The 16th floor of an unassuming building at 580 8th Ave. is home to Sherry Accessories Corp., owned by 64-year-old Terry Schwartz. At the entrance, snippets of fabric, buckles and trinkets litter the floor, and hundreds of belts hang like snakes from the peeling ceiling. Sitting behind a PC from 1994, in a worn, reclining leather chair, Schwartz greets customers energetically. The wall behind his desk is lined with yellowed photos of family and former employees.
“I used to have 70 employees,” he says. “Now I have 10…I had to fire them all.”
At first glance, there is nothing unusual about Schwartz. Like many others, he is a belt and accessories manufacturer from Brooklyn; an accountant turned businessman who produced fabric goods for such stars as Badgley Mischka, Diane Von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera and Oscar De La Renta in the “glory days” of the ‘70s and ‘80s when business was booming. What makes Schwartz special, however, is that he has survived —so far.
Schwartz’s manufacturing career began in August of 1972 after his cousin asked him to discover the source of the cousin’s continued financial losses. “I used to be an accountant,” Schwartz explains. “I took one look at my cousin’s books on a Monday, found out that his partner was cheating, and by Tuesday I was the new partner.”
In 1976 Schwartz opened a factory of his own.
In those days, the neighborhood looked very different. “The streets were cluttered with racks of garment and hand trucks…you took your life in your hands navigating the street,” Schwartz says. Back then, Sherry Accessories occupied three floors on 255 W. 36th St., and in his first year Schwartz “made enough money to buy a car and a house,” he remembers. “The ‘70s were the golden years of manufacturing… good times of high volume, low prices and high turn around.”
In the 1980s, things changed. “I used to sell an average of 20-100 belts per day,” Schwartz says, an ironic smile forming over his thin lips. “Now I sell 10 – on a really good day,” he adds. The post- 1980 outsourcing trend hit the garment district hard, and by the winter of 2001, Schwartz was forced to downsize to a two-floor factory on 580 8th Ave. in “the dregs of the garment district,” he says.
Five years later, 18 of the 20 floors in his building have ceased to house garment related businesses. Instead, art lofts, construction companies and lawyers occupy the spaces.
According to Sarah Williams of the Columbia Spatial Information Design Laboratory, Schwartz’s story is emblematic of the changes in the Garment District in the post-free trade agreement era. “Around 80 percent of manufacturers have gone from the district since 1980,” she says.
In her study The Emergence of Los Angeles as a Fashion Hub: A Comparative Spatial Analysis of the New York and Los Angeles Fashion Industries, Williams concludes, “Like other manufacturing industries, apparel moved production offshore to Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean. These locales were still close enough to deliver on time, but offered far cheaper labor.”
Schwartz attests to this. “All of my employees are from Central and Southern America,” he says, “but I still remember when everyone was Italian.”
Of the 300 belt manufacturers in Schwartz’s copy of the 1986 Annual Trade Directory of the Belt Industry only two are left, he explains, himself and one other “somewhere on 36th Street.”
As for future prospects, Schwartz offers only a worried frown and a nervous wringing of his calloused hands. The businessman who has survived for more than 34 years believes his line of work will be extinct in less than 10. “I will stick it out to the end,” he adds.