Tag Archives: garment district

Garment District Incubators

Now that I’m settled down from Sweden, a story this morning from the Wall Street Journal’s Ralph Gardner Jr. fanned the fire under my buns to get back to my reporting in the Garment District. I’m glad he put designer Bibhu Mohapatra in the lede, or he might have lost me with his paragraph-long flashback of watching supermodels strip backstage in the ’80s. Gardner (who professed being foreign to fashion) said the word incubator made him picture “a climate-controlled box,” and many involved with the CFDA’s glossy-floored corridor of 12 glass-walled studios on 38th Street seem take issue with the name. Even a mailman in the elevator there told me, “it sounds like a place for growing aliens.”

A Bibhu Mohapatra gown at his F/W 2010 show in February

These designers may be, um, growing, but they’re well on their way to being established names in the fashion world. Bibhu has been one of my favorite ones to watch. In the months since reviewing his  Fall 2010 show (pictured above), I’ve spent some time with the designer and his staff, as they moved from their studios uptown to their new space in the Garment District.

The Designer in his former Upper West Side studio, March

At work in the new space, April

As Bibhu and his hall-mates have been settling into their new workspace on 38th Street, I’ve been settling into mine on 40th, which was also referred to as “the incubator,” before being rechristened The Center for Journalistic Innovation. From here, I’ll keep reporting on the Garment District, and amass material for a project to address the garment industry’s relationship with our city. Stay tuned this summer. Both in fashion and in media, it’s going to be an exciting run-up to Fashion Week in September.


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The Quiet Before the Storm

Tonight’s forecast calls for heavy snow to begin falling around midnight. The air was heavy and cold as I wandered by the tents earlier this evening, where the crew was battening the hatches for Bryant Park’s final New York Fashion Week.

Beginning next season, the shows will move to Lincoln Center. I’m a bit sentimental about the tents’ last stand in this locale, which has been the nexus of my little universe over the past few years, bordered by the grit of the Garment District on one side and the grandeur of the Public Library and Condé Nast on the other (and conveniently located near my most recent homebase in the CUNY newsroom.)

In a couple of days, Fashion Week will hit the fan, and I’ll be running around to cover it for Dossier. But for tonight I’m battening the hatches at home, for one last fashion week at Bryant Park.

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Cathy Horyn, Behind the Scenes in the Garment Center

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you may be interested in Cathy Horyn’s most recent blogpost: a New York City pattern-maker’s observations of the changing American garment industry. It’s heartening to see the comments it’s already generating on The Times’ website.

Ari Magallanes Works a J Mendel Dress in his 38th Street Studio, Fall 2009

Those comments show readers are ready look behind the curtain, at what Ms. Horyn calls, “an industry in turmoil, the drastic loss of local factories and suppliers, the manufacturing dominance of China and other countries, the gradual decline of technical expertise in the face of apparent consumer indifference about fit and quality.”

Here’s another glimpse behind the scenes, in case you missed it the first time around, of New York City garmentos in their workplaces. You can also click here to read all the posts pertaining to the the garment district.

I’ll be reporting from the runways next week for Dossier, but I’ll do my best to get behind the scenes too. Maybe consumers aren’t so indifferent after all, they just might need more stories.

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The American Garmento: An Endangered Species in its Natural Habitat

If you are a New Yorker, or a regular reader of this website, you may already be aware that New York City’s Garment District is at risk of re-zoning. Maybe you:

You might be wondering what this all really means. What’s at stake? Who works in this Garment Center anyway? (To the layman, the neighborhood may just be home to peep shows, Port Authority, and The New York Times.) Today, I’ll try to give you a run-down of the issue at hand, and share some video-windows I made into a few businesses in the neighborhood.

Since 1987, Manhattan’s Garment District, which falls between 34th and 40th Streets east of 9th Avenue and west of Broadway, has been protected by a zoning regulation that requires landlords to devote a minimum area of their space to manufacturers. Now, after New York City lost 12,500 manufacturing jobs over the last year, local politicians feel the space can be put to better use, and that regulation is under re-negotiation.

Andrew Ward, Executive Director of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, said his organization, which represents the fashion faction, is in discussions with developers, landlords, and union workers about how best to proceed. He wasn’t at liberty to discuss the next steps just yet, but he did note that although only 5% of the clothing Americans buy is made in the USA, 1.3 million square feet of the Garment Center–about 1/6 of the commercially zoned area, are still occupied by manufacturers, wholesalers, suppliers, and designers–that rare breed of New Yorker we affectionately know as garmentos.

As I said in this previous post, when I ran around the Garment District years ago as a design and production assistant, I took the industry’s grittiness, diversity, and camaraderie for granted, as part of New York City. Watching Schmatta helped me put my experience in historic context, but here’s the thing–it’s not just history.

Although according to Wikipedia’s definition, the American garmento is an endangered species, (threatened by changing environmental parameters) they’re still very much alive here in Midtown Manhattan. Here, have a peek into the work-spaces of a belt manufacturer, a bathing suit designer, and a button wholesaler, and let them tell you what the Garment District has meant to them throughout their careers.

Terry Schwartz, 58 years old, Sherry Accessories, 23 years in business. If my landlord wants me out, I’m out of business because I can’t afford to move anymore.

Malia Mills, 43 years old, Malia Mills Swimwear, 18 years in business. The closer your team is, the more you can supervise it. The garment center is absolutely vital to what we do.

Teddy Haft, 54 years old, Buttonology, 5 years in business, a “whole adult life” in buttons. The companies are still here and they do their sourcing here. And then everything gets produced overseas. It’s become very, very difficult.

