Fast Fashion, Transnational Ties, and Encounter Ethnography in Italy: An Interview with Elizabeth L. Krause

This is part of our special feature on Europe-China Relations.

Who are the makers behind the “Made in Italy” label prized by the world’s fashion-conscious consumers? In Prato, a small Tuscan city with a long history of textile production, the makers come increasingly from a growing community of transnational Chinese migrants. Searching for economic opportunities for themselves and their families, the Chinese in Prato have mastered the kinds of flexible production associated with “fast fashion” and made the city once more an important node in a lucrative global supply chain. At the same time, they have elicited both the fascination and ire of the local Pratesi, who are unsure of what to make of a foreign, hyper-transient, and partially undocumented population in their midst. In her upcoming book, Tight Knit: Global Families and the Social Life of Fast Fashion, cultural anthropologist Elizabeth L. Krause offers an immersive account of Prato and its Chinese community, focusing on where both fit in an ever-shifting global economic order. Her analysis, based on extended ethnographic fieldwork, illuminates the various non-market practices and exchanges that augment the productive capacity of the Chinese—and thus of Italy itself. In the process, Krause offers a commentary on 21st-century capitalism, showing that emergent circuits of production grow alongside—and are ultimately dependent upon—novel forms of global kinship and reciprocity. Krause and I spoke by Skype in late May 2018. What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of our conversation.

—Kelly McKowen for EuropeNow


EuropeNow Italy has long been a fertile site for ethnographic research, and never more so than in the last decade. Books like Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal and Molé’s Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy have highlighted the profound social and economic dislocations remaking Italian society. Where does Tight Knit fit alongside these and other recent ethnographies of Italy? And does it add something new to the story emerging across these other works or revise the story altogether?

Elizabeth Krause I think that both of those books are taking on big global topics and looking at how they’re playing out locally. I’m looking at how families and individuals and institutions are entangled in global supply chains, so there’s this very profound and complicated relationship between the local and the global. In this moment, a lot of communities want to tell their own stories, but these kinds of stories are so complex. I’ve been very interested in the encounters in global-local moments, and I innovate this method called “encounter ethnography” as a way to create the object of analysis not as the Chinese immigrants or the displaced textile workers but as what happens when we look at moments of encounter. I see myself as kind of a daughter of Eric Wolf in terms of connections and the political economy approach—and yet a rebellious daughter because of the way I have blurred genres.

EuropeNow In addition to dealing with the local and the global, the story of Prato, its Chinese migrants, and fast fashion is one of invisibility and visibility. On the one hand, you have a robust informal economy, including sweatshops. On the other, you have an increasingly prosperous Chinese community, who are even indulging in a kind of conspicuous consumption. As an ethnographer, how did you navigate between these two dimensions?

Elizabeth Krause Prato is known for its history of enjoying the post-war boom based on its really strong informal economy. As the society shifted post-fascism from a rural-agrarian economy to an industrial economy there was such a blurring of the old peasant productive forms and the industrial ones. And there are so many memories of these worlds intersecting: old peasants having a few looms in their workshop, hiding them from the old count, who was their landlord.

Many of the workers, who had migrated from the south or the rural hinterlands of Tuscany, wanted egalitarian forms of work. They wanted to get out of those really oppressive forms of patriarchy. There was a lot of labor struggle. This led to the hot autumn of ’68. The resolution was this diffuse kind of industry where artisans and workers left the factories, and they set up small shops in a production chain, all separated. Eventually, Prato shifted into sweater-making. You would have one where the industrial artisan would crank out the sweater pieces, another one would cut and sew it into shapes, another one where they would sew on collars and buttons and iron it. So, the former factory was just a distribution point, and much of this work was in the informal economy. In fact, a French fashion magazine in ’78 and again in ’80 called Prato “Italian Hong Kong” for its exploitive work conditions. There’s this whole story of the Pratesi really embracing self-exploitation. It’s a narrative they tell about themselves, that “we were the Chinese.” The levels of visibility and invisibility, the haves and the have-nots have long been in place, and they continue, except instead of migrants from the rural hinterlands of the south and the region, they’re transnational migrants.

EuropeNow How about the tension between aesthetics and speed? Is “fast fashion” new for Prato? And how has the association of the Chinese community with fast fashion shaped their reception?

