Proximity is Creativity: Unlocking the Value of the Garment District

Manhattan’s Garment District stretches, roughly, from 5th to 9th Avenues and from 34th to 42nd Streets. Though less than one square mile in area, the district is home to thousands of fashion-related businesses, including showrooms, manufacturing facilities, suppliers and design studios. Apparel manufacturing, according to Making Midtown, a new report from the Design Trust for Public Space, represents 28% of New York City’s manufacturing, and the Garment District alone generates $2.1 billion in revenue for the City and employs over 7,000 people. New York City is, remember, the fashion capital of the world.

But many in the industry are concerned for the future of fashion in New York City. Fashion is an industry that thrives on proximity, for both innovation and production. Often compared to an ecosystem, the world of fashion design depends on access to suppliers, wholesalers, sewing and cutting rooms, prototypes, and samples, as well as to the city’s retail networks, media outlets, the creative energy of other designers, and local fashion schools. Major fashion designers credit their careers to the Garment District, where a young entrepreneur can use these resources to start a small line with minimal capital, something that mass production in China doesn’t allow for.

But asking rents in the area are rising, and nearby development is bringing more office, residential, hotel and retail use, much of it non-fashion related. Many see these real estate pressures as threatening the efficiencies and vitality of the Garment District. A 2005 rezoning of the far west side of Manhattan, which made way for the impending redevelopment of the Hudson Rail Yards, included a modification to one of two Garment District manufacturing Preservation Areas, created in 1987 to protect local factories and manufacturing jobs from conversions into other uses. And the City has explored the idea of eliminating the Preservation Areas altogether. Although the City has also demonstrated an interest in supporting the fashion industry, most noticeably through the launch of its Fashion.NYC.2020 initiative in 2010, many designers and other stakeholders remain apprehensive.

In response to the City’s proposed changes to the District and their concern for the future of the industry, fashion designer Yeohlee Teng and architect Joerg Schwartz, in partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), submitted a proposal to the Design Trust for Public Space: to define and prove the economic and cultural value of the fashion industry, with the Garment District at its core, to New York City, and to develop recommendations for the future of the district. The first phase of this effort, which engaged a team of Design Trust Project Fellows (Jordan Alport, filmmaker; Glen Cummings, graphic designer; Interboro, architects; Tom Vanderbilt, journalist; and Sarah Williams, urban planner) culminated in the launch of, a website that illustrates the challenges facing the Garment District, why the district matters to fashion, and why fashion matters to New York City. Last month, the Design Trust published Making Midtown, the result of phase two of the initiative, which offers a new vision for the district and strategies for strengthening the area and the industry, developed by another team of fellows that included architects, urban designers, and economic development consultants (Andrew Bernheimer, Colin Cathcart, Kei Hayashi, and Rob Lane). Teng and Schwartz recently sat down to talk with us about the Garment District and the future of the fashion industry in New York at Teng’s studio and retail space on 38th Street.

– V.S.

Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Why is the Garment District important to New York, historically and today?
Yeohlee Teng: The Garment District is part of the identity of New York City. It’s one of the few authentic neighborhoods that we have left in Manhattan. If we lose it, we lose a lot of local character and color. Its role in our city’s cultural identity is significant. And so is its role in our economic diversity: the Garment District is an area where entrepreneurship has blossomed, where new talent has developed and grown.

Joerg Schwartz: The Garment District operates as a research and development laboratory for the fashion industry itself. That might be its principal function, perhaps even more so than its function as a manufacturing district.

What are some of the zoning challenges that have threatened the Garment District?
JS: In 1987, the City sought to protect the concentration of manufacturing tenants in the area through zoning. At that point, closer to Times Square, rents were going up to $40 per square foot, and the manufacturers and labor in the Garment District were concerned that local manufacturers would be pushed out by the intensifying real estate pressure of commercial development further north.

