ANGELES — Fashion Nova has perfected fast fashionFor the Instagram era.
The majority of the retailer is online and relies on a large network of celebrities, influencers and random selfie-takers who constantly post about the brand on social media. It was created to appeal to a large online clientele by mass-producing affordable clothes that look expensive.
“They need to buy a lot of different styles and probably only wear them a couple times so their Instagram feeds can stay fresh,” Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, said in an interview last year.
He gives them a steady stream of new options, all priced to sell, to help them get into that habit.
If you ask Mr. Saghian, the days of $200 jeans are gone. Fashion Nova’s skintight denim goes for $24.99. He also said that the company can have its clothes made. “in less than two weeks,” often by manufacturers in Los Angeles, a short drive from the company’s headquarters.
That model hints at an ugly secret behind the brand’s runaway success: The federal Labor Department has found that many Fashion Nova garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages.
Los Angeles is home to many factories that pay workers as little as possible and fight overseas competitors who can pay more. Many of those behind the sewing machines don’t have a formal education and are unlikely to challenge their bosses.
“It has all the advantages of a sweatshop system,” said David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017.
Every year, the department investigates wage violation allegations at Los Angeles sewing contractor. Each year, they show up unannounced and review payroll data, interview employees, and question the owners.
The department conducted investigations from 2016 to this year and discovered that Fashion Nova clothing was made in dozens factories that owed $3.8million in back wages to hundreds workers. According to internal federal documents, which summarized the findings and were reviewed in The New York Times
These factories are used to make garments and are rented by middlemen. fashionAccording to a person familiar, brands paid their sewers as low at $2.77 an hour.
The Labor Department declined comment on the details of these investigations. A spokeswoman for the Labor Department stated that the department had received information from the investigation. “continues to ensure employers receive compliance assistance with the overtime and minimum wage requirements, and the Wage and Hour Division is committed to enforcing the law.”
Federal officials met with representatives from Fashion Nova to discuss repeated violations at the factories that made Fashion Nova clothes. “We have already had a highly productive and positive meeting with the Department of Labor in which we discussed our ongoing commitment to ensuring that all workers involved with the Fashion Nova brand are appropriately compensated for the work they do,” Erica Meierhans, Fashion Nova’s general counsel, said in a statement to The Times. “Any suggestion that Fashion Nova is responsible for underpaying anyone working on our brand is categorically false.”
In 2018, Mr. Saghian said about 80 percent of the brand’s clothes were made in the United States. Fashion Nova’s supply chain has shifted since then, and now the brand says it makes less than half of its clothes in Los Angeles. It didn’t specify the percentage made in the United States.
The company does not deal with factories directly. Instead, it places bulk order with companies. design the clothes and then ship fabric to separately owned sewing contractors, where workers stitch the clothes together and stick Fashion Nova’s label on them.
The brand’s clingy dresses and animal-print jumpsuits are often made by people like Mercedes Cortes, working in ramshackle buildings that smell like bathrooms.
Ms. Cortes, 56, sewed Fashion Nova clothes for several months at Coco Love, a dusty factory close to Fashion Nova’s offices in Vernon, Calif. “There were cockroaches. There were rats,”She spoke. “The conditions weren’t good.”
She worked every day of a week, but her wages varied depending on how fast she could move her fingers. Ms. Cortes was paid for each piece of a shirt she sewed together — about 4 cents to sew on each sleeve, 5 cents for each of the side seams, 8 cents for the seam on the neckline. She said that she earned an average of $270 per week, which is equivalent to $4.66 an hour.
Ms. Cortes quit Coco Love in 2016 and later settled with the company for $5,000 back wages. While she was still sewing Fashion Nova clothes in factories, Cortes noticed the $12 price tags on tops that she had put together for cents. “The clothes are very expensive for what they pay us,”Ms. Cortes spoke.
“Consumers can say, ‘Well, of course that’s what it’s like in Bangladesh or Vietnam,’ but they are developing countries,” Mr. Weil said. “People just don’t want to believe it’s true in their own backyard.”
