Garment District Businesses Threatened by Price Increases



Alexander Henry print cotton for sale at A.K. Fabrics. Photo by Juanita Gordon

It’s a weekday afternoon in Midtown’s Garment District. Inside A.K. Fabrics on West 39th Street there is not much elbow room. Most of the open space is filled with fabric rolled along six-foot tall cardboard tubes. Customers walk around, tugging their fingers at fabrics for potential projects. 

While it may seem like business as usual on this particular day, owner Azem Khawaja said the behind-the-scenes business struggles are mounting. Khawaja, who inherited the store from his father 40 years ago, said he prides himself on offering high quality fabric at an affordable cost but since the start of the pandemic, he’s had a hard time keeping the shop in business.

“Rent is just too high. It’s very hard to survive right now,” said Khawaja. He said rent for A.K. Fabrics increased by $6,000 a month since he renewed his lease. He is now paying about $18,000 a month. “You don’t make any money,” Khawaja continued. “You work, work, work to pay the landlord.” 

Khawaja isn’t the only shop owner struggling. The area between 34th and 41st Streets, west of 6th Avenue is now cluttered with “store closing” signs, in addition to many already vacant storefronts.

In March 2020, the average rent for a space in the area was about $53.87 per square foot, according to the economic quarterly report from the neighborhood nonprofit, The Garment District Alliance. That rate dropped in December of last year, to about $43.18 per square foot. Now, rent has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels but costs about $48.33 per square foot. The increase is one of many factors impacting shops and business owners in the area who had to get creative to stay in business during the pandemic and beyond.

“Since we do textiles like selling ribbons, trim, and elastics, we kept afloat by selling the elastics for face masks to different companies or people who wanted to make their own,” said Mei Li Ham, a showroom associate at Shindo, a wholesale ribbon and garment accessory manufacturing store located on West 36th street. 

At Beckenstein Men’s Fabrics on 8th Avenue and 39th Street, the plan to survive was very similar. “We were making masks and selling them online,” said Max Boyarsky, a fifth generation Beckenstein who currently works at the store. “I’ll match a mask to your shirt or your outfit,” he said. Boyarsky said that during lockdown, he maintained relationships with his customers by going into the store to mail out fabrics and swatches.

In addition to increased rent prices, the average price of fabric is also up. According to market intelligence platform IndexBox, the average price of cotton surged by 41% last year and it’s expected to increase even further this year. At A.K. Fabrics, Khawaja said fabric purchased from California used to cost about 25 to 30 cents per yard. Now, he estimates one-yard costs about a dollar or more.

Even as costs rise for business owners, Khawaja said A.K. Fabrics will stay loyal to customers. “Right now, everything is expensive,” he said, “but we don’t raise the prices that much.”

That’s part of the reason the district remains a go-to for many. Quintell Williams-Carter is a fashion designer and former Ford Model, who shops in the Garment District for fabrics. Recently, Carter was shopping for black cloth with embroidered flowers and light blue tulle for a dinner party. “These days you have to look harder to find nice fabrics,” she said. 

But, according to Billy Hipkins, who works on Broadway as a wardrobe professional, the district still has it all. “Button, snaps, and hooks, it’s all right there in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s essential that we be close to the Garment District.” Hipkins has 23 years of experience in the wardrobe profession, preparing clothes for shows and performing quick clothing changes for actors.“If this lining is wearing out, to get more lining it’s only 5 blocks away,” he said. 

Dominique Wilkins, a local menswear and unisex designer agrees. “I love to shop at Garment District because it’s the number one top tier place to go for fabrics. They have everything, every color, every size,” he said.

Amid the struggles of the district, the Garment District Alliance created the Business Development Collaborative in 2020. The collaborative provides capacity-building resources and professional training to employees, in collaboration with merchant-focused nonprofit, Nest. “We need to make more investments to ensure the longevity of the Garment District,” said Nicole Franklin, a director at Nest. “Rent concerns were a big concern that came out of the survey,” she said, referring to a survey Nest conducted with small businesses in the Garment District. “It is so hard to find affordable rent in New York. We need to continue to advocate for affordable rent and less predatory landlords.”  

Wilkins said while there have been many changes, the district still provides the essentials. “It does feel like a gap because those doors are now closed but you can go in there and buy the same thing, but it’s just a new store,” he said.