Saving the Garment District
by suzanne mcgee
Survivors of a Shrinking District
Warren Brand is the third generation to run M&S Schmalberg in the more than 90 years of its existence; his son, Adam, is the fourth. But in the seventh-floor workshop factory on West 36th Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District, only a handful of people can be found working where there were once more than two dozen stamping out and molding fabrics of all kinds into flower-shaped pieces and then turning those scraps into perfect three-dimensional flowers of silk, velvet, and leather. Still, says Brand, “we are the survivor” of several Fashion District stalwarts who once crafted these custom flowers, used to adorn a pair of designer shoes or a gown.
Brand still pulls in orders from top designers like Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera, and St. John. “Anything a flower can go on, we can make the flower for it,” he says. But whereas once the phone was ringing off the hook, today he’s scrambling for business any way he can—importing inexpensive mesh baby’s hair bands and adding flowers to them for resale, for instance. “We are a handmade American product in an import world,” Brand says.
And Brand isn’t alone. A block or so north, Rodger Cohen has turned to making medical scrubs to help offset the downturn in demand for the highly specialized stitching—custom pleating, shirring, ruching—from New York–based designers that once kept his machines humming. Regal Originals, the business founded by his fatherin- law, Jack Krinick, a Holocaust survivor, employed 150 people as recently as the 1980s. Now the business occupies 25 percent of the space that it once did and has enough work for only 20 percent as many people.
The Muscle Behind the Movement
Designer Nanette Lepore is in the vanguard of a movement she hopes will reverse that trend, being an early and extremely vocal supporter of Save the Garment Center, a trade association recognizing and promoting New York’s role as the capital city of fashion. “But a fashion capital without industrial production? That’s not sustainable,” Lepore declares. “We need to preserve what is still here and find ways to bring back some of the skills that have left.”
Lepore herself still does nearly all of her manufacturing within a few blocks of her offices on West 35th Street. Samples are put together at her atelier (littered with fabrics, drawings, and examples of finished garments). Then the fabric goes off to a local marking and grading company, and from there to a cutting factory within the district, and finally local factories, where the garments are sewn. Lepore drops by daily and checks on the progress to identify any mistakes before it’s too late. “I couldn’t get on a plane to China every week to make sure everything is done properly,” she says. Then the finished garments come back to Lepore’s headquarters, which also contains her showroom and the shipping department.
These days, not all designers can emulate Lepore and keep production at home in the United States, much less in the Garment District itself. Designer Stan Herman, a past president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), for instance, manufactures a line of lounge and sleepwear for QVC, and all of the work has to be done in markets overseas like China. “The vendor who has to keep an eye on what the mass-market customer wants to pay really doesn’t have a choice but to go to the ends of the earth to find a low-cost production option,” he explains.
That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t support Lepore’s initiative, however. “If I could do it here, I would—in a heartbeat,” he says. “I’ve been designing in the Garment District now longer than almost anybody else; this is where I learned. I know what it’s like to roll racks [of clothes on hangers]. Kids today do their designing on computers, and they get frustrated by not being able to see the clothes take shape in front of them; it’s a different and sometimes difficult creative process for a young designer.”
That’s not the only issue, as designer Elie Tahari notes. “For a beginning designer, it’s always good to be on the factory floor; he needs to watch the stitching of the buttons, the shape of the garment as it’s made, the fabric, the color,” the industry veteran explains. Even after decades of experience, Tahari says, he still has problems with long-distance production. “Today I had a two-hour meeting to discuss how we can watch what is happening overseas. I wish our factories were still here.”
Cost vs. Craftmanship
In 1900, the apparel industry was the city’s largest employer. When the exodus began from the Garment Center in the 1980s, it was for reasons of cost. Then, the level of expertise in China—still the primary destination of much of the outsourcing—began to rise, and some specialized trades began to vanish from Manhattan as well. Full-fashion knitwear has nearly disappeared, says Lepore, along with the most up-to-date specialized machinery necessary to produce it. “Things that have to be hand-embroidered or beaded—the handwork—is now done best in other countries,” she says. Still, organizations like The Thread Atelier are trying to bring back some of those skills—and the machines needed to perform them—to workshops in the New York area. Just last month, a knitwear facility called Keff NYC opened in the district on 36th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
Fern Mallis, former executive director of the CFDA and a key player in creating Fashion Week, says that some of the reasons designers moved production abroad no longer apply—including cost. “I think [designers] are finding out that the pricing isn’t so different anymore, once they finish paying for freight and transportation, and given that they don’t have the ability to follow what is going on in [overseas] factories in real time.”
For some designers and retailers, returning to the Garment District will never be an option, at least not for the majority of their output. Still, Lepore insists, the 1.6 million square feet that are used for manufacturing and production in Manhattan’s Garment District could be humming a lot more busily than they are today—and designers, especially younger designers still learning the craft, whose small orders tend to take a backseat to others in Chinese factories, would be among the beneficiaries. “We have more than 800 fashion companies based in New York. That’s more than they have in Paris, Milan, and London combined,” she says. To keep that creative ferment alive and well, Lepore says, having local factories is vital.
Of course, saving the Garment District is about more than the decisions made by a single designer—and part of the recipe is having political support, not just in words, but actions. Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg opted to throw his weight behind some fresh incentives aimed at revitalizing the Garment District in order to keep Fashion Week (which generates more than $800 million annually for New York City) vibrant and to help ensure that more of the clothing shown on its runways is not only designed, but manufactured, here. Ideas include launching a fund that emerging designers can tap into to help finance their new collections—as long as they are produced in the city. There’s also a plan afoot to help talented designers acquire business skills, offering them a mini-MBA course in partnership with the Fashion Institute of Technology, or simply teaching them how to run a business, including marketing, operations, and financial management skills.
