Tag Archives: schmatta

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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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