These factories produce clothes for major American retailers despite their seediness. Federal law states that brands cannot be penalized for wage theft in factories, if they can prove they didn’t know their clothes were made illegally by low-wage workers. In recent years, the Labor Department has collected millions of dollars in back wages and penalties from Los Angeles garment companies, but has not fined a retailer.
This year, Fashion Nova’s labels were the ones found the most frequently by federal investigators looking into garment factories that pay egregiously low wages, according to a person familiar with the investigations.
In September, three officials from the department met with Fashion Nova’s lawyers to tell them that, over four years, the brand’s clothes had been found in 50 investigations of factories paying less than the federal minimum wage or failing to pay overtime.
The company’s lawyers told the officials that they had taken immediate action and had already updated the brand’s agreement with vendors. Fashion Nova will now be informed if a factory is charged with violating laws. “governing the wages and hours of its employees, child labor, forced labor or unsafe working conditions,”The brand will place the middleman who hired the factory on a six month contract. “probation,”It stated in a statement.
The working relationship would continue unless workers file another grievance against the same factory or another that the contractor worked at during those six months. The brand will then suspend the contractor’s employment until it passes a third person audit.
While Fashion Nova has taken steps to address the Labor Department’s findings, Ms. Meierhans, the brand’s general counsel, noted that it works with hundreds of manufacturers and “is not responsible for how these vendors handle their payrolls.”
‘Everyone wants to have more followers’
In Los Angeles, Mr. Saghian opened Fashion Nova’s first store in 2006. mall. After seven years and four storefronts, he realized that online outlets were selling the same clothes he had worn for seven years.
A web developer convinced him to stop starting a website. It would not get any traffic because no one knew about Fashion Nova. Mr. Saghian had a better chance on Instagram. “there were some really basic boutiques that had 300,000 followers,”He stated this in the interview.
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In 2013, Mr. Saghian started an Instagram account, and began posting photos of himself wearing his clothing on mannequins. He noticed that some of his stores’ regular visitors were influencers he had seen on Instagram, where they had hundreds of thousands of followers.
“I had rappers’ girlfriends, female rappers, models,”He said.
They posted photos of themselves in Fashion Nova garb and Mr. Saghian began to give them clothing for free. He then reposted their photos and tagged them.
“Everyone wants to be famous. Everyone wants to have more followers,”Mr. Saghian stated. “By tagging them, the influencer would grow their following.”
Gradually Fashion Nova was able to move from the fringes of the internet to the mainstream. The brand was mentioned on hip-hop tracks. Its sales increased by 600 percent in 2017.
Cardi B (the Grammy-winning rap star) unveiled her first collection for the brand in an Instagram Video in November 2017.
“I wanted to do something that is like, ‘Wow, what is that? Is that Chanel? Is that YSL? Is that Gucci?’ No,”She added an expletive to her words “it’s Fashion Nova.”
All 82 styles in Cardi B’s collection sold out hours after they became available. She posted another video that night, promising a complete restock “in two or three weeks.” (Cardi B’s line is made in Los Angeles, but the government has not found any of the clothes in factories where workers have alleged they were paid less than the minimum, Fashion Nova said.)
There were more searches for Fashion Nova last year than for Versace or Gucci, according to Google’s year in search data. It has 17 million Instagram followers, and there are enough people browsing its website at any given time to fill a basketball court, Mr. Saghian stated.
To keep them interested, Fashion Nova produces more than a thousand new styles every week, thanks in part to an army of local suppliers that can respond instantly to the brand’s requests.
“If there was a design concept that came to mind Sunday night, on a Monday afternoon I would have a sample,”He said.
‘The best possible price’
Many of the people vying for Mr. Saghian’s business occupy glass-walled storefronts jammed into the six frenetic blocks of the garment district in downtown Los Angeles.
These are the companies that will be successful. designFashion Nova and other retailers will buy samples of your clothing and sell them in bulk. These businesses subcontract the production of clothes to nearby factories.
