Fashion Nova is in the hot seat.
The New York Times reported Monday that a U.S. Department of Labor investigation into factories that made clothes for the brand uncovered $3.8 million in wages owed to hundreds of workers in Los Angeles, some of whom reportedly earned as little as $2.77 per hour, according to one source. (The minimum hourly wage in Los Angeles County is $13.25 for companies with 25 or fewer employees and $14.25 for companies with at least 26.)
Los Angeles, the Times noted, is dotted with factories that pay workers as little as possible, sometimes off the books, to compete with overseas competitors with trimmer margins. Many of the people they employ are undocumented, which makes it difficult for them to organize, advocate for their rights or seek restitution.
In September, the Labor Department told Fashion Nova’s lawyers it found the brand’s clothes in 50 investigations of factories paying less than the federal minimum wage or failing to pay overtime over the past four years.
Mercedes Cortes, a garment worker interviewed by the Times, described making skintight dresses and animal-print jumpsuits in “ramshackle buildings that smelled like bathrooms.”
“There were cockroaches. There were rats,” said Cortes, who worked for several months at a factory called Coco Love, not far from Fashion Nova’s offices in Vernon. “The conditions weren’t good.”
Cortes said her pay depended on how quickly she worked, since she was paid a piece-rate: 4 cents to sew on a sleeve, 5 cents for a side seam, 8 cents for a seam on a neckline. On average, she said she made $270 per week, or $4.66 an hour.
Teresa Garcia, who worked at a factory called Nena Fashion, which was previously named Sugar Sky and before that Xela Fashion, recalled receiving orders from Fashion Nova for up to 5,000 pieces of clothing at a time. (She told the Times she believed the myriad name changes were a way to dodge federal or state officials.) “They needed it so fast, they couldn’t wait,” Garcia said of Fashion Nova’s demands. “We would need to turn it around within a week.”
In tweets responding to the Times story, Fashion Nova wrote “any suggestion that Fashion Nova is responsible for underpaying anyone working on our brand is categorically false.”
“Furthermore, we have written agreements with all of our more than 700 vendors in which they commit to pay their employees and subcontractors in strict alignment with California law,” it added. “Any vendor found to not be in compliance is immediately put on a six-month probationary period. A second violation results in a suspension of all agreements with that vendor.”
Founded in 2006, Fashion Nova is part of an emergent breed of digitally native, Instagram-friendly, direct-to-consumer “faster fashion” companies with even lower prices and faster turnarounds than high-street juggernauts like Zara and H&M. Others of its ilk, including Boohoo, Missguided and Pretty Little Thing, are notorious for copying outfits worn by celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian, who sued Missguided in in February for appropriating her likeness and image without her permission.
Fashion Nova doesn’t deal directly with factories; it doesn’t even design its own clothes. Instead, it uses middlemen to design and ship fabric to third-party sewing contractors. It’s these workers who finish off items by stitching on Fashion Nova’s label.
The company, according to the Times, made 80 percent of its clothes in the United States in 2018. This year, more than half shifted overseas, where regulatory oversight can be laxer. Even in the United States, however, federal law doesn’t penalize brands for wage theft in factories if they can credibly claim ignorance that their clothes were made by illegally low-wage labor. While the Labor Department has amassed millions in back wages and penalties from L.A. garment businesses in recent years, not once has it fined a retailer, not even repeat offender Forever 21.
“Consumers can say, ‘Well, of course that’s what it’s like in Bangladesh or Vietnam,’ but they are developing countries,” David Weil, who led the Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017, told the Times. “People just don’t want to believe it’s true in their own backyard.”
A similar investigation by the Financial Times in 2018 found that both Boohoo and Missguided source at least half their clothes in the English hubs of Leicester and Manchester, where “dark factories” can pay workers as little as 3.50 pounds ($4.60) per hour.