In the decades since then, of course, global shifts in manufacturing and production put a different kind of pressure on businesses in Midtown. Edgar Romney, for example [a labor leader who manages a local union of thousands of garment industry workers, as well as the Secretary Treasurer of the Workers United, SEIU –Ed.], will say that while the industry was prepared for the future, it wasn’t quite prepared for what was going to happen in China. If the Chinese labor market hadn’t become quite so competitive with our own labor market, the Garment District would probably still be functioning very well according to the 1987 zoning laws.

The way it was structured in 1987, landlords had the right to convert up to 50% of their buildings to office use if they preserved an equal proportion – a 1:1 ratio – as manufacturing space.

Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Individual businesses in and around the Fashion Center BID | Image: Sarah Williams, Spatial Information Design Lab, for Made in Midtown.

Twenty years later, the City looked at the Garment District and told us, “You’ve got about 8 million square feet reserved for manufacturing in this district, but you’re not using 8 million square feet.” They proposed that the garment industry could survive with a 1:6 ratio, which is only about 1.3 million square feet. So we took it upon ourselves to look at how much space the fashion industry was actually using. We did a door-to-door survey and found that while there’s 1.1 million square feet of manufacturing, there’s another 600,000 square feet of associated suppliers. Then there’s another 2.5 million square feet of other fashion uses, such as showrooms, designers’ workspaces, and sample rooms for designers themselves. With this amount of use, only preserving 1.3 million square feet would not be sufficient for the sector’s needs. And looking beyond the borders of the special zoning district, garment manufacturing and suppliers use about 3.1 million square feet across Midtown Manhattan. If you’re running a garment-related business on, say, 27th Street, you’re facing similar pressure to get you out and raise those rents.

YT: It was difficult to unlock and communicate the value of this district. In meetings, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) would repeatedly present a chart with a simple graph representing our industry’s decline. And for a long time, we lacked the data to respond with a concrete assessment of our industry’s needs and demands; there were too many unknowns. That’s why Made in Midtown was helpful. It helped put a value on what exists in the Garment District. It identified it as a creative innovation hub and it also proved beyond a shadow of doubt that proximity and creativity are linked.

Screen grab from the Made in Midtown website

How did that study come to be? When did you decide to approach the Design Trust for Public Space and what were the project’s initial goals?
YT: It was serendipitous. I gave a talk at the Van Alen Institute with Calvin Tsao. He spoke about manufacturing in China, describing how he was tasked with trying to develop a city around a manufacturing base. And then I spoke about our deep frustration with the plans to shrink the amount of space dedicated to manufacturing in Midtown. Linda Pollak and Zack McKown, two members of the board of the Design Trust, were present, and they encouraged us to submit something to the Design Trust’s Request for Proposals process. CFDA partnered with us as the organizational entity behind our entry.

JS: Made in Midtown is a broad analysis of what the Garment District is. It’s an introduction to the area, what its components are and how they fit together. We wanted to provide the context for anyone to be able to visit a website get a handle on what we’re dealing with: a very complex, subcontractor-based industry.

YT: I think that it’s easy for the City to understand fashion shows, high-end retail, and luxury brands. That explains why – partially in response to what we identified in Made in Midtown – the administration did invest in the Fashion Incubator, which was a joint effort with the CFDA and others. But it’s difficult for them to understand the process: how does a new business begin? How does a young designer that graduates from Parsons or FIT get started? What can they depend on if they don’t have a trust fund? They depend on the infrastructure that exists in the Garment District, without which there would not be the next Jason Wu, the next Rag & Bone. All these designers have been able to leverage and build their businesses because they were able to use local labor.

Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Why is proximity key to the chain of production in the fashion industry? How are proximity and creativity linked in this sector?
YT: Let’s say it’s your last year at school, and you have a set of starter designs that are very marketable. What happens next? You need to get someone to make your production patterns; you need to able to source fabrics; you need to be able to sell, to have access to the stores. So let’s say you come up with a 20-piece order. You can go out into the Garment District, find a cutting room or a sewing room, and have your 20 pieces produced and shipped to a store. You can’t get only 20 pieces made in China, not today, not ever. That is what validates what goes on in the District today: the capacity to produce short runs, samples made with a quick turnaround time.

