Made in Midtown Proves New York’s Garment District is Alive, Well, and Imperative

Made in Midtown website

Screengrab of madeinmidtown.org

Earlier this month the Design Trust for Public Space and the Council of Fashion Designers of America released an initial study of New York’s Garment District called “Made in Midtown.” The study dispelled the myth that the district exists only in name, proving that—despite the area’s faltering manufacturing dominance—designers still rely on the Garment District as a hub for research and development and an integral launching pad for young designers and new labels.

To illustrate the study’s findings a website was created; and it’s definitely worth a visit. (Fair warning: You can lose a serious chunk of your day playing—there’s even something like a comic book!) It’s extremely visual — look for a series of charts, diagrams, and interactive features illustrating various facts and figures falling under one of three easy-breezy categories. They are: (1) What is the Garment District? (2) Why does the District Matter to Fashion? (3) Why Does Fashion Matter to NYC?

You’ll see how New York measures up to Paris and Milan (don’t worry, we kind of win); learn more about the process of fashion and why the neighborhood and other Creative Districts are an important part of the fabric (get it?) of any city; and delve into the minds of some of New York’s most New Yorkiest designers including Jason Wu, Nanette Lepore, Shelly Steffee, and Anna Sui.

Made in Midtown Full Panel 6-8-10 Photo Giles Ashford

Made in Midtown | Full Panel, June 8, 2010 | Photo by Giles Ashford

To get the word out and discuss exactly what to do next with the data, the Municipal Art Society of New York along with the Design Trust held two panel discussions at the School of Visual Arts Theater. The first such event was moderated by the always charming Tim Gunn and introduced by Deborah Marton, the executive director of the Design Trust. Additionally, it featured Sarah Crean from the New York Industrial Retention Network; Eric Gural, executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank; Michael Meola, attorney and development consultant; fashion designer Yeohlee Teng; and Madelyn Wils of the Planning, Development and Maritime division of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

The second, held a week later, was moderated by Marton (who traded the Louboutins she rocked the previous week for a pair of turbo-fierce Lucite disco pumps) and included Sarah Williams, a co-director of Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab and Made in Midtown Project Fellow; Simon Collins of Parsons School of Fashion; Fred Dust of IDEO (who talked mainly about Los Angeles…); Harvey Molotch, a sociology and metropolitan studies expert at NYU; and Andrew Oshrin, president and CEO of Milly (his wife, Milly designer Michelle Smith, was in the audience).

Everyone agreed that the Garment District isn’t dead. A “hub for research and development,” and central to smaller-batch and higher-end production, it also provides the opportunity for a young label, like Jason Wu’s, to go from raw sketches to showroom wholesaling without the massive capital investment or high-volume production required to bring talent in-house or inexpensively produce overseas. The process, next to impossible in cities like Paris or Milan, makes New York “the fashion start-up capital of the world.”

Furthermore, panelists agreed that zoning mandates created in 1987 to stave off real estate pressures and preserve manufacturing space were not working; and that recent controversial proposals for rezoning and/or consolidating the district’s businesses were not the answer. Zoning aside, most panelists also agreed that part of keeping the Garment District vital means improving life on the streets with interactive events and exhibits, beautification, pedestrian friendly features, and increased retail opportunity—improvements aiming to attract designers as well as tourists and residents who don’t necessarily have ties to the industry. Essentially, the area needed to become friendlier, more viable, “cool.”

Crean suggested a system calling for newly installed retail lessees and other higher-margin tenants subsidizing the rents of artisan and production tenants upstairs. Meanwhile, Gural envisioned a strange Colonial Williamsburg version of the Garment District in which tourists could watch newly-ordered clothing being made. Crean’s idea was better received than Gural’s.

Made in Midtown Full Panel 6-15-10 Photo Giles Ashford

Made in Midtown | Full Panel, June 15, 2010 | Photo by Giles Ashford

Collins—whose ties to Parsons and experience in the industry lends him a working rather than scholarly relationship to the area—balked at the notion that increased traffic was part of the solution. “Cool,” he said, creates foot traffic, higher rents, unnecessary retail and espresso bars and sidewalk beautification. Too much cool and the Garment District becomes SoHo—an area so removed from it’s artistic past it’s almost comical. That said, he supports another kind of “cool.” The kind of cool created by a buzzy upstart like Jason Wu basing himself in the area and paving the way for additional buzzy upstarts. And perhaps more importantly, the kind of cool that—through marketing and branding and special hang tags (and, more importantly, tax incentives)—makes producing clothing in the District cool. Using Ralph Lauren as his example, he commented that even if the label decided to produce a tiny percentage in New York (“maybe that tee shirt they make with the stars and stripes on it”) and publicize it, and make it cool, other labels would follow suit. Tradespeople, he said, “don’t need studies, they need orders.” Gee, how does he really feel?

Molotch—awakened by Collins’ frankness, or maybe just going for a laugh—agreed, saying the best way to ease real estate pressures on the area—or keep out the cool—is to stay seedy and reject any and all infrastructure improvements. In other words, “embrace porn.”

Teng, too, can do without the homogeneity cool generally creates. Her nightmare New York is a city of “bankers and brokers;” a place too expensive for upstarts or creative clusters brought up at the second panel. Additionally, and quite practically, she brought up a growing dearth of skilled craftspeople—pattern-makers, pleating experts, textile producers, fabric cutters—that could cripple the industry sooner than condos or Qdobas could. Training programs, she said, need to be created to ensure that designers have access to specific skill sets before an entire industrial sector dies with so many aging immigrant artisans.

Nonetheless, as Collins declared, the Garment District remains “absolutely bloody vital.” His Garment District is the perfect unofficial post-graduate environment for his Parsons students. He noted the relatively recent (and ongoing) successes of womenswear label Proenza Schouler. Founded by Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, two Parsons graduates, the pair simply returned to the businesses they came in contact with as interns to have their lauded initial collections produced. Eight years later the duo is at the helm of American fashion with dresses hanging in Barneys and grazing the backs Chloë Sevigny and Julianne Moore.

Which begs the question: Could Proenza Schouler—or any upstart for that matter—have happened without the support and the resources available to newbies within the loose confines of New York’s Garment District? Possibly, in some form or another, but why fix what’s working so well? Losing or moving the Garment District could endanger New York’s greatest fashion asset: fresh talent, start-ups, The Next Big Thing. We don’t have Burberrys or Guccis or Louis Vuittons, and we don’t have couture (just don’t tell Ralph Rucci that). But, New York’s apparel ecosystem introduced the world to Marc Jacobs and the slew of emerging talents (Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Richard Chai, the list goes on and on) who are in line to be the next Marc Jacobs. To that we can pretty safely say: In your face, Milan.

Photographs by Giles Ashford, courtesy of The Municipal Art Society of New York. As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Frank Gargione is a freelance graphic designer working within the fashion and publishing industries while studying textile and surface design at FIT. A lover of all things fashion, he is a frequent contributor for Racked.com. He lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.



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