Andrew Ward couldn’t say what will happen next. The city has scrapped one plan to consolidate the Garment Center’s protected area into a single building, and the negotiations continue.

“It would be a shame if we lost what’s here,” he said. “What’s left.”


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Rag Trade Rally: Schmatta and Swimsuits

Wednesday, at the rally to Save the Garment Center, Joey Raico, a former fabric cutter who took a buyout (“my job was shipped to China”), stood at the podium under the 39th Street button, and called the manufacturing zone on midtown Manhattan’s west side “a magical place.”


There were days when I too thought it was magical, though for a different reason, when I was running between factories and fabric shops in the area as an assistant for Cynthia Rose. I remember thinking the Garment District was somehow frozen in time.

This was the New York I had read about, the dingy, dirty, sort of disgusting place, where people still brazenly spit on the street and catcalled, hurrying past peep shows and Port Authority. One slushy day, as I waited to cross the street with a roll of fabric, a passing truck actually splattered me. I once thought these things only happened in movies.


But, with a little bit of perspective on the place, where I’m based now not as a production assistant, but an editorial one, I see it’s pretty special that in a single day at Cynthia Rose, I would work with people–actually talk with them face-to-face, from China, Greece, Ecuador, India, the Dominican Republic, all over the U.S., and more, all with the common goal of making something. Not money, an idea, or a multi-media web networking platform, but a real, tangible thing: a garment. Maybe that’s why the place felt frozen in time. American manufacturing, imagine that.

“We do need to examine whether we need to make things,” said Marc Levin, “as a society.”

Levin directed the recently released HBO documentary about the NYC Garment Center, Schmatta. Standing on the sidewalk after the rally, the director said he was initially dubious of fashion as a subject (it was HBO’s idea), but now he sees NYC’s garment industry as representative of the American economy as a whole.

It’s a powerful and seductive myth, said the director, that we can move manufacturing jobs overseas, replace them with better jobs for Americans, and continue to run up credit card debt.

“The economy has no clothes,” he said.

image from giantmag.com

The director said he didn’t know if Mayor Bloomberg has seen the film, though he knew HBO’s Sheila Nevins had given him a copy.

Levin said Michelle Obama would be the best one to get his documentary in front of. The first lady has been such a powerful proponent of American fashion, wouldn’t she like to see it stick around?


No doubt, these ladies would, all of whom work for Malia Mills, a swimwear designer based on 38th Street. Below, is a beautiful example of their work–albeit a little wrinkled from my drawer: a spice-colored one piece bathing suit with cutout sides. The straps, lovely and narrow, tie in the back to make it adjustable.


Their suits fit like a dream, which likely factors into their pricey-ness. Frequent fitting sessions, myriad styles for multiple body types, and domestic manufacturing all add up–to a beautiful, but expensive garment. But here’s a valuable secret, ladies. You can go and visit their studio on 38th Street, which also serves as a sample outlet. (And a peek behind the scenes!)

The suit pictured above cost me just $20 earlier this summer. A $20 investment in the domestic development of swimwear, made, as Malia Mills’ website states, “lovingly in the U.S.A.


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TODAY in the NYC Garment District

Today in Manhattan, at 39th and Broadway designer Nanette Lepore will be leading a rally to Save the Garment Center between noon and 1:00 pm. A change of the zoning laws that protect the manufacturing spaces in NYC is threatening the neighborhood, home to what’s left of New York City’s fashion industry. Just in case you don’t believe anything is still made in New York, I’m pasting a picture below of Ari Magallanes (who works on 39th Street), working on a dress that is currently hanging at a boutique on Madison Avenue. (Maybe you’ll find out where in a story to come…)


Ari is one of the many talented dressmakers I worked with in my former life in fashion production, which also started on 39th street, where I worked for Cynthia Rose. Actually I’m going to have to break a date for alterations (on a vintage dress for another day) with one of Cynthia’s former sample-makers in order to check out the rally today. But I’m definitely going, so of course the question is, what to wear? I think for a rally in the Garment Center, it should be something made in the Garment Center, no? Here are a few options: (There’s a funny little thing in fashion called a clothing allowance, where you earn a modest salary + a set amount of clothing you might never afford.)


melon cashmere jacket from Cynthia Rose

This jacket is actually on extended loan from my sister, who it was made specially for. She adores it, but said she couldn’t really use it at home on the farm. (Go figure!) Lovely and soft, but a bit out of season–very spring, for October, I mean.


coated cotton voile top from Cynthia Rose

This is a body that we originally did in silk charmeuse, which is slippery shiny stuff, with lots of floral embroidery on the neck line. I adapted it in a coated cotton voile that’s just a bit metallic (it appears more so in this photo). It sort of balloons out nicely. (A sartorial sigh of relief that the balloon boy is grounded?)


black cotton voile jumper from Cynthia Rose (back)

This is a favorite–I photographed it from the back so you could see those giant buttons, which are made of horn. (Certainly there’s another story there. We’ll revisit that.) Anyway, this jumper is another piece that was never part of the Cynthia Rose collection, it was just development. (Remember the cancelled collection?)

It might be a little chilly for the jumper today, though I suppose I could layer it, either with a turtleneck underneath or a sweater on top. Likely the gold voile top will be the winner, with a sweater and jeans. (Don’t ask which ones. They all seem to have holes lately. More denim diaries to come.)

Here’s a trailer for Schmatta, a documentary that’s just aired on HBO about the Garment Center. I’ll report back on the rally, and hopefully have a review of the documentary soon too–just as soon as I get to see it. Okay, that’s all for now, folks. I’ve got to go get dressed!

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