Monday through Friday, between 1 and 2 p.m., a group of Italian men gather at Gregory’s Café, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 39th Street, for a lunch-break espresso and a chat. All of them are Garment District workers who emigrated from southern Italy to the United States between the 1960s and 1970s. The tailoring skills acquired back home were particularly valuable in New York’s thriving fashion industry. They became patternmakers, sample makers or graders and markers. They remember how 30 years ago most workers in the industry were Italian and Jewish.
In fact, ever since its first days in the mid-19th century, New York’s fashion industry has “thrived on the large influx of a cheap, skilled labor force—mostly Italians and Eastern European Jews— many of whom came from a tradition of tailoring,” reads Fashioning the Future: Nyc’s Garment District, a report by the Municipal Art Society of New York.
Although the overwhelming majority of Italians migrated to the United States during the first two decades of the 19th century, over 200,000 arrived between 1961 and 1970.
“Before we used to come here and it was like Little Italy, there used to be Italians everywhere,” said Vincenzo Toscano, a production manager who moved to the United States from Bari, Italy in 1975.
Yet, just like the Garment District itself, this informal Italian Embassy is slowly shrinking.
“There might be the same companies but the workforce and the people are not there any more because they moved everything overseas,” said Toscano.
Today, 3.3 percent of foreign-born garment district workers are Italian, compared to the 46.1 percent Chinese, 9.5 percent Dominican, 4.3 percent Asian American and 3.4 percent Korean.