MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Our Planet Money Team is going into business, T-shirt business. They're going to make T-shirts and tried to sell them to you, our listeners. Now, this is not a fundraising pitch. We're going to explore the economics behind the clothes we wear. Planet Money will bring you stories from cotton growers in Brazil, garment factories in China and fabric mills in North Carolina.
Today, Alex Blumberg and Chana Joffe-Walt get started with one of the most difficult decisions in the entire process.
ALEX BLUMBERG: The decision: What should our T-shirt look like?
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: We thought that would be the easy part. What would be difficult was deciding where to make it, or what kind of yarn to use, where to get our cotton.
BLUMBERG: For all those other choices, there are objective metrics; who grows better cotton, who makes better yarn. How the T-shirt looks, though - I mean red isn't objectively better than blue; crew neck isn't better than V-neck. How do you decide? Especially if the company is spending a lot of money on raw material, the stakes are really high.
Ms. SOPHIA WAXMAN (Executive, Macys Department Store): You see great big sales, you know, in the stores. And you're like, oh, my God, this is great 'cause it's 80 percent off. Like, someone is fired.
BLUMBERG: We decided we needed to talk to an expert. Sophia Waxman is an executive at the department store chain Macy's, who works in apparel design.
Ms. WAXMAN: I mean, we're in trouble for those kind of things.
BLUMBERG: Because somebody thought this is going to something that everybody is going to want. And...
Ms. WAXMAN: Everybody didn't want it.
JOFFE-WALT: Sophia tells us there's no crystal ball to predict whether not everyone is going to want our T-shirt. But she says a strategy a lot of people in the industry use, try and figure out what the trend is and then copy it.
BLUMBERG: There is a lot of copying in the fashion industry. Not exact copying - although that happens - but borrowing, taking inspiration from.
I talked to a guy named Kal Raustiala about this, a law professor who's written about the fashion industry.
Professor KAL RAUSTIALA (UCLA School of Law): Fashion doesnt improve, with a few weird exceptions. Like, you know, we have more better waterproof fabrics or something. It's not obvious that this dress is better or worse. It's just different. So how do you pick? And I think, just observing the industry, there are those who really try to be out in front of the curve and to make trends. And there are those who tend to follow them.
BLUMBERG: I talked to someone else who suggests that we might want to go the copying route. Johanna Blakely and researches pop culture in the fashion industry at the University of Southern California, USC. And she says you, our listeners and potential customers, you want us to copy.
Professor JOHANNA BLAKELY (University of Southern California): There are several sociologists and cultural studies scholars who have looked at the dynamics of flocking and differentiation; that there is a human desire to demonstrate that you're aware of what's in vogue right now. And also a desire to make sure that you don't look like everybody else.
BLUMBERG: So in other words, the fashion industry is full of copycats because of us, people. We're impossible to please.
JOFFE-WALT: There's one more argument for copying in the fashion industry. Unlike many other industries - like music, entertainment, pharmaceuticals -copying in fashion is perfectly legal.
BLUMBERG: We could copy The Gap, Banana Republic. We could even forget the T-shirts idea and decide to sell a stitch-for-stitch knockoff Chelsea Clinton's wedding dress. Of course, we would be late to that idea.
Mr. ALAIN COBLENCE (Attorney, Council of Fashion Designers of America): Just the next day after the wedding, on television, you have somebody whos peddling knockoffs of the exact same dress for a couple of hundred dollars.
BLUMBERG: This is Alain Coblence, who is hoping to put an end to rampant copying in the fashion industry. Coblence is an attorney for the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
JOFFE-WALT: A lot of big names in fashions are members: Calvin Klein, Oscar De La Renta, Diane Von Furstenberg. And the CFDA has proposed legislation that would, for the first time in history, allow designers to take legal action against copycats.
BLUMBERG: This bill has actually been submitted to Congress by Charles Schumer, senator from New York, and seems to have a good chance of passing.
JOFFE-WALT: Which makes Kal Raustiala, the law professor, nervous. He and his colleague, Christopher Sprigman, wrote a paper called the piracy paradox.
BLUMBERG: That paradox, some industries, the argument goes, you need to legally protect new idea to foster innovation and creativity.
Professor CHRISTOPHER SPRIGMAN (University of Chicago Law School): But in the fashion context, what was interesting to us is that copying didn't actually hurt creativity very much. In fact, it may help it.
JOFFE-WALT: Copying, the argument goes, spreads ideas around and they evolve.
BLUMBERG: Also, stylish people don't want to sport a look that anyone can copy with a cheap knockoff. So the more copies out there, the more work there is original designers to come up with the next new thing.
JOFFE-WALT: So, Alex, it's settled. We're copying.
BLUMBERG: Yes, in every way. We are borrowing a T-shirt pattern that's already out there. And we're jumping onto a new trend in graphic design, as well.
JOFFE-WALT: A trend we were put on to by design firm called Tinker London. Our design will incorporate QR codes. Those codes that you see popping up on billboards, they're like a barcode you can scan with your smart phone that'll take you to a website.
We're hoping that our shirt, with the aid of technology, will literally be able to tell you the story of how it was created.
BLUMBERG: We are even copying the colors. Every designer I've talked to said fall of 2011, when our T-shirt will be up for sale, has got to be either green or gray. Everything in stores is going to be green or gray in 2011 and our shirts will be no exception. Im Alex Blumberg .
JOFFE-WALT: And Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.
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