Fashion’s Future: A Review of the Garment Center Town Hall Meeting
March 23, 2011 § 12 Comments
I arrived at Community Board 5’s Garment Center Town Hall discussion at Parsons yesterday evening with an open mind and without expectations. Through this blog, I’ve become familiar with some of the factions who are involved in attempting to address the problems the Garment District has and continues to face. But until last night, I didn’t understand quite how complex the question of how to save the Garment Center really is. Many valuable issues and objectives were raised last night, but the means and the tactical next steps to put ideas into action were less defined.
The event, entitled Designing (and Sewing) Our Future: A Garment Center Town Hall Hosted by Community Board 5 was organized by the Pratt Center for Community Development, Design Trust for Public Space, Save the Garment Center and the Municipal Art Society. I was hoping the event would be as hopping with NYC fashion enthusiasts as a shopping event or a fashion show, but the real talk that took place during the evening wasn’t meant to be glamorous or fun. The room was crowded, but not packed, with what looked like a mix of Garment Center workers, young designers and industry players.
The night began with welcome remarks by Vikki Barbero, Chair of Community Board Five. She called attention to the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire tragedy, and the memorial that will take place on Thursday at the historic site of the fire. Barbero mentioned that “much good has come from bad” in terms of the evolution of the garment industry since the 1911 tragedy. She got the night off to a good start when she asked that the panel and the audience think about what the Garment Center should look like and whom it should serve.
The next speaker, William Morrish, Dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons talked about the architectural and urban planning aspects of preserving the Garment Center, saying, “If you look at the Garment Center, it’s a monster project”. Indeed it is.
Next up was Jerome Chou, Director of Programs at the Design Trust for Public Space. Chou took the crowd through the Design Trust’s Made in Midtown study and explained how the Trust works in general. The most compelling slide he showed was a map of the high-rise developments that surround and encroach upon the Garment District, a neighborhood defined as 34th to 40th St., from Broadway to 9th Avenues. It was fairly shocking to see the number of apartment complexes and hotels that have gone up and continue to be built. But Chou expressed hope for the manufacturing district, and went on to cite a WSJ article that reported an increase in domestic manufacturing across the country. Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, and former chair of fashion design at Parsons, gave Chou license to quote him as saying that “Project Runway gets it entirely wrong when showing how the fashion design process really works”. That false sense of ease and centralized production resources that the show portrays are in stark contrast to the segmented, somewhat archaic reality of the Garment District now. What the neighborhood does offer designers is proximity, product development assistance, long-standing relationships with sample rooms and manufacturers and prices that are competitive by comparison with overseas production options. And as Chou mentioned, more than 33% of recent fashion school grads intend to start their own businesses. These emerging talents need support and infrastructure in order to survive and to positively affect the city’s economy. At present, the Garment Center has an economic impact of $733m in revenue for NYC. Chou ended his presentation by suggesting that the fashion-loving public needs a way to connect to the creative process in the Garment District.
The very charming Stan Herman, an iconic Seventh Avenue fashion designer and longtime president of the CFDA then took to the stage to moderate what would be both a fascinating and a frustrating panel discussion. The panel included Joe Ferrara, Director of the Garment Center Supplier Association, Yeohlee Teng, designer YEOHLEE Inc. and board member of both the Municipal Art Society and the CFDA, Madelyn Wils, Executive VP of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Edgar Romney, Secretary Treasurer of Workers United and the Service Employees International Union, Adam Friedman, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and Eric Gural, Executive Managing Director of real estate firm Newmark Knight Frank.
Herman recalled a time when egg creams were served on every corner of Seventh Avenue, when designers had a plentiful choice of button suppliers in the neighborhood and when “two hours were set aside each morning for appointments with Made in the USA fabric manufacturers”. He admitted things had changed drastically in the many years he’s spent in the Garment District, and turned first to Ferrara, asking if “we as an industry have a voice”. Ferrara, who confessed to not being “a preservationist”, explained that “the Garment Center is full of entrepreneurs, those who start something from nothing. It’s a massive incubator”. He also reminded the audience that “clothes still need to be made by human hands” and that that reality signifies the strength of the industry.
Herman asked Romney if the workforce is still here in NYC. Romney spoke of the Garment Center’s history of attracting newly arrived immigrants to its workforce. Now he said, “those immigrants are taking jobs at hotels and hospitals because the Garment Center jobs just aren’t there”. But he believes the neighborhood and the industry are still viable.
Teng, a staunch supporter of the Garment District and local production was asked if NYC can retain the spotlight the fashion industry here is enjoying if there is only a skeleton of an industry. It was clear how much this designer cares about the issues at stake. She, like Ferrara and Romney expressed hope, saying that “as long as we have fashion school graduates, we will prevail” and that “we have to inspire people to care about Made in NY.”
Gural, who is a representative of landlords and the rising rents those landlords threaten Garment District business owners with, was a good sport about clarifying the zoning and rent challenges that exist. Right now, he said, rent is fairly affordable at $14 to $20 per square foot. Zoning was a topic that was approached and re-approached many times over the course of the evening. In 1987, NYC established the Special Garment Center District zoning (SGCD) in an effort to sustain a local garment manufacturing business. Zoning laws required a large percentage of the Garment District to remain as light industrial space, rather than allowing properties to be converted to offices, hotels or residential spaces. Zoning has kept the industry in the Garment District, but it unfortunately has not bolstered its growth in any serious way.