According to Labor Department investigations, seven Fashion Nova clothing factories were visited by The Times in November. Some spoke openly about their involvement with the brand. Others refused to comment on the matter or spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared losing the company as clients.
Interviewed by five owners and employees, Fashion Nova stated that it would always try to get the lowest possible price for each garment and would demand a fast turnaround.
“They give me the best possible price they can give it to me, for that will allow them to still break a profit,”Mr. Saghian stated.
Fashion Nova can negotiate with companies, but their power is limited. Los Angeles has a declining number of retailers. Fashion Nova can place a few large orders that can keep a small shop afloat for another 12 months. They are looking for subcontractors who can sew clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible.
Amante Clothing occupies a small storefront with racks of colorful samples. Fashion Nova regularly collaborates with them. According to a Labor Department investigation that was conducted in December, the brand paid Amante $7.15 for a bulk order. Amante then paid Karis Apparel $7.15 per top for a bulk order.
According to the Labor Department, Amante paid Karis $2.20 per garment. Fashion Nova sold this top for $17.99
“We don’t own the sewing contractor, so whatever the sewing contractor does, that’s his problem,”This is what a designerAmante, who declined to be identified out of fear of losing her job. “We don’t know what they do to give us the lowest price. We assume they’re paying their employees the minimum.”
Karis, the factory that collaborated with Amante, was forced to close its doors in April. Another manufacturer was also ensnared in the investigations and moved production to Mexico this past year.
However, many more factories have managed to evade punishment.
Same owners, different names
Sugar Sky was called Xela Fashion at the time Teresa Garcia started her work there. It was 2014, and Xelafashion, state records show, was owned Demetria Sajche, a woman Ms. Garcia was told Angelina to call.
Several months later — Ms. Garcia does not remember how many — the name on her checks had changed, though she worked in the same grungy factory in the heart of downtown, a few blocks from a SoulCycle.
Now her employer was called Nena Fashion, a company that was founded by Leslie Sajche, a relative of Ms. Garcia’s boss, according to business records filed with California’s secretary of state. GYA Fashion was the new name about a year later.
In 2017, the factory moved to an industrial section of Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles. It then adopted a new name: Sugar Sky. Ms. Sajche retired from the daily operations about a year later and was replaced by Eric Alfredo Ajitaz Puac. Workers knew him as her boyfriend.
Ms. Garcia stated she believed that all the name change were necessary to avoid being shut off by federal or state officials. Several workers, including Ms. Garcia, have filed claims against Xela, Nena, Gya and Sugar Sky for back wages with California’s labor commissioner, the state agency that handles such disputes.
Ms. Garcia’s claim is still active. She included checks that showed she earned $225 for 65 hours of work per week, or $3.46 an hr. She remembers the factory’s receiving orders from Fashion Nova for up to 5,000 pieces of clothing at a time.
“They needed it so fast, they couldn’t wait,”Ms. Garcia spoke of the brand. “We would need to turn it around within a week.”
Despite trying for weeks to reach Mr. Puac or Ms. Sajche, they were not successful. A trip to Sugar Sky’s last known location just before Thanksgiving found a furniture store. Neighbors claimed that the garment factory had moved out two months prior.
Fernando Axjup, who was listed in the factory’s ownership, agreed to an interview. He had recently been fired and had filed his own claim to back wages.
“They keep changing their names so they don’t have to pay people,”Mr. Axjup spoke. “There was a lot of exploitation.”He had access to payroll data as a manager. Garcia claimed that she rarely earned the minimum wage.
Mr. Axjup suggested he may have been fired because he stood up for workers such as Ms. Garcia. Ms. Garcia stated that she doubted that because Mr. Axjup had ordered her to hurry up.
He claimed that he couldn’t understand why Fashion Nova didn’t visit the factory floor to see how its clothes were made.
“Supposedly, the brand should supervise the people who give them work, to find out whether they are being paid well,”Mr. Axjup spoke. “But they never do. They never came to see.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.