New York Learns How to Stay Relevant From Europe Fashion Centers



Women drape dresses in the Garment District. Photo: Seth Wenig, AP

Editor’s note: This is part two of a series about Garment District concerns and trends

As New York City continues to fight for its once dominant place in the fashion world, fashion designers and urban planners try to forge relationships with other fashion strongholds around the world in order to seek ideas for development.

A recent report conducted by The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) looked at the strengths and weaknesses of New York’s Garment District and addressed ways to continue a “quota system,” a regulatory agreement between importers and exporters on amounts of apparel traded, that should help New York regain its dominant position in the industry.  The MAS report also analyzed the enduring success of the industry in Milan, Paris, and London, mainstays in the fashion world, and analyzed their similarities and differences with New York.

During a panel discussion hosted by MAS, the group explored industry clustering, which is what happens when geographically close industries, whether independent or competing, do business with each other with common goals in terms of infrastructure, talent and technology.  They also discussed policy changes and mechanisms that provide opportunities for entrepreneurs.

One problem New York City faces is the lack of sufficient exhibit space.  Eleven of the 15 New York fashion events the report studied require at least 400,000 square feet of space, while four require 80,000 feet.  Utilizing space at the 675,000-square-foot Javits Convention Center has not yet been considered, although building new convention centers in Manhattan allowing for 10 additional trade shows would have a $100 million economic impact, according to the report.  David Rockwell, summit panelist, founder and CEO of the building design company the Rockwell Group, says that designing buildings goes hand in hand with designing clothes, and each is essential to fashion design growth.  “Part of good design is continuing to ask questions and knowing something about the client. Defining the problem, staying flexible and listening and learning is the difference in any project,” he said.

Eugenie Birch, panelist and president of the International Planning History Society, said that because most people live in cities, there needs to be a basic change in how we populate cities to create more opportunities for those in the fashion world.  “In the next 50 years, almost 70 percent of the world will be urbanities and more than half will be Asian and a fourth will be Africans,” she said.  Birch said that calling for physical improvements and amenities, such as more open spaces, will help alleviate the problem of packed cities.

Tim Gunn, a former chair at the Parsons School of Design, as well as a “Project Runway” co-host, said, “The Garment District is for designers of all levels. It’s for the young entrepreneurial designers, those at the midpoint in their careers. It provides incredible resources for everyone,” he said.

Although New York is seen as the mecca of the fashion world, lessons learned from European cities include:

  • London’s core manufacturing element was lost due to high real estate prices and there is currently no long-term planning to correct the problem. Fashion designers studying in London also left in droves after completing their training because finding reliable manufacturers to produce material was almost impossible.
  • The emergence of Asia in the fashion industry, particularly China, has changed the international fashion equation. For the past 15 years, China has led the world in garment production and can mass-produce material to meet demands. The Garment District can not mass-produce because of its limited size, but efforts to coordinate in the city have potential.
  • Milan operates in the same fashion as New York, doing business as small, nimble and specialized manufacturing houses, but the report says that New York does not offer the same level of public sector support that Milan does. Milan also has benefitted from the regional Made in Milan label.

The report claims that New York needs to be careful about losing its label because re-creating it is “much more significant than finding ways to put it on firmer footing.” But New York does have one advantage over competitors:  the way that small-time designers can seek cost-effective ways to produce limited quantities of material in the Garment District, while overseas markets find difficulty in finding that cooperation in American markets.

  • Paris, like London, has seen manufacturing in the city reduced to almost nothing and has outsourced a majority of its manufacturing to Asia and remote parts of western and southern France.  Although Paris has 8,000 apparel firms, it can no longer compete with other cities to keep business from leaving town.

One of the report’s recommendations is to continue looking into methods of continuing the quota system, which is rarely used.  The quota system allowed the United States and other countries to coordinate with each other in contracting with factories, helping them to monitor contract compliance and deliver raw materials to young entrepreneurs.