Elizabeth Krause In the ’80s, you had the rise of the “third Italy” and this diffuse industry in the name of “flexibility.” In the U.S., people have come to think of flexibility as “I can work at home. I can have part-time hours.” What it means in the context of industry is that when there’s a job to be done, you get it done even if you have to work 12- or 15-hour days. A couple things happened. It became very difficult for the Italians to compete as globalization took hold. There were a lot of structural things that were happening, including the global restructuring of the fashion industry. Before the Chinese arrived, certain factory owners were starting to outsource beyond Italy, moving their factories to Albania, Tunisia, China. The infamous mayor of Prato, Roberto Cenni, moved his factory to China and subsequently ran his campaign on an anti-immigrant platform. And he won. He was the first right-wing mayor to win since the fall of fascism.

So, in terms of the question of aesthetics and speed—that can be understood best within the terms of the global restructuring of the fashion industry, along with two other structures: the “Made-in-Italy model” and the “Wenzhou model.” The Wenzhou model, as one economic historian put it, fit like a glove with the Made-in-Italy model because of its preference for small family firms and entrepreneurial spirit. When the Chinese arrived, this niche of fast fashion really didn’t exist very much.

So, those three structures come together, the fast fashion niche is new, it’s taking off, and the Chinese learn they can go to Europe and make money. Many of them arrived with debt—most of them could pay it off in two years with very hard work and could have the possibility to have their own little cut-and-sew shop.  They’re known to be very fast, very on time, and willing to work very long hours—as the Italians did in decades past. But at a certain point, for the Italians, the money wasn’t enough. The way that the Chinese do it is they sacrifice home and family. Until an infamous fire, most of them were living in factory dormitories.

EurupeNow “Global families” is in the subtitle of your book. On the Chinese side, what has the experience of migrating and settling in Prato done to families? And what’s it doing to the transmission of values to a generation coming of age in Prato?

Elizabeth Krause The circulation of children is one way that I’m arguing that there’s a lot more heterogeneity within capitalism than we usually assume. By circulating their children back to China, the Chinese are allowing themselves to be more flexible as workers. At the same time, they’re creating global households. They find value in circulating children, even though they also find heartbreak in doing it. The value has to do with four things. One is that they’re activating systems of reciprocity across kin. Another is that they’re creating these networked bodies that will allow their children to have more options in the future because they’ll have social and kin networks in China and social and kin networks in Europe. They’re also securing affective bonds across generations between grandparents and grandchildren. And I already mentioned that they’re freeing up time to enhance their flexibility as workers.

Part of our ethnographic work was in a hospital. We received permissions to look at interactions between healthcare professionals and the parents when they brought in their babies for their three-month check-ups. We found out that there was a lot more going on than medical care. In the book, I juxtapose and make sense of the vocabularies that the Chinese mothers and fathers used to portray the value gained—or heartache endured—from the transnational movement of children. I contrast these with what the healthcare professionals say about their parenting and the circulation of children. By putting these two in dialogue together, we really get a sense of how individuals and families and institutions are coping with being caught up in the hegemony of global supply chains. The healthcare professionals have very negative views of the global circulation of children.

EuropeNow Your last book, Unraveled: A Weaver’s Tale of Life Gone Modern, was a genre-bending work. Did Tight Knit offer similar opportunities to experiment with genre?

Elizabeth Krause In Unraveled, I blurred between historical fiction in part one and narrative ethnography in the second part. I was trying to bring to life a very dry topic—the quiet revolution of the demographic change from high fertility to low fertility populations. The book was trying to get to the historical roots, and I did that through the eyes of one protagonist, growing up under fascism as a straw-weaver and weaving straw hats for the early twentieth century globalizing economy. And her coming from a family of seven, having only one child herself.  The story of Unraveled points to the way people wanted to become modern. There’s also this unraveling of a mystery of a different kind of circulation of children—foundlings who were abandoned and then given to wet nurses—and the trauma that circulation left in the population and in historical memory. The blurred genre aspect of the book came out of a process in which I realized it was very difficult to allow people to imagine a past where I was not present.

