The Garment District: So Last-Century, or the Perfect Fit for New York?

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One afternoon last October, hundreds of garment workers walked away from their sewing machines and scissors, and gathered around a temporary stage on Seventh Avenue. They cheered as a one speaker after another delivered the same message.

“We need to stand up and save the Garment Center now!” said former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, to raucous applause.

Two things made this rally extraordinary. One, the crowd. Seamstresses, cutters, pattern makers. Hundreds of them. Who knew there were so many manufacturing jobs left in the heart of Manhattan?

Two, the voices that were silent: Donna Karan, Helmut Lang and Betsey Johnson were all on the bill as “supporters” -- but none showed up. Michael Kors appeared briefly, but he didn't speak. If these designers' future truly depends on the zipper shops and sewing rooms, they weren't exactly voting with their feet.

One slightly less famous designer who did address the rally is Nanette Lepore.

“You need an industrial base, even if it’s in the tiniest amount,” Lepore says. “We need those factories, those cutting rooms, those trim suppliers, those fabric suppliers. We need all of it.”

Lepore has become a leader of the movement to keep manufacturing in Midtown. She believes New York fashion will lose its magic if designers do all their work on computer screens, commissioning garments that come in by FedEx from factories in China, if they don’t have places to shop for fabric, or local specialists to turn to with a complicated pleating job.

Lepore’s studio on 35th Street is filled with bolts of fabric, fit forms, dresses on racks and dozens of men and women cutting patterns, sewing sleeves, steaming and pressing blouses. There’s an atmosphere of intense concentration here, punctuated by outbursts of laughter and kibitzing.

Every month, Lepore produces about 30,000 garments here in the West 30s and in small factories nearby. She pays a premium for space and labor. But she says a working girl can still afford her strapless party dresses, priced at $300 to $400.

“I know how to make them stay on,” Lepore says, saucily.

Her secret?

“A lot of inner construction that we couldn’t do if we were working overseas ‘cause there’s a lot of boning on the inside and extra elastics.”

New York. When she was starting out almost 20 years ago, Lepore wasn’t motivated by high-minded ideas about American jobs. She just wanted more control of the production process. Today, between 80 and 85 percent of her garments are made in the Garment District. And for almost 20 years, it’s worked. Nanette Lepore Inc. has revenues around $150 million a year.

But there are pressures on this business model.

W&H Properties, a local landlord, reports manufacturers typically pay in rent roughly half of what accountants and lawyers can afford. And while garment manufacturing employs somewhere around 20,000 people in New York, that’s down from 40,000 a decade ago.

Lepore insists even the major labels depend on the Garment District being there, but right now they’re not speaking up, perhaps because the label on their clothes might say Made in China or Made in Bangladesh.

“People are afraid of this cause because they don’t want to be painted as being hypocritical,” Lepore says.

This month, the Design Trust for Public Space released a study, “Made in Midtown,” funded partly by the fashion industry and by other sources. Co-author Deborah Marton says the best hope for the preserving the neighborhood may be contained in what she calls the “sweet spot diagram.”

Marton and her colleagues found there’s a range of clothing lines that are still being made in New York because the quality, quantity and price make sense, starting with the $10,000 one-of-a-kind wedding gown.

Marton and her colleagues have mapped the apparel still being made in New York along two axes, quality and cost. In the upper left, there’s that one of a kind wedding gown with sophisticated beadwork and a five-figure price tag. Following the curve down and across, you run into larger runs of premium denim, tailored men’s shirts, and designer dresses.

“What we found is that if you have a garment that’s a whole lot less expensive, say $100 to $300, but you’re only making like 3,000 to 5,000 of them, it still makes sense to make it here. It’s gonna be cost effective to make that right here because you’re gonna wanna go back and forth to your beader, your lacemaker, all of those,” Marton says.

Also cost effective: limited edition tailored men’s shirts, premium jeans and dresses made in the hundreds or maybe thousands. Those are tiny quantities by the standards of the international apparel trade. But, Nanette Lepore says, it’s exactly the kind of order a promising new designer just starting their own line in New York City might make.

Tonight, June 8, Tim Gunn of “Project Runway” hosts a Municipal Arts Society forum on the future of the Garment District. The event will be 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. at The School of Visual Arts Theater, 333 West 23rd Street.