Remaking the Garment District


Ankita Rao

Dressforms are unloaded from a truck to be moved into a designer store on 38th Street.

It takes a team to raise the Garment District.

More than 70 urban planners, fashion designers, architects and community members have launched Making Midtown, a project that aims to provide solutions to Manhattan’s threatened fashion and manufacturing hub in midtown by 2012.

Making Midtown is the second phase in an effort to bring the stakeholders of the Garment District together to provide a sustainable model of light industry.  Like the initial 2009 project, Made in Midtown, it is spearheaded by the Design Trust for Public Space, an urban planning non-profit company that supports community spaces.

“We have a jury, we scope the project, we raise money for it, then we bring on private sector experts and designers to carry out the project,” said Jerome Chou, director of programs at Design Trust.

The Midtown projects address a topic that New York’s fashion and garment industry has wrestled with since the 1980’s – the relevance and sustainability of an apparel manufacturing center in the city.

The Garment District is home to over 40 major fashion designer labels and many independent designers and startup companies, according to the Made in Midtown website. One of the District’s greatest strengths is that it provides designers and manufacturers with the opportunity to communicate, said Glen Cummings, a graphic designer on the project and owner of the MTWTF design company, which specializes in publications and environmental graphics.

“The garment industry still has to be here so fashion designers can prototype,” Cummings said. A designer can sketch a design, experiment with materials from the local manufacturers, and have samples made that often define their newest fashion lines.

But local manufacturers’ inability to target a specific market and compete with the cheaper costs of making clothes abroad is what makes them vulnerable to fluctuations, according to a 2003 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute.  While the apparel industry employs more than 100,000 New Yorkers, the number declined by 58% between 1980 and 2000.

As a result, the District is home to 4.2 million square feet of vacant office space, compared to 2 million square feet in past years, according to the 2009 Fashion Center BID economic profile by the Robert B. Pauls Real Estate and Planning Consultants company.

To combat the empty factory spaces and retail rooms, the New York City Department of City Planning considered rezoning laws in 2009 that would have increased larger corporate offices and residential areas and turned out a stronger profit. The Made in Midtown team responded to the proposed zoning changes by collecting hundreds of interviews, producing videos, and compiling research on the importance and future of the district.  As a result, rezoning was put on hold in 2009.

“Our job is not to give people a vision, it’s about bringing everyone to the table,” Chou said. “We don’t want to just produce recommendations, we want to work with city agencies, councils of fashion designers, group that need the District.”

Matthew Schneid, a member of Community Board 5 who was consulted by the Made in Midtown team, said he thinks the city will not act until an agreement is reached between all stakeholders.

“At the end of the day it’s going to be building owners, designers and the city that decide,” he said, adding on that manufacturers are a vital part of the process.

Making Midtown will apply the information gathered in the past two years into a comprehensive set of solutions for the city, Chou said. The goal is to provide a report by 2012 to help shape the Garment District in a way that mutually benefits the city, landowners and the garment industry.

“We’ve changed the discussion from something that’s dying and dead to something that’s vital,” Chou said.