The History of The New York City Garment District
Written by Lauren Benet Stephenson with Photography by Richard Beaven
After a year of tireless brainstorming and exhaustive soul-searching the Garment District has been renamed…the Garment District.
The neighborhood’s advocate association, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, headed the mission to rebrand the area in an effort to better represent its current business makeup of varied industries from tech to real estate. Thankfully, none of the new name ideas stuck—and there were more than 100, including, Devil’s Arcade, a hangover from the area’s gritty past. As Barbara Blair Randall, President of the Fashion Center BID, remarked to the Wall Street Journal, “New Yorkers are savvy. They’re smart. You can’t pull one over on them.”
More to the point, the Garment District should be called the Garment District because it is, in fact, a garment-created district.
The Garment District today. Photos by Richard Beaven
True, this square mile—defined roughly as the space from 35th to 41st streets and between Fifth and Ninth avenues—has had a rough few decades as far as actual garment production is concerned. But its very conception, as well as its growth, decline and potential renaissance, has intimately mirrored our national relationship with and respect for what we wear.
In fact, the Garment District has in some way played an integral part in each major historical milestone going back more than a century. It responded in kind—with more skilled workers, new buildings and factory technology—growing in lockstep with New York City’s economy, simultaneously forming a key part of its identity.
Prior to the Garment District’s beginnings in the late-1800s, Americans were self-sufficient clothing-makers. Generally speaking, a household made its own outfits, and only the ostentatiously wealthy relied on skilled tailors for clothes.
One catalyst for the Garment District’s inception was plantation owners’ need for a cheap, speedy way to outfit their entire slave labor force. Then, as the Civil War began, the same tailors and seamstresses were corralled to produce uniforms in bulk for the troops.
With New York City’s influx of immigrants, the area simultaneously found itself with a wealth of skilled craftsmen, ready and eager to ply their trade.
On the cultural front, women’s fashion had evolved, and followed a newly instituted cycle of seasons with ever-changing styles. Garment District showrooms proudly boasted fashions copied from the European runways, which changed every six months. By 1910 an estimated 70 percent of the clothing worn by U.S. women originated in the Garment District.
To accommodate the growing workforce, 120 high-rise factories and showrooms were built above 35th Street. And as of 1931, the Garment District had the highest concentration of garment manufacturers in the world.
When both World War I and II cut off the District from access to the latest European designs, that set the stage for United States fashion to come into its own, with designers forced to try their hand at creating new fashions and silhouettes.
As Americans became more prosperous, their clothing consuming was more enthusiastic and they were less discerning about its source. In fact, it’s rumored that the specific geographic area of the Garment District was chosen because it was both close enough to the 5th Avenue retail corridor (that at the time was rapidly becoming more and more luxe) and far enough away from the eyes of moneyed customers. Gone were the days where a shopper insisted on knowing precisely who had made her garment.
The U.S. economy continued skyward, and so too did the neighborhood’s production. By the mid-‘70s, at the Garment District was at its economic and cultural peak, and it functioned as one boisterous, frenetic, and seamlessly sustainable ecosystem.
But much like any other manufacturing industry, however, its downfall was marked by the introduction of dirt-cheap overseas labor.
Forty years later, and despite the best of efforts, the destructive forces of outsourcing have left a scar on the area’s sustainability. As Meghana Gandhi, Assistant Director of Fashion and Retail Team at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, attested, “The main hurdle is external. [After the ’70s] the cost of production overseas diminished…and drove big designers to produce abroad.” .
When production work deserted the area, so too went the capital to reinvest in the area’s facilities, talent and technology. Even the most well-intentioned, well-funded designers began turning away from Garment District‒based manufacturing as the quality of the production declined and prices, out of necessity, went up.
Though New York City introduced zoning restrictions, today less than 50 percent of the area’s tenants are in a fashion-related industry.
Lately, however, a team of disparate forces may have created the perfect storm for us to see a Garment District resurrection. Thanks to dogged advocates, along with recent trends in sourcing, ethical consumerism and technology, the District’s bow may finally be turning back toward a sustainable and profitable shore.
One of its longstanding champions is the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Steven Kolb, CEO, of the CFDA, summed up its importance, saying, “It represents manufacturing, and the connection between design and manufacturing is so important.”
The CFDA is helmed by boldface American designers—from Calvin Klein to Diane von Furstenberg to Oscar de la Renta—and it began a Designer Incubator system to support and finance young designers within the Garment District. The initiative provides mentoring and below-market rent for studios and showrooms.
In January 2010, the mayor’s office got involved in the CFDA’s efforts and kicked off Fashion NYC 2020, a program to determine how to foster growth within the fashion industry. One of the major players shaping this dialogue was Andrew Rosen, CEO of Theory, and the unofficial “Godfather of the Garment District.”
“Rosen came to us with this idea to create a fund that bolstered production in New York,“ says Gandhi. “We were very excited about a program that would have factories really serve as a resource in New York.” The end result: the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, which will provide local manufacturers with grants to sustain their businesses.
Jennifer Chun, a Garment District‒based designer, was encouraged by the investment: “I haven’t worked directly with the NYCEDC or the CFDA, but I really hope they can promote how fashion does not have to be ‘fast’ and that young designers are working hard to maintain the quality that make clothes special and different. I’ve learned that there just needs to be some education, or people won’t know how much it takes to produce something. My friends see the difference, and it’s hard for them to compromise now.”
This push away from fast fashion and toward sustainable, ethically sourced products has the power to accelerate a Garment District renaissance.
“I believe [the market] is going to grow,” said Mathieu Mirano, one of Lady Gaga’s favorite designers, who works out of the Garment District. “More people are concerned with American craft. It may be more expensive, but it surely is more of a joy knowing your garment was made so close by,” he said.
Additionally, the evolution of technology, and most notably easy-to-use e-commerce platforms, has significantly lowered the fiscal hurdle for a fledgling designer. In lieu of investing in a physical retail space, a young upstart can now spend the majority of his investment on product design, quality and sourcing, and use a branded website as his storefront. He can use his capital to invest in how and where his work will be produced instead of simply how cheaply and quickly it can be churned out.
Ghandi agreed: “The barriers to entry are getting lower. Given the right training and the right skill set, producing in New York is a very easy way to get your start.”
Amanda Parkes, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, believes the Garment District can anchor an entirely new and sustainable fashion industry, and has created Manufacture NY to kick-start it. This fashion incubator space is tailored for independent designers in the Garment District and includes a full factory facility, grouped sourcing and education facilities, a media center and a Technology Annex for designer education.
As an independent designer himself, Mirano attested to the simple modern conveniences of creating within the Garment District: “The idea of having someone to help you with short-lead projects that’s a 10- minute walk away is immeasurably helpful. It changes the process in an incredibly positive way.”
All of which is a tantalizing prospect, particularly for an industry made of hopeful young designers eager to learn the ropes. The fate of the District ultimately rests on the aspirations of this new generation of savvy young creatives. Because ultimately, as the CFDA’s Steven Kolb put it, “The future of the Garment District is not what it was, but what it can be.