Asian-Owned Fashion Studios Still Suffer In Pandemic Recovery



Asian workers at Mei Pattern Studio in the Garment District. Photo by Duojiao Chang

After more than 12 hours of cutting and sewing patterns, Mei Zou locks her studio at 10:40 p.m., stepping out of a building where security guards end their shifts hours before. It’s a five-minute walk from her workplace on West 36th Street to Penn Station, where Zou passes by homeless people and drug dealers on the street. 

“I usually let my employees go home early, because they don’t feel safe at night,” said Zou. “But it’s difficult because clients usually make orders and want them the next day.” Zou, in her 50s, moved from South China to the United States in 1996. After working for years as a patternmaker, she opened Mei Pattern Studio in 2019, she said. 

Like many small businesses in the Garment District, Zou’s studio faces rising rents, operating costs and client shortages. But for Asian-owned businesses, there are added safety concerns with the increase in crime and Asian discrimination since the COVID-19 pandemic. Now female, Asian business owners like Zou are trying to not only figure out how to keep their studios open but also work in an environment where she and her employees feel safe. 

“Among my 12 employees, eight are middle-aged Chinese women,” said Zou, adding that none of her workers speak or read English. 

Fashion studios rely heavily on Asian female immigrants as sewers and patternmakers, yet these workers can be easy targets for anti-Asian violence. Since 2020, nearly two-thirds of anti-Asian hate incidents have been against women, mostly aged between 36 to 45, according to a July study published by the Stop AAPI Hate coalition, a nonprofit that tracks hate and discrimination toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. 

“I was scared to death every time I read the news,” said Jenny Huang, in Chinese. Originally from Wenzhou China, she moved to New York in the 1990s. 

Jenny Huang initially worked at a clothing factory in the Garment District as a sewer to make ends meet. She then freelanced as a patternmaker for a few years and joined Zou’s studio before the pandemic hit. “At first, I thought they could rob my bag and phone, but now I’m scared of being stabbed to death,” she said.

“No one feels safe walking around the Garment District,” said Zou, adding that she is disappointed in the city’s response. None of her employees have been physically hurt, she said, “but it doesn’t mean we are not living and working in fear.” 

To protect her business and employees, Nay Huang closes her store, One-to-13 Studio, on West 35th Street at 8.p.m.  “I have been pretty strict on this schedule,” said Huang, the general manager. One-to-13 Studio is another Asian female-owned fashion studio in the Garment District. “Life is more important than work, and I don’t want my employees to lose their lives because of working late.” 

Originally from Taiwan, Nay Huang moved to New York in 2009 and took over the studio three years ago. Most of her employees are middle-aged Chinese immigrants who live in Flushing, Queens, said Huang, adding that they go home together after work. 

Adjusting working hours is not an option for Zou, even though she said she’s happy to let her employees go home early whenever possible. “Our working hours depend on fashion seasons – four times a year. Every month before each season, we work non-stop until 10 or 11 p.m.”

With the increase in crime, some New Yorkers have stepped in to add a layer of protection. 

Peter Kerre, a Brooklyn resident started Safewalks NYC after he saw an increase in attacks in his neighborhood. As a volunteer safety program, Safewalks NYC provides accompanied walks for those who feel unsafe. There are about 50 active volunteers in the group, said Jazmine Nosseir, a volunteer for the program.  

“Almost all requests we have received come from women of color,” said Nosseir. “About 80% are Asian females.” 

After the stabbing of a woman in Chinatown last February and rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, Safewalks NYC has added volunteers who speak Mandarin and Cantonese and expanded its services to cover Manhattan below 59th Street, said Nosseir. 

Both Nay Huang and Zou said that Asian-owned businesses need more institutional support instead of relying on volunteer groups. “The government needs to do more,” said Zou. 

The New York City Police Department created an Asian Hate Crime Task Force in August 2020, yet the number of anti-Asian hate crimes has not decreased after two years. There were 131 anti-Asian hate crimes in New York last year compared to 28 in 2020 and one in 2019. Between January to June this year, there were 51 hate crimes targeting Asians in New York City. Precinct 13, where the Garment District is located, reported the most incidents, according to NYPD crime data. 

While safety remains a top challenge, Zou also worries about her business staying open, compared to the days when the district was bustling, she said.   

“The Garment District used to be crowded, busy,” said Zou. “Now it’s horrible.”

“What can we do?” said Jenny Huang, adding with a laugh. “Life must go on and we just get used to it.”