In New York City’s Garment District, Signs of a Comeback

After a rough patch, business in NYC’s Garment District is starting to pick up.

For decades, fashion mavens and budding designers have flocked to the quadrant between 34th and 42nd Streets, hedged in by 5th and 9th Avenues. Here, in New York City’s Garment District, fabric can be purchased, patterns made, pieces sewn, trimming added, and dreams realized, all in the space of a few blocks. Designers like Donna KaranCalvin Klein, and Oscar de la Renta have all made the Garment District their home at a point in their careers, and countless others got their start in the neighborhood. At one time, the Garment District was the global hub of textile manufacturing. But not anymore.

“The only thing that has not changed is the location,” says Anthony Lilore, owner of RESTORE Clothing and a founder of the Save the Garment Center movement. “The physical appearance has gone from streets packed with garment racks and push carts, to some racks, some push carts, and some rickshaws with tourists.”

Indeed, over the past fifty years, the Garment District has seen a steady decline in business, owing primarily to overseas outsourcing, mostly to China. When that picked up in the early 1990s, family-owned companies in business for generations were forced to shut their doors, and designers, burdened by the higher rents and rising costs of working in midtown Manhattan, moved elsewhere. Most of those who have survived the downturn and recession say they’re hanging on by a hair.

“At this point, it’s a labor of love,” says Maria Lipari-Bertone, whose family has run Quality Patterns, which specializes in grading and marking, for more than forty years. “This is our bread and butter. Many of us came from overseas, and we made our lives in the Garment District.”

But there are signs of revitalization. At New York’s first City Source Expo, held January 10 at the Fashion Institute of Technology, more than fifty producers, suppliers, and pattern makers turned out to field questions and take orders from attendees interested in local production. Several vendors said that they’re starting to see an uptick in sales, mostly due to China’s rising “minimums” for new orders, a weak dollar, and higher shipping costs. Lipari-Bertone says that many new designers can no longer afford to work in China, so they’re starting to inquire into local production again.

Plus, in recent years groups like Save the Garment CenterMade in Midtown, and the Garment Industry Development Corporation have surfaced to advocate for Garment District preservation and serve as a resource for designers interested in manufacturing there. Backed by New York fashion industry vets like Nanette Lepore, Anna Sui, Jason Wu, and Yeohlee Teng, these groups emphasize the district’s historical, creative, and economic value to the city of Manhattan.

Made in Midtown says:

Ultimately, this story is about much more than fashion. It’s about one of the last neighborhoods in Manhattan that has not yet been remade by recent waves of new development. It’s about jobs and immigrant workers. It’s about the decisions city officials make to support certain kinds of businesses.

And for designers interested in sustainability, a one-stop-shop like the Garment District means a more compact production process, which eliminates the costs, both financial and environmental, of working with subcontractors in different parts of the world.

“The quality of craftsmanship and the concentration of schools, designers, sample rooms, showrooms, production, and stores make the Garment Center the only one of its kind anywhere,” says Lilore.

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.