In part two of Dumbing Down American Design, we talk with Anthony Lilore, co-designer for sustainable design label RESTORE and a board member for New York City’s Save The Garment Center. We revisit the driving question: Has our quest for convenience and rock bottom prices forever altered fashion and is American design becoming a thing of the past?
Let’s talk carbon footprints, supporting American eco-designers who want to keep things in the U.S. and seasoned industry professionals whose techniques we simply can’t afford to lose.
Lilore spoke with us from a designer’s perspective but also more personally, as an individual working to preserve the Garment Center, New York City’s industrial fashion glory and a cultural icon that could become more than a historical footnote.
“Pull the garment work out of China, they’ll collapse, pull it from India, collapse, pull it from Mexico, them too. See a pattern here?” Lilore says, adding that the garment industry in the 1960’s was the largest single employer in NYC except for the government.
“Garments and garment work and workers are economic engines,” says Lilore. “Fashion is the fuel.”
The decline of the Garment Center is being encouraged by local real estate owners. Without enough workers in the Garment Center, the zoning will have to be changed, meaning higher rents from new tenants, not in the industry. Preservation of the District, located in what many consider the soul of Manhattan’s mid-town, means little in the face of the almighty dollar.
“In the 60’s, everything in the U.S. was made or passed through the Garment Center, there were unions and really, hundreds of thousands of people working in the Garment Center,” says Lilore.
The designers are as much to blame for the decline.
To satisfy their own financially flush version of the American dream, designers got greedy and realized that manufacturing overseas was increasingly cheaper.
“At first, it wasn’t a big deal, maybe somebody would lose a job, maybe two but over the past 30 years, that greed has caused only 3-5 percent of American manufacturing to be happening in New York City,” says Lilore.
In the meantime, with less actual manufacturing occurring in the Garment District, NYC landlords continue working to re-zone and to ghettoize the area by putting Garment professionals in one building and charging more to force them out. So far, this effort has been met with a fight. Groups like Save the Garment Center, the CFDA and the Design Trust for Public Space are now spearheading a conscious campaign against the city landlords to show why the Garment Center is an integral part of New York City’s economy, cultural identity and sense of place.
If this doesn’t work, existing pattern and sample makers, trim and design houses will be forced to pay more, which in this already tight design economy, makes it virtually impossible to survive. Add to this equation Americans’ addiction to deals and a disconnect from the true costs involved in the clothes they wear and the result is the perfect formula for extinction.
Still, we haven’t completely lost our edge, and there are encouraging signs for American design.
“It’s an interesting thing that China is actually making it easier to compete lately because the carrot of [Western-style] democracy has been placed before them,” says Lilore. “They like the American lifestyle where we do make more money so they’re putting their prices higher. This makes them less attractive to designers trying to make more for less.”
For those rare designers willing to invest in American design and manufacture, Lilore says they now have to sit back and quietly ask themselves, “Why the hell do I want to do this?”
“When I go talk to young designers now, I tell them, the idea of being a designer has to be as important to you as breathing. If you’re not prepared to be poor, if you’re not prepared to be a nobody, if you’re not prepared to make a difference then don’t f*cking do it.”
For Lilore, being an American designer is worth the exhaustion, financial strain and production headaches.
“I deal with all this and still want to do it all in the Garment Center because I want to keep design in this country,” Lilore says. “New York City is the fashion capital of the U.S., if not the world, and as a brand it is on par with Coca-Cola. By not protecting the brand, by not saving the Garment District, we are not saving the fuel that runs one of the economic engines of the fashion capital of the world.”
Video and image: Design Trust For Public Space