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What Chirlane McCray Wore—and Why It Matters | The Nation

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What Chirlane McCray Wore—and Why It Matters

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de Blasio inauguration

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Inaugurations set the tone for an administration. So when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, and his daughter Chiara chose to wear the designer Nanette Lepore on the occasion of his inauguration, the decision was not just about style. Lepore’s brand of clothing is made almost entirely in New York City