The Last Puzzle Master


Carlos with pattern

Carlos Diaz holds up a pattern with all the details for a new dress in his Garment District workshop. Photo: Frank Runyeon

Carlos Diaz is the fashion industry’s anti-fashionista. In his classic-rock t-shirt and jeans, he lacks the flashy shoes, edgy haute couture, or eye-catching shirts you might expect of a well-connected man in the business. But for decades, he’s been resizing clothing designs and creating complex guides for cutting fabrics on the 16th floor of an old brick building in the middle of the Garment District.

Although computers have simplified the hands-on, scissors-and-paper job of taking designs and providing the various measurements needed for cutting and sowing, Diaz continues to survive, along with his company, House of Fashion, which still boasts big name clients such as Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch, Zac Posen, Theory, and Alice and Olivia.

As other companies have gone out of business, House of Fashion has bought their old equipment and furniture. “As they die off, we pick through their bones and take what they’ve got,” Diaz explains. “We’ve been at the funerals of dying elephants—to pick the bones.”

It’s difficult to nail down how many people are still in Diaz’s line of work in the Garment District. According to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s 2010-2011 Economic Profile, there was a 12.3 percent decline in manufacturing jobs in the last year, down from 14,054 to 12,326 workers. This figure includes jobs like sowing, cutting, and patternmaking, as well as grading and marking—Diaz’s specialty.

While grading boils down to resizing the original design, marking involves creating a tracing paper for fabric cutters with as many pieces as possible per sheet. Depending on your point of reference, it’s the jigsaw puzzle or the Tetris of the apparel industry.

Diaz sarcastically wonders what Seventh Avenue’s well-coiffed designers would have without the people who turn their pencil sketches into fabric reality. “Here’s a recipe for cake. Eat it! How does it taste?” he scoffs playfully in his New York brogue.

Diaz describes his job as the place in fashion where art and labor combine, at the nexus of clothing design and cloth cutting. His work is a tricky process. “Even after 10 years, you’re not that good,” Diaz says.

House of Fashion, where Diaz works, enjoys a star-studded clientele, including fashion icon Marc Jacobs and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano. “That’s what’s left here. Mostly top end stuff,” Diaz admits. Lower-end manufacturing work, for places like Old Navy, is all overseas now.

The office joke is that Diaz and his peers don’t ever get to see their products on the street. “We never come in contact with anybody that wears that stuff. Only on TV. It isn’t normal clothing.”

William Wai, a Chinese patternmaker that works regularly with both Marc Jacobs and Diaz, explains that high-fashion designers don’t trust factories abroad with their designs. “If you send a sketch to over there, it takes a long time,” Wai says. “You’re not sure of what the result will be.” In the end, Wai says, it’s about the best designers wanting control over their product and an accessible person they can trust doing the work. That’s why Wai works with Diaz’s company, “They work with me,” he says. “We can go direct to each other, talk to each other. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Diaz objects to a mechanistic view of his work. “People think that fashion is like a car,” Diaz says. “Fashion is an art. You have to put your hands on it.”

Starting in the industry when he was 18, Diaz enjoyed the physical and mental challenge marking and grading offered. “It was like a mathematician’s sweatshop. It’s like taking the guy who loves math in school and enslaving him,” Diaz jokes. You know those guys who are good at math, he says laughing, “they don’t always have good lives.”

But the charm and toil of the industry lost some luster for Diaz when many of his coworkers with less diverse skills were fired, as manufacturing jobs moved to low-cost factories overseas.

If you search the Fashion Center directory of Garment District businesses for “marking” or “grading,” you get a mere 28 or 29 company results respectively, but there aren’t many reliable statistical sources on this particular craft other than the veteran workers themselves.

Perry Horowitz, who does marking and grading for Cathy Daniels—a designer carried at many national chain stores—estimates his trade has shrunk by 80 percent in the past decade. And Diaz believes there are only 100 to 150 graders and markers left in town.

His desk is littered with mounds of business cards from extinct labels, and lining the walls are posters of models wearing dead designers. “This is like a cemetery,” Diaz says, gesturing to his haphazard collection. “I love archaeology…I’m the caretaker of the history of the fashion industry,” he says with a wry smile.