BY EVAN LAMBERT
The arts have always been a huge part of Jeffrey Schwager’s life. When he was a child, his dad played classical piano for him, and his mom took him to musicals. Now, as an adult, he can tell you every show playing on Broadway at any given moment. (He’ll also casually mention to you that he’s friends with Bernadette Peters.) You’d think a guy like this would’ve gone into the arts as well, right? Nope. He makes a living off of running a business in the Garment District.
Schwager, president of Jeffrey Schwager Showroom, is so disarmingly friendly that it comes as no real shock to find out he’s friends with celebrities like Peters. (He also knows Teresa from the Real Housewives franchise, but no big deal.) About six feet tall with brownish hair, long features, and a slight New York accent, he comes across as easy-going and charming.
But then again, Schwager can’t really afford to be short on charm; he makes a living off of convincing retailers such as Anthropologie and Bloomingdale’s to buy the products of local and international designers. And he usually does a pretty good job of it, too: even with the recent recession, he’s managed to keep his business afloat.
Sure, he’s had to cut back a bit—after the economy plummeted, he lost about 15 percent of his usual retail business partners and had to fire two of his employees—but despite everything, he has continued to be successful at selling his designers’ merchandise to retailers. He credits his success to experience—he’s been running his business for 13 years—and to the fact that his designers are pretty well-known to their niche consumer bases. (Although his designers produce all sorts of clothing—dresses, pants, shirts—they all seem to attract “contemporary, fashion-forward” customers.)
Daniel Saponaro, a 31-year-old designer based in Brooklyn, credits Schwager with measurably increasing visibility for his brand “Hutch”—a women’s clothing line specializing in upscale evening wear—despite the fact that they have only been working together since early spring of 2011.
“He is building [my] brand in specialty stores and department stores…and he has definitely impacted my business,” said Saponaro.
Saponaro complemented Schwager on his “great connections,” which have helped Schwager expand his business and create a large network of potential buyers. Of course, many of Schwager’s “great connections” are in the arts industry; for example, by financing the 2005 Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” he met many invaluable people interested in doing business.
Adapting to a rough economy has not been Schwager’s only challenge of late, however. Namely, he has kept his business alive even as the Garment District around him has undergone massive changes.
“Every space in New York is reinventing itself at any given time…and the Garment District is no different,” said Schwager. “But the city is reinventing the neighborhoods around here with mostly residential buildings that aren’t very Garment-Center-friendly.”
Schwager was referring to a series of residential projects spanning from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. He believes that these projects will effectively change the “character” of the district.
“If it weren’t for centralized buying of garments and fabrics, we wouldn’t even have a Garment District,” he said. “But with new young designers spreading out away from the district and into the city, we’re losing the sense of this neighborhood being a true garment ‘center.’”
Despite everything, Schwager remains hopeful about the future. After all, he’s never really stopped having a constant rotation of designers to represent—and he’s never really stopped having a steady supply of charm to spend on them, either. Plus, he’ll always have the arts; they’re his “one true love,” and they’re probably not going away anytime soon.