These are longer-term strategies, as well. Lepore points out that while having business-savvy designers is great, up-and-coming designers need to be willing to consider new, home-based ideas for manufacturing. Still, the effort that she has spearheaded to encourage established names into bringing production home is starting to take effect. For instance, the creative and manufacturing teams at Eileen Fisher are working actively to figure out how the design firm can work with Save the Garment Center. The first meetings between Susan Young, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, and the group took place in June and July, and more are planned. “We will sell about 800,000 units in 2012, so moving much of our production back to New York may not be possible,” says Young, who raises concerns about both cost and expertise. “By the mid 1990s, to work with silk and to produce fully fashioned sweaters, we had to be in China for quality reasons for that kind of production line.”
But moving more manufacturing back to New York—and workshops and factories elsewhere in the United States—means that the company can slash the time it takes to usher a new garment through the design and manufacturing process and get it into stores. “There may be no needs that we have that can’t be met elsewhere, but we want to support Made in USA products,” says Jonci Cukier, Eileen Fisher’s co-chief operating officer. “This is an idea in its infancy—how to revitalize the business of manufacturing and not just designing here in the United States—but it’s a passion of both Eileen’s and mine.”
What that means in practice (so far) is that Eileen Fisher will be making much of its organic denim in New York and LA in the future as it brings production back from Portugal. The firm already is working with three New York–based factories—a sewing firm in Queens, a manufacturer of leather accessories in Chelsea, and another sewer in the heart of the Garment District on West 38th Street. “One of the factories we use just took over another floor in the building he occupies, so perhaps, on the margin, things are changing,” says Cukier.
The Role of Real Estate
There are other steps that will be vital if Manhattan’s Garment District is to survive and thrive—and many of these boil down to politics. Designer Norma Kamali, who has kept her own manufacturing base in New York, has argued publicly that the state government needs to do everything from cutting taxes to improving the caliber of infrastructure to help manufacturing in general, and the fashion industry in particular. Above all, the debate—like much else in New York—needs to factor in the sway of Manhattan real estate. In 1987, City Hall put in place special zoning laws for the Garment District that protected the leases of fashion industry tenants. Now, pressure is growing once more for zoning changes that would permit at least some of the landlords in the district to raise their rents, encouraging the shift to a more mixed-use neighborhood.
“If landlords succeed in pushing out the factories, we will lose a lot of talent, and we’ll lose some creative energy as well,” says Lepore. The risk is that zoning changes will trigger another diaspora, forcing survivors to scatter in order to stay alive, and making it harder to preserve the kind of dynamic that she says is vital to designers, whether emerging or established.
Already, Mallis argues, real estate has altered the landscape of the Garment Center. “Half the buildings that once were home to factories and showrooms are now hotels,” she says. But Mallis sees no reason why the boundaries of New York’s Garment Center can’t expand to encompass a wider territory, including a factory in Williamsburg or a showroom in Queens. “Maybe it can’t be down the block—but it can still be a cab ride away.”
Zoning changes so far haven’t been implemented, but the threat remains. Ideally, Lepore and those designers who share her vision—Anna Sui, Yeohlee Teng, and others—would like to see the issue resolved in their favor. But if the zoning is changed, Lepore says, and landlords rush to convert buildings into condos and mid-market retail, then she and others would forfeit some of their creative freedom. For instance, today she can import Italian-made fabrics to New York and use them in her designs. If she had to shift production to China or elsewhere, that wouldn’t be possible because the cost of importing fabrics into China is prohibitive. “If I’m not working in the district, I can’t oversee fit and quality in the same way,” she says. “Inventory controls aren’t the same. The risk is greater that I will under-order or over-order.”
So the debate goes on. Ironically, even as designers like Lepore battle to save the Garment Center and those such as Eileen Fisher mull moving back into the neighborhood, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District is trying to dump the name altogether. As the Wall Street Journal reported in late July, Barbara Blair Randall, its executive director, believes that the moniker no longer reflects the real nature of the neighborhood, and that it’s time for a change. With architecture firms, new online businesses, hotels, and retail shops that have nothing to do with the fashion industry occupying a growing proportion of the square footage, Randall has decided it’s time to “reposition” the neighborhood, and has requested some suggestions from major marketing firms. (As of this writing, the results weren’t known.) It’s safe to say that rezoning proposals likely deliver more of a real threat to remaining designers, cutters, sewers, and specialty product manufacturers who cater to the fashion industry than will a simple name change. But along with the name goes a certain kind of perception, and losing the sense that New York has a “fashion center” may be, some feel, the first step toward making that a reality.
Even if the real estate issue is resolved, Elie Tahari argues, another one will exist: being able to find workers with the required skills. He says he doesn’t have a problem recruiting for his own small New York production facility, which has some 75 sewers, cutters, and other specialists working on small orders, or producing garments for his collection or the regular shows. “But if I were a new designer, trying to hire people to work in a basement on 12th Avenue because that’s all I could afford, then I could never get quality people like I have,” Tahari says.
While mass manufacturing is likely gone for good from the Garment District, potential remains at the high end, where the emphasis is less on the cost to the consumer of the finished product and more on design and quality. Which makes the push to bring manufacturing back to the city all the more compelling for its top designers. “The biggest problem we have is that people keep asking why we are fighting for a lost cause,” says Lepore, sighing. “But it’s only a lost cause if everyone believes it is.”
photography by gregg delman
Gotham Magazine hosted its latest issue featuring the current cast of Saturday Night Live at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, February 23.