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Woman- And Refugee-Owned Clothing Co-Op Battling Fast Fashion To Open Studio On Southwest Side

At Hoda Katebi's Blue Tin Co-Op, working-class women of color are in charge. "We don't have employees; we have worker-owners," the community organizer said.

Left: Blue Tin is run as a cooperative, meaning the worker-owners are part of decision-making and receive part of the profits. Right: Blue Tin founder Hoda Katebi
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CHICAGO LAWN — A Chicago-based garment manufacturing cooperative is one step closer to opening a full-time production studio on the Southwest Side as its founder and worker-owners battle fast fashion.

Blue Tin Production Co-Op, founded by organizer Hoda Katebi in 2019, received a $1.75 million community development grant from the city this spring. The money will allow Blue Tin to move all of its production from Beverly to 63rd House at 3055 W. 63rd St. Chicago Lawn.

At Blue Tin, all of the worker-owners are women of color, and many are immigrants and refugees, Katebi said.

The company’s new headquarters will include the company’s studio, a flexible co-working space, meeting areas, an exhibition space to highlight the work of incarcerated artists, a library, mental health services and a rooftop garden. Blue Tin is currently operating out of rented spot in Beverly after launching in Uptown on the North Side.

Katebi, who also founded the popular fashion blog JooJoo Azad, is still actively fundraising for the project, which is expected to cost $5 million, she said. She hopes to have 63rd House completely funded by the end of the summer and a finished project in two to three years.

The funding model for the project has been very intentional, with company leaders collectively deciding they didn’t want to rely on grassroots fundraising from the community, she said.

“The hood has funded this entire city through extractive labor, through dumping of pollution,” Katebi said. “We shouldn’t be coming back to the hood to ask them for what they have left in order to fund this project.

“But instead, we need to be going to institutions and people and establishments that have historically benefited from the disinvestment of the hood and get their money. Which is why I went to the city.”

Credit: Provided
Blue Tin is run as a cooperative, meaning the worker-owners are part of decision-making and receive part of the profits.

Katebi, who is from Oklahoma, said she created Blue Tin “totally by accident.” Her background is in organizing.

Katebi has worked with garment union workers around the world on research and solidarity campaigns; it was through visiting factories that she saw firsthand the lack of transparency when it came to these manufacturers and how little people understood the supply chain in the fashion industry, she said.

“I was doing a lot of research domestically, I visited a lot of factories around the country, and even when they say, ‘We’re family-owned,’ that doesn’t mean anything in terms of the labor standards, right?” Katebi said. “People know how to use cute words, but they don’t actually understand labor in a very intimate way.”

Katebi has realized that, to explain to others what she does, she first has to mention a sweatshop — and then explain how Blue Tin is different, she said.

“It’s very challenging to convey what we do because of so much of a lack of knowledge about supply chains in the fashion industry,” she said. “There’s a lot of misunderstandings until I say, ‘We’re like a sweatshop, but without the violence.’ The fact that people know what sweatshops are, but as the only point of reference for this level of the supply chain of fashion manufacturing, … just shows where the conversation is.”

Credit: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank / Block Club Chicago
Hoda Katebi, left, works on her computer while Mercy, right, cuts pieces for a sample garment in 2019.

Blue Tin stands apart from other apparel manufacturers in many ways, most significantly in its dedication to fair labor and sustainability, Katebi said. In contrast, the fast fashion industry is known for poor wages and working conditions and being wasteful.

“We don’t have employees; we have worker-owners,” Katebi said of Blue Tin. “They are the people who co-own the business. They set the salaries; they set who we decide to take on; they set their hours. So it’s still not replicating the same top-down [structure] of like, ‘Oh, let me pay you $1 above minimum wage and call it radical.'”

Katebi said it was important to center the company around a demographic that’s historically been exploited in the garment manufacturing industry.

Blue Tin’s worker-owners are also the driving force behind the company’s growth, Katebi said. She said their growth has been “intentionally slow” and rooted in its members’ own economic goals, whether it’s buying a home or sponsoring a family’s move.

“How can we actually grow the business in accordance to what our members need in order to feel like they’re thriving financially as well, too, and getting everything that they want done?” she said.

Blue Tin is an example of how an institution’s structure can shape its sustainability, Katebi said. For example, it its first year, the company unintentionally hit a record by having significantly less waste created from fabric compared to the industry average — 9 percent at Blue Tin compared to an industry average of about 24 percent, she said.

“It was because working-class women of color are in charge,” she said. “There’s a very different relationship with the Earth and everybody inside of it. And because these are the women that were leading Blue Tin, there was virtually no fabric waste. Everything was reused.”

Katebi said she hopes Blue Tin’s model and practices can show others what’s possible in the apparel manufacturing industry.

“What we’re really trying to think of is: How can Blue Tin be a testing lab where we can actually put some of these theories that we talk about all the time, like Marxist theories of exploitation, labor, different things like that, into actual practice, and see what works? What doesn’t? What is the formula that is working for us to be able to actually create a model that can be replicated at scale by government workers around the world?” Katebi said.

Those who want to learn more about Blue Tin’s 63rd House can learn more on its website and social media.

“There are not a lot of people who would fund a project like this, and that’s why it’s important for us to be able to connect with people who are interested,” Katebi said.

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