This book—it’s not a blurred genre book. It’s a narrative ethnography, and I think that I use my skills as a writer to really try to pull people into certain worlds, to challenge stereotypes, whether it’s about the value of the “Made in Italy” brand or about money. That’s one of the negative stereotypes about the Chinese—that  they’re just “money grubbers.”

But there are ways in which the book is blurred. It’s a collaborative work. I had a transnational team, and so the cultural intimacy was spread across our relationships. And it blurs humanistic and social scientific approaches to doing ethnography.

EuropeNow Earlier, you mentioned “encounter ethnography.” Where does that emerge from?

Elizabeth Krause It came together through a kind of complicated journey. A lot of anthropologists have talked about encounters: colonial encounters, fieldwork encounters, clinical encounters, touristic encounters. And there is this wonderful Italian ethnographer named Ernesto De Martino. He was a real disciple of Gramsci and was studying southern Italians. He was really interested in ethnographic encounters, and the difficulty of interpretation because of this paradox: we bring to any encounter our own categories of observation, so how do we not just lay our interpretations over practices? He was looking at what northern Italians would have considered very backward southern Italian superstitions and practices. He theorized that we’re never going to get rid of our categories, but we can question them and try to become more conscious about them.

It brings to mind this wonderful moment that Marshall Sahlins talks about in his essay “Cosmologies of Capitalism.” This English ambassador brings over samples of certain goods and the Chinese accept them not as gifts but rather as tribute. The difference between gifts and tribute demonstrates their different positionalities—someone was below you if they’re giving you tribute. Whether something is a gift or tribute, it positions people. What de Martino was proposing is that we really need to question our categories, and in order to really fully do that, our transnational team included Italian anthropologist Massimo Bressan who works on urban anthropology and economic anthropology and a Chinese research assistant Fangli Xu who grew up in Italy from the time she was ten, speaks Wenzhouese, Mandarin, and Italian, and could really allow people to speak from their own place. It’s never perfect, nothing’s ever perfect. Everything we do is sort of partial, but I do feel that the book is making some real contributions to how we might do ethnographic research that matters, that takes what Anna Tsing calls the “arts of noticing” to different scales.

EuropeNow Who is the audience you imagine for Tight Knit?

Elizabeth Krause I did have in mind an educated lay audience. I first thought that I might do a crossover book because of the topic: everyone wears clothes, and there are certain stereotypes of Italy, like that everyone there is rich. I think that the audience for the book ranges from a great common read for freshman to something that can be read in a more sophisticated way by graduate students. Someone suggested it would be a great book for students of ethics in textile or fashion design. I see it cross-cutting a number of different areas. It’s a challenge. I think that we get seduced by our own jargon. There’s a politics to writing that’s behind having the book serve as an intervention into how we’re understanding globalization and the heterogeneity within global capitalism. That’s a really deep part of this story. There’s heterogeneity in terms of scale—there are 5,200 firms Chinese-managed and -owned in Prato, though we think of fashion being produced in huge, mega-firms. There’s this story of entrepreneurship that’s quite remarkable. Entangled in this story is the brightest and the darkest, including extreme exploitation. Also, we have the fact that many of the families are circulating children back to China, and this opens up the idea that reciprocity is underwriting global capitalism. You even see that in the small workshops in the relationships between the owners of the small firms and the workers in terms of housing, dining together. It’s a really complicated story in which all principles of gift economies and hyper-capitalist competition are entangled.

EuropeNow Ultimately, what does Tight Knight tell us about globalization?

Elizabeth Krause I think we have to ask ourselves: What is the value of exposing this “crooked” capitalism? It’s a crooked form of capitalism in the sense that it’s not so straight and so rational as the free market-worshippers would like us to believe. These narrow categories don’t allow us to see the complexity and other possibilities. Not all diverse economic forms are going to be progressive—I’m not saying that. What I’m saying there is a lot more, there’s reciprocity, there are archaic gift economy practices, there’s the tyranny of the gift. It’s not just ‘straight ahead’ global capitalism. There’s value in that.


Elizabeth L. Krause is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of numerous articles and three books, including the forthcoming Tight Knit: Global Families and the Social Life of Fast Fashion. She currently serves as the President of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe.

Kelly McKowen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. He serves on the research editorial committee of EuropeNow.



Published on June 5, 2018.


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