Wils and the NYCEDC have been instrumental in tackling modern fashion and garment industry challenges in the city. When asked if it was possible to create a new model for the Garment District, she boiled down the question by answering that it was a choice between having a Garment District or not. She was quite honest in saying that “there is no collective voice in the Garment District” and that “while some designers are struggling, others are not, and those who are not often leave because the district doesn’t fit who they think they are”. What matters to manufacturers, she went on to say is next year’s business and that “if there is no demand, the Garment District will not survive”. She also put onus on retailers and consumers to see the value of Made in NY products.
Friedman also spoke of the need for a new model in the Garment District, and spurred the crowd on by telling them to “never miss an opportunity to capitalize on a crisis”. He believes that a new model should be built on industry ownership of real estate. A nice idea but not an altogether realistic one. He also called for centralization and a benevolent donor to the local industry. Again, both ideas sound good, but need concrete next steps to even attempt them. What did make sense was his suggestion that “government, manufacturers and industry need to chip in” to help revive or preserve the district.
Ferrara was a bit apprehensive when it came to the question of ‘upgrading’ production facilities in the Garment Center. The truth is the neighborhood is in rather sad shape; it’s not modern, it’s gritty and it’s not state-of-the art. But the grime also gives the neighborhood its character. The issue with upgrading it in a major way is that it means higher rents. There was some related talk of mixed-use buildings, those that were encouraged by the zoning laws. Those buildings exist now and haven’t increased business in any serious way. Gural plainly stated, “mixed use is not possible”. The group wrestled with the issue, and discussed the concept of a manufacturing-only building and how it would be financed. In the end, no conclusion was drawn about how or if the district should be modernized.
Right now, the Garment District is capable of producing samples, bridge, contemporary and high-end clothing and accessories. Where Garment District manufacturers are not able to compete with international manufacturers is on the low-end. Ferrara touched on an interesting possibility when he asked if the district could increase its high-end private label business with retailers. He also said that there are many high-end designers who are producing here, but don’t necessarily want to admit it. Others agreed that brands don’t necessarily want to promote their collections as “Made in NY” only, should they ever decide to move production overseas later on in their businesses. It was a point I hadn’t thought of previously, and one that would be an obstacle to any “Made in NY” consumer marketing campaign.
The conversation then turned to one of the more pivotal topics, when Herman asked panelists “Why isn’t the Garment District sexy?” Gural thought that the district “should be the coolest, hippest place in NY” with retail and restaurants, but that building layouts and restrictions have impeded that development. Barbara Randall of the Fashion Center BID, suggested that designers build their stores in the Garment District to attract pedestrians, saying, “fashion is not in the fashion district”. Gentrification has happened in so many other areas of the city, and the panel grappled with whether the Garment District could be more like the hotel and restaurant laden Meatpacking District. Later on, a representative from the High School of Fashion Industries questioned why anyone would want the Garment District to be “sexy”, correctly pointing out that introducing high-end businesses to the neighborhood would only cause rents to skyrocket, which ultimately no fashion business owner would want. Quite true.
The panel opened up to audience questions. Friend of Truth Plus, cb5 Board Member and restauranteur Jeffrey Zurofsky, directly asked the NYCEDC just how much of a priority the Garment District is to the city. Wils said that the city is very dedicated to preserving, promoting and revitalizing the area, and revealed that in addition to their many ongoing fashion efforts (including the CFDA Incubator and the large-scale Fashion 2020 Initiative), even more fashion-related projects are in the works for the future. More emotional pleas were made by those like designer Nanette Lepore, a founder of Save the Garment District, who urged panelists and audience member to “protect the future for America’s fashion designers”, and by a manufacturer who openly asked the panel to “come to a decision and do something now!”
After over two hours of back and forth, I was disappointed that with so many interested parties there wasn’t a collective strategic agenda put into place to move forward. But I can also now understand just how complex the issue of the Garment Center is. The basic scenario is that on one hand, the district is a relic of America’s and NYC’s industrial past, and on the other, it’s still being utilized as a manufacturing hub and could potentially be a source of additional jobs and dollars for the city going forward. What I wasn’t clear on was from what perspective the city or the Mayor is looking at the Garment District. I assume that to local politicians and city planners, an absolute gentrification and loss of the Garment District would be as financially viable or more than investing in, rezoning and rebuilding the Garment District. In some ways, I think the mayor is probably appeasing Garment Center property owners, business owners and designers alike by rolling out fashion-friendly initiatives, and I question whether these projects are a means for him to keep the neighborhood in limbo until he ends his term and no longer needs to deal with the problem.
The Garment District isn’t just important to me because I work in fashion in New York; it’s emblematic of what’s gone on with manufacturing across the United States. Should we as a country or as an industry be proud to lose the ability to make things here? I think not. Could domestic production ease environmental problems that result from the mass shipping and boat freighting of imported goods? Yes. In terms of the Garment District, do I think designers who produce locally and the manufacturers and sample hands that work with them would be happy to get behind a Made in NY campaign? I do. I also wonder if designers truly understand the pros and cons of producing domestically versus overseas. Are there any incentives that the city could provide? Or the industry? In any case, what needs to take place next is not more talking, it’s doing. As Hilldun’s Gary Wassner said to me last night, “We have to be effective or we spin wheels. We can’t force support. When we have clear, practical ideas they have a chance of being realized. “
Thanks so much to the event’s sponsors and a special thanks to Erica Wolf of Save the Garment District for personally inviting me.