Little Sweatshop of Horrors: Pop-up Store Puts Fast Fashion on Blast

The dressing room at The Mad Rush in Amsterdam gave customers more than they bargained for.
(Photo: Marije Kuiper)
May 17, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With its flattering lighting, Persian rugs, plants, and racks of clothing, The Mad Rush, a pop-up store in Amsterdam, probably seemed like the perfect place to buy an inexpensive, fashion-forward shirt or pair of pants.

But the hundreds of people who visited the boutique on the Kalverstraat, the busiest shopping street in the Dutch capital, between May 11 and May 15 got more than they bargained for. As customers made their way to the back of the shop, they found themselves walking into a space designed to boost the public’s awareness of how a pair of $9 jeans are made: a mock sweatshop.

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People “were surprised, some even in shock,” after entering the cramped, hot, windowless room filled with pretend workers toiling behind sewing machines, Ester Serrano, an Amsterdam-based independent communications professional and one of the creators of The Mad Rush, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Serrano and her colleague Susanne Kuiper created The Mad Rush for Mama Cash, the oldest women’s fund in the world, and the Dutch office of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a 25-year-old international nonprofit that advocates for better working conditions and the empowerment of people in the global garment industry.

(Photo: Anko Stoffels)

We wanted “to create awareness of how our clothes are made—not only about the bad and dangerous working conditions the laborers are working in, but also to show our role and responsibility as a consumer and how to support these women to empower themselves,” Serrano wrote.

Roughly 80 percent of the 60 million workers employed by the garment industry around the world are young, mostly uneducated women. The unsafe conditions in which cheap jeans are made can have fatal consequences, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 people and injured roughly 2,500 more.

(Photo: Anko Stoffels)

The accident helped turn the spotlight on the garment industry’s human rights violations epidemic and spurred the creation of Fashion Revolution, a nonprofit movement to get shoppers to ask brands “Who made my clothes?”

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“As a consumer, you are a vital link in the total chain. When more people ask in stores how the clothes are being fabricated and ask for clean clothes, the big brands have no other choice than to cooperate,” Tara Scally, a spokeswoman for the Dutch office of the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement. After Rana Plaza, “fortunately more and more people are being aware of this. But the more support we get, the sooner we can make a global change in the fashion industry.”

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To that end, shoppers at The Mad Rush were also educated about efforts to change fast fashion’s reliance on cheap labor. An exhibition space behind the hidden mock sweatshop featured images, video, and audio clips of three women who work in the garment industry. Through the multimedia displays, the trio of garment workers shared personal stories about the human rights violations and inhumane conditions they’d endured, as well as worker-led efforts to demand safer conditions and organize unions.

(Photo: Marije Kuiper)

Employees of the Dutch branch of the Clean Clothes Campaign and Mama Cash also staffed the space, providing “information about the clothing industry, insights into the bad working conditions the women are working under, and, most importantly, what you can do to improve these working conditions and make the industry,” wrote Serrano.

The collaborative is looking into bringing The Mad Rush to other cities, Serrano wrote. In the meantime, she suggested that people break the fast-fashion cycle by upcycling or swapping clothes with friends and demanding transparency from clothing brands about the working conditions under which their garments are made.

“Remember, clothes are made by people,” Serrano wrote. “Give your clothes and the women some more respect by extending their life span.”