We Have Thoughts About “Catch as Caftan”

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch and Matthew McMullan
Mar 26 2024 |
The family friendly version of this promotional photo. Courtesy HBO

Yes, this particular blog entry discusses legitimate policy issues related to manufacturing, thank you very much.

The following is a conversation took place over email between Alliance for American Manufacturing staffers Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch (Beth) and Matthew McMullan (Matt) after both watched this season’s episodes of the long-running HBO program Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good.

BETH: O.K. Matt, it’s the final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and we are here to talk about it. At first, everyone was focused on Larry David beating up Elmo, but now attention has turned to what’s really just a B-plot in the show: Catch as Caftan. For non-Curb watchers, the character Susie – who has always been an eccentric dresser – launched a new business selling caftans. On the show, she puts up a billboard to promote the new brand and it gets crudely defaced. I won’t go into details since this is a family blog, but suffice to say HBO put up a billboard in real life as a way to promote the show, and it quickly got defaced

But anyway, like I said, we are talking about this fictional business because we have questions about it. Mainly because the writers, to their credit, seemed to have done a little homework on the textile industry.

MATT: That’s right, they did. And you’re also right, Beth, Susie’s caftan business is just a side plot, but they nailed an important detail about it. An episode after the billboard episode, [main character] Larry [David] is playing golf with friends including Jeff, Susie’s husband, who complains that Susie’s decided to attend a textile conference on the East Coast and is insisting he accompany her. But she bought the plane tickets late – middle seats! – and it’s a long flight to North Carolina.

That’s an appropriate destination. North Carolina has a large textile industry, home to literally hundreds of individual manufacturers and approximately 39,000 workers in the state. And it used to be significantly bigger. Thirty years ago, according to the state’s Commerce Department, employment in textile was roughly double what it is today. But it had already been on a long decline before then. Employment fell from roughly 294,000 in 1973 to 211,000 in 1986. And that’s before NAFTA and trade deals with Caribbean countries brought a ton of textile and apparel imports in.

BETH: The trade deals certainly didn’t help American textile manufacturers. The other big shock that happened was China’s ascension into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which caused the U.S. trade deficit to skyrocket. Textile mills lost 125,400 jobs between 2001 and 2017 due to the deficit, and apparel makers lost over 205,000 jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Everybody thought those losses had leveled off, but there’s a new threat in town: De Minimis.

MATT: Ahh, de minimis. Maybe I’m projecting here a little bit but I could see a Curb Your Enthusiasm bit about Larry being outraged over higher shipping fees for an Amazon delivery or a friend’s teenage kid getting a can of beans and vial of blood in their fast-fashion haul instead of dirt cheap clothes. But Congress passing a de minimis reform bill could potentially push this issue into the consciousness of a TV writers room, because everyone shops online these days. And a big reason we do is because a very permissive U.S. trade enforcement rule has made it very easy to do so.

That rule is the de minimis rule, which allows packages valued under a certain value to imported into the United States duty free and without inspection. The whole point of the rule is to streamline customs enforcement and make it easier for Americans traveling overseas to bring back souvenirs without facing the hassle of a customs official poking through their luggage and interrogating their tchotchke purchases, and the rule used to reflect that; if you brought in items valued less than $200, de minimis would kick in.

But in 2016, Congress raised the threshold from $200 to $800. And, just like you would expect, the volume of packages shipped from overseas retailers to U.S. customers exploded. More than 1 billion de minimis shipments entered the United States in 2023. As of a few weeks ago, there were already 485 million such shipments in 2024. Fast fashion empires have been built around this incredibly loose rule because, again, de minimis means these packages don’t face inspection. So, for example: Because of de minimis, no one is checking to see that the goods inside a box full of SHEIN clothing runs afoul of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.  

BETH: You know, I was just chatting with a friend who runs a high-end luxury clothing line that makes its items in Los Angeles about how the de minimis loophole is absolutely crushing small brands right now. So many smaller shops, which already cater to customers at a higher price point, have gone under because of the flood of cheap stuff from China. What’s so frustrating is that America’s own trade laws are giving the SHEINs and Temus and sketchy, weirdly named shops on Amazon a leg up over American apparel makers. Our own laws are effectively subsidizing these Chinese brands.

Now that could definitely be a Curb plotline. Speaking of, it remains unclear where Susie is making her caftans, although it looks like HBO is preparing to sell one on its website. No country of origin details, though. Hopefully they’ll share that soon.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” airs at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and is also available to stream on Max. We’ll continue to watch the remainder of the season and will share any manufacturing-related updates on the Catch as Caftan plot line.