Designers Strive to Market Garment District Pride


garment-center statue

The information kiosk for the Fashion Center BID in the center of the Garment District. Photo: Erica Wolf.

Word on Fashion Avenue, the stretch of Seventh Avenue between 34th and 42nd Street, is that designers are packing up and leaving New York City’s famed Garment District.

Someone should tell that to the designers.

Two of designer Nanette Lepore’s cousins came to New York City and took a bus tour down Seventh Avenue, recalled Erica Wolf, who works for Lepore as her executive assistant. “They got off the bus and asked her, ‘Where are you moving?’ She goes, ‘What do you mean?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, the tour guide told us that everybody in the district is moving,’ and she was like, ‘What are you talking about?'”

In fact, staying put seems like a smart strategy to mid-size designers like Lepore and others, including Yeohlee Teng, head of the YEOHLEE Inc. apparel brand, and Anna Sui, who manages clothing, cosmetics and perfume lines. Those designers have begun making it a point to market their products as locally made.

“The Garment District is still here,” said Wolf, who in addition to working for Lepore is the executive director of the non-profit organization Save the Garment Center. “We need to start yelling about it because people don’t know.”

It’s true that the district is changing. In the early 1900s, 95 percent of garments sold in the United States were made in the Garment District, according to  “Made in Midtown, a study by the Design Trust for Public Space, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public space in New York. But by 1980, imports of clothing made overseas accounted for half of all the garments sold in the United States, according to a report from the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, or BID.

The number of employees in fashion-related businesses is shrinking as well. In 1996, there were 72,000 employees working in the garment industry in New York City, according to the Fashion Center BID’s 2010-2011 economic report. By 2000, there were only 28,776 industry employees, representing 36 percent of all employment in the neighborhood. The number dropped again in 2010 to 20,561 employees, or 22 percent of total employment in the district.

Most of the loss came from factories, with a smaller percentage from individual design studios, according to Jerry Scupp, deputy director of the Fashion Center BID.

“When you talk about the climate of business in the area, it’s mostly in the manufacturing end,” Scupp said. “Factories take up a lot more space than showrooms and they also tend to employ more people. You lose one factory, you lose several thousand square feet of space and 20, 30 or 40 employees. Whereas you lose one showroom, you lose 1,500 square feet and two people. But they’re both losing one business.”

Ironically, the more a designer’s business grows, the harder it is to stay put. Lia Cinquegrano, a footwear designer for Nanette Lepore and designer of her own line of handbags, Thomas IV, said the only reason she’s been able to stay local is because her manufacturing output is small. Cinquegrano said she produces 100 to 150 pieces each season.

“I prefer to have a personal relationship with the people executing my ideas and designs,” she said. “I’m committed to using the resources at hand and being creative within the means that the local industry offers. It’s extremely expensive, however, so that’s a downfall, but no overseas factory would make the small quantities I need to produce.”

Wolf said although big-name designers like Vera Wang receive press coverage for leaving the area, there are a number of smaller designers who remain in the district. “These resources, this cluster of innovation and factories and cutting and engraving, they are where the innovation comes from and the new ideas,” she said. “Everyone runs around saying America doesn’t make anything anymore, and that’s just not true.”

She hopes for an upswing in shoppers looking to purchase clothes locally, much in the style of the local food, or locavore, movement. “It’s an easier argument on the food farm, but with clothing there are people who wonder, if you don’t know where the material is from, why do you want it against your body?” she said. “But from an economics perspective and psychological, you should always help your neighbors and buy local. It’s an ecosystem; it helps your surroundings. That’s how industries grow together.”