What Chirlane McCray Wore—and Why It Matters
One answer to the industrial space conundrum can be found off the R train subway stop at 36th Street in Brooklyn. There, blocks of hulking green and taupe buildings—old military and shipping terminals along the Gowanus Bay waterfront—provide one of the best infrastructure skeletons for a manufacturing revival to be found anywhere in the United States.
These vast buildings mark a time when New York dominated North American manufacturing and shipping and served as a main deployment port for troops and military supplies. The neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, grew up around these waterfront industrial areas and the jobs they created. Sunset Park remains a working-class neighborhood today, one that has resisted gentrification’s worst effects. Rents are still relatively affordable, and roughly 20,000 people in this largely Hispanic and Asian neighborhood still toil in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, including garment work. Twenty years ago, the neighborhood rivaled Manhattan in the number of its apparel factories—but outsourcing pushed wages in the Sunset Park industry down and eventually many skilled seamstresses out of the industry altogether.
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Later this year, Manufacture New York will open a flagship facility in Sunset Park, re-establishing the neighborhood’s garment-making prowess and giving the city’s newest and most promising apparel makers a place to call home. This will be, the organization hopes, only the beginning of a boom in new apparel factories here. To this end, Manufacture New York has plans to open a 160,000-square-foot space inside one of the largest of Sunset Park’s terminals, the Liberty View Industrial Plaza, later this year. And the scope of what it hopes to achieve here is as staggering as the former Navy complex’s looming edifice.
The Manufacture New York flagship building will provide shared workspace for up to seventy-five fashion designers (not to mention a catwalk, photo studio, tech annex and dye lab). But most of the space will be leased out to thirty private manufacturers of apparel, accessories, jewelry and textiles, creating an instant community of makers—and an estimated 280 manufacturing and office jobs in the first year, with salaries ranging from $35,000 for an entry-level sewer to more than $75,000 for a skilled pattern-maker. At least half of the hires will come from the Sunset Park area, says Bland, and all will enjoy full health benefits. “This is about creating a manufacturing center that is going to provide jobs and services to New York City for at least the next twenty years,” says Bland.
There is broad recognition that to be successful, the local fashion revival has to do better at nurturing new and emerging fashion businesses. New York’s fashion industry has become too dominated by a handful of mega-brands and established luxe designers, creating a hyper-competitive, top-heavy industry controlled by big business—which has a predilection for outsourcing production jobs.
Debera Johnson is one woman committed to giving designers the support they need to flourish in New York. A Pratt Institute educator as well as the founder and executive director of Pratt’s Design Incubator, Johnson is aggressively expanding the Incubator into a production facility dubbed the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator, set to open this spring. The BF+DA has leased 20,000 square feet in the Pfizer building, the eight-acre former pharmaceutical facility in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Williamsburg that is currently home to dozens of small food manufacturers.
Johnson isn’t interested in simply getting the local garment industry back on its feet. (“The perception of manufacturing is so archaic,” she laments.) She hopes to transform it instead by fostering only the most innovative and sustainable design entrepreneurs. “We are attached to an educational institution, so our motivation is more around innovation and changing the industry, rather than the status quo,” Johnson says. In addition to offering low-cost studio space, the BF+DA will house research labs for the development of new, environmentally friendly dyeing and finishing techniques. Among some of the new jobs being created here are for 3-D fabrication technicians: the BF+DA is partnering with workforce development groups in Bedford-Stuyvesant to train local people in the use of these high-tech fabric-printing machines.
Outsourcing relies on labor that is not only cheap but de-skilled to make products that are of poor quality, and whose manufacture can be broken down into a series of repetitive motions performed by a disposable workforce. When a factory collapsed in Bangladesh last April, killing 1,129 people who were making clothes for Western brands, locally made fashion suddenly appeared to be a morally compelling alternative. But it also became clear that the fashion supply chain needs to be fundamentally rethought in order to sustain healthy workplaces. Even in New York, some apparel factories still look a lot like Third World sweatshops, as factories have rolled back decades of workplace progress to compete with overseas factories on cost.
It remains to be seen if garment workers will regain the numbers and leverage necessary to organize in the near future. But vertically integrated factories such as Manufacture New York and the BF+DA, where the designers work closely with producers, have the potential to elevate and re-skill the manufacturing jobs they create by bridging the divide between designers, consumers and people who make things. This is New York fashion’s most radical promise, and the most exciting prospect offered by Chirlane McCray’s choice of coat.
New York City has emerged as a global brand, as a marker of luxury imbued with a dose of rugged American practicality and craftsmanship. It’s an image that was frequently dismissed as elitist in the Bloomberg-era past. Under a new mayor, the city’s pool of talented designers has been reframed as a source of job creation for ordinary New Yorkers. There are many hurdles to overcome, but hopes are high that New York fashion could become the harbinger of a twenty-first-century urban Industrial Revolution, heralding a new, more equitable era for the city.
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