Getting the goods on denim

Former WJ columnist publishes international expose

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By STASIA THOMPSON

Some pretty big fish learned to swim with the sharks at this humble community newspaper in the small pond of Oak Park. Witness Rachel Louise Snyder.

Life began innocently enough for Snyder. The Naperville native moved to Oak Park a few years after finishing graduate school. A freelance writer and editorial assistant at a Homewood publishing company, she followed up on a listing for an apartment in a building at Lombard and Washington.

Ann Maxwell, who served as building supervisor and an accomplished photojournalist, was moving out and into a home of her own. Maxwell offered Snyder her supervisor position, collecting rent and maintaining the building, and also her monthly feature column "Apartment Life" in Wednesday Journal. Snyder accepted.

"I wrote quirky, light, featury pieces like how to have guests when you live in an apartment, and how to keep your houseplants alive," Snyder recalled.

Now she's in the headlines for authoring a book on the jeans industry.

Snyder and Maxwell's friendship grew and the two formed a journalistic dynamic duo. "Ann was an accomplished travel photographer with the Chicago Tribune, and we travelled the world on far-flung assignments," Snyder said. She captured the story in words and Maxwell supplied the photos for adventures that ranged from teen runaways panhandling in San Francisco to an interview with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Snyder lived in Oak Park for about five years before buying a condo in Chicago in 2001. She left her Wednesday Journal column behind to teach literature and write at DePaul part-time and "was writing for the Tribune, covering women's issues and foreign stories with Ann," she said.

Those days are long gone, but Maxwell remained in Oak Park and moved into a high-ranking government position as a regional inspector general while Snyder's career moved her from Oak Park to other cities and countries-most recently, Cambodia.

The award-winning journalist's accomplishments range from light features to investigative journalism for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, New York Times Magazine, Sunday London Times Magazine, Salon, Slate, New Republic, Seventeen, Glamour and Jane-as well as for several programs on National Public Radio.

Her odyssey to Cambodia began when she attended a course for international journalists on how to survive in a hostile environment. She and the instructor, Paul Burton, a retired commando from England-turned successful international security consultant, fell in love. Fast forward to Cambodia several years ago when he accepted a position in security consulting there. Snyder continued her journalism career from her new Asian vantage point.

Gaining unusual access to the manufacturing industry in Cambodia, the result is her latest book: Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in a Borderless World of Global Trade. Snyder recently completed a book tour in the United States, culminating in an engagement at the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs before "returning home to Cambodia to await the arrival of my first child-a daughter." Snyder and her husband have yet to decide on a name, but Snyder said "we know her middle name will be Jazz."

Denim's downside

"The average pair of jeans carries three quarters of a pound of chemicals," Snyder writes in her book on this $55-billion industry, noting the dyes and "distressers" that create the look and feel of this popular cloth. Fortunately, those chemicals are largely washed out before they hit our dresser drawers, but they're a deadly deposit in the waters of China to the extent some claim by 2015 their fresh water source will dry up, causing the booming country to go bust.

Allowing readers to form their own opinion, Snyder maps the many hands and miles that go into manufacturing the pair of jeans you may now be wearing. According to Snyder, who has firsthand experience, a pair of jeans with a "Made in Peru" label "might have cotton from Texas, weaving from North Carolina, cutting and sewing from Lima, washing and finishing from Mexico City, and distribution from Los Angeles."

Snyder systematically traces the geographical and financial route of jeans, reporting on the many personalities and details she encounters, from style conception in a SoHo fashion designer's office to cotton-picking in Azerbaijan to a Cambodian seamstress and her daughter. She offers rare insight into how manufacturers, exporters and importers creatively interpret the governmental laws to their own benefit.

"Everyone is quick to look at well-publicized companies such as the Gap and Levi's, but everyone needs to read the labels at Family Dollar or Macy's, too" she advises. "Today, we need to ask ourselves if we are consuming more than the world can possibly give us? The average American has at least eight pairs of jeans-that's more than one pair of pants for each day of the week." Snyder said this industry, like many, comes up short on their investment in environmental and social programs.

Snyder is already at work on her next project. "I am about 75 pages into my next book-it will be fiction," she said.

Like a favorite pair of jeans, Snyder and Maxwell continue to be a good fit and have created many memories together. Snyder stayed with Maxwell in Oak Park during her recent trip to Chicago, and Maxwell attended Snyder's wedding in Cambodia . "We had a traditional Buddhist ceremony, traveling to the temple on an elephant and wearing traditional native clothing," Snyder recalls. Maxwell was her maid of honor.

No jeans were worn.

Fugitive Denim can be purchased locally at Barbara's Bookstore, Magic Tree, The BookTable and Borders as well as online at amazon.com. Readers can also request it at the public library. Read more about Rachel Louise Snyder on her website, globalgrit.com

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