At first blush, “The Mad Rush” doesn’t appear unlike many of the trendy concept stores that litter the busy shopping street of Kalverstraat in Amsterdam. Ask to try something on, however, and an attendant will usher you into not a fitting room but a hidden nook made to resemble one of the thousands of sewing workshops that churn out clothing in low-wage countries like Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia. You can credit—or blame—Schone Kleren Campagne, the Dutch arm of the Clean Clothes Campaign, for the subterfuge. Created in collaboration with Mama Cash, an international fund dedicated to women’s causes, the pop-up store and its transition from boutique to backroom are designed to unsettle. “The place is stuffy and musty, you hear the loud rattling of machines,” the campaign said of the tableau that greets unsuspecting shoppers. “And there are far too many people working the sewing machines for the space there is available.”
It’s true that the so-called “sweatshop” is only a simulation, but it’s also a “daily, painful reality” for the cut-rate laborers who struggle in similar setups 4,753 miles away in Bangladesh, or 4,417 miles away in India, said the group.
The mostly women and children there, the campaign notes, work for long stretches at a time in deplorable, typically unsafe, and intimidation- and harassment-filled conditions, usually for little more than “starvation pay.”
“The Mad Rush” pop-up, according to Tara Scally, spokeswoman for Schone Kleren Campagne, is meant to serve as a “wakeup call.”
“As a consumer, you are a vital link in the total chain. When more people ask in stores how the cloths are being fabricated and ask for clean cloths, the big brands have no other choice than to cooperate,” Scally said. “After the disaster where Rana Plaza collapsed, 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.”
Still, the installation isn’t intended to be an instrument of shame. A second space behind the “sweatshop” features photographs and video footage that provide not only a glimpse into the lives of real-life garment workers but also the tools that consumers can arm themselves with to counter the injustice.
Neither will visitors leave the store empty-handed, Scally added.
“They will be provided with enough tips about how they themselves can contribute to a more honest clothing industry and an on-the-spot screen-printed bag—produced by the women in the sweatshop—of which you yourself can set the price,” she said.
All proceeds from the bags will benefit Schone Kleren Campagne and Mama Cash’s joint “Women Power Fashion” initiative, which provides empowerment training to South Asia’s women garment workers so they can demand living wages and a better workplace.
The pop-up runs from now through May 15.