JS: In other words, the concentration of these businesses in such close proximity provides the entrée for the young entrepreneur to get into the business without a huge a capital investment. A lot of people say they got into the business with $500 or $1000 and were able to build a successful business because of what this district makes possible.

There’s no question that the amount of manufacturing in the Garment District has shrunk over time. But when we looked at the region, from Newark to Sunset Park, we learned that pretty much every business that wanted to be in the fashion industry decided that it had better be near its competitors, co-workers, or co-developers. That’s strong proof that proximity is creativity. You can do it here, you can do it quickly, you can do it affordably, and you can make money in the process.

Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Photo: Interboro

What do these ideas and your vision for the future of the Garment District mean for people outside of the fashion industry?
YT: Whenever people talk about the role of manufacturing in the American economy, they’re always referring to the automobile industry. Not everybody drives, but everybody wears clothes. And if we want to strengthen the middle class and manufacturing jobs, why don’t we invest in, not just fashion, but in clothing and in design? We should be nurturing the world’s best designers. And we should be capitalizing on both design and manufacturing to grow the middle class. Manufacturing jobs, whether they are in the Garment District or elsewhere, are decent paying jobs. Retail and service sector jobs are growing the fastest in New York right now, and those are not jobs that are going to strengthen the middle class.

JS: Exactly. Without clear policies to retain manufacturing jobs and the spaces that those jobs require, an entire class of job opportunities – highly-skilled working class jobs – will be erased. Service sector jobs pay maybe $9 or $10 an hour. A typical job in the Garment District pays $17 to $20 an hour. Why are we not providing a future for those New Yorkers who would love to have these jobs? Why are we only providing a future for tech companies, and law and finance firms?

I can imagine taxpayers questioning why the City would invest public funds in something like the Fashion Incubator. And I can imagine property owners questioning why they shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they want with their own property. To the taxpayer, I’d point to public investments in development projects like the Barclays Arena, which will only provide low-paying, service sector jobs. The amount of money needed to help get the Fashion Incubator off the ground, as Adam Friedman of the Pratt Center has pointed out, is less than the public money spent on Little League baseball in New York City. To the property owner, I’d say that this goes to the heart of what zoning is about. You may own a piece of property and you have a right to profit from it. But that property benefits from public investments in the street it’s on, the transit system, the water supply. The entire city benefits from these infrastructures, and we need to think in citywide terms about what policies and investments will create the right mix of uses.

YT: It’s called being civic minded. And, for me, it comes down to questions about what the quality of life should be in the city and how diverse the economy should be. It’s about whether you care or not that there’s a neighborhood where people actually make things. Locally-made clothes is like locally-grown food. Maybe people should care about where it comes from. Clothing, after all, is more than just fashion; it’s shelter. And, when you consider it in those terms, you might care that it’s made well and made close to home. Whether it’s food or clothing, locally-made products have an intrinsic value that affects the quality of our lives.

Rendering: Colin Cathcart / Brandon Pietras, courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Rendering courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Making Midtown includes a number of recommendations for improvements to the public realm of the Garment District, such as wider sidewalks, upgraded plazas and pocket parks, better street lighting, and the activation of underused loading docks and storefronts through events and pop-up shops. | Renderings: Colin Cathcart / Brandon Pietras

How do some of your recommendations included in the report Making Midtown, the second phase of the Design Trust project, come to bear on surrounding neighborhoods, on the fabric of the streets, on unexpected stakeholders?
YT: Some of our recommendations are about improving the public realm. Another initiative is to showcase and brand “Made-in-NYC” clothing. We also want to partner with the City to develop a test case innovation hub, where the design process and manufacturing can be showcased. Currently, there are no facilities in New York City where you can place an order with a one-stop manufacturer able to buy the fabric, trim, and lining, assemble the package and ship you a finished product. Facilities abroad offer that capability. It’s less efficient here. But if we were able to create that kind of innovation hub here, that would bring more contracting jobs home. And, if successful, could be a case study for cities all over the country.

I don’t think that there’s an understanding yet that you can successfully marry emerging technologies with garment manufacturing. We need to work on streamlining manufacturing through technology, make it more sustainable, more green.

In what other ways do you see fashion marrying itself with other fields? Do you see the notion of what it means to be a fashion designer evolving?
YT: I think my deep involvement in this project is one example. I’m a designer, but I’m committed to these questions that are about much more than just the industry; it’s about the public realm, it’s about the quality of our life in this city. For me, there are no boundaries, and I’m as interested in urban farming as I am in locally-made clothes, because to me there’s no distinction where sustainability is concerned.

Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Photo: Interboro

How has the City responded to the Making Midtown recommendations?
JS: We’ve been dealing with the Economic Development Corporation for five, six years now. Their initial approach to us was that we’d be lucky to get that 1:6 conversion ratio. Then there was a plan to consolidate all garment manufacturing into a single building, which also would not have met the needs of our sector. In 2010, when Made in Midtown launched, there was a period of silence from the City, and then they announced Fashion2020, their initiative to support the fashion industry. Then, about eight months ago, they issued an RFP to landlords that essentially asked them what they would want in order to voluntarily dedicate their space to manufacturing. So that indicated a turnaround in their thinking, but I don’t think the RFP got very much response.

We’re at this stage now where we’ve published this book, and we’re all on the same page: the Fashion Center BID, the landlords, the CFDA, labor and the manufacturers. And of course, we have an election coming up, so we’ll see if the next administration chooses to get involved. Some of the presumptive mayoral candidates are aware of our work, like Christine Quinn or Scott Stringer. Stringer has been a big supporter, and a long-time believer that working-class jobs are important to our city and to the borough of Manhattan.

YT: But it’s not just the policymakers that we need to influence. There are other stakeholders that need to step up to the plate and get involved in this effort. Interested parties from the schools would be very helpful, because we have four schools in the neighborhood. And the schools depend on the District. Tim Gunn has been a very vocal supporter, and I think, having been the Dean of Fashion at Parsons, he really does understand how important it is to have this infrastructure.

Education is what’s going to make a difference. I think people need to care about where their clothes are made. I think Michelle Obama needs to talk about, not just who designed her dress, but where it was made. First, people have to understand where it’s made, and then they have to care about how it was made, what the process was, and how the distribution channels work. Across the world, we are at a tipping point regarding how people should live, how they make a living, and whether we are one or we are separate societies, here and in every country. I think that issue is facing everybody. My button guy from Paris came to New York, and he said it’s a wonder to him that he can walk around these city blocks and still feel the energy of things being made. Paris is barren. And London has lost its core, and so has Milan. But we still have it.


All images courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space.

Award-winning designer Yeohlee Teng was born in Malaysia and has worked primarily in New York City, where she established her label, YEOHLEE Inc, in 1981. Yeohlee believes that design comes from serving a function and is refined through time and process. Her designs are driven by material, maximizing the use of each fabric by thoughtful consideration of weight, texture, color, cut and finishing. She believes that “Clothes have magic. Their geometry forms shapes that can lend a wearer power.”

Yeohlee’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally and is part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where curator Richard Martin called her “one of the most ingenious makers of clothing today. Yeohlee’s clothes conserve and impart energy for they are the synthesis of reason and magic.” YEOHLEE : WORK published in 2003 surveys the first 20 years of her practice with essays by prominent fashion, art and design curators and critics. Yeohlee is the recipient of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion 2004. Yeohlee Teng is a Board Director at the Council of Fashion Designers of America and The Municipal Art Society of New York.

Joerg Schwartz is an architect and urbanist who has practiced in New York City since 1985. Mr. Schwartz worked closely with the CFDA to develop the concept for Made in Midtown, assisted with the 2009 survey of 101 buildings within the Garment District’s Preservation Areas, and provided insight as a designer and critic at every stage of the project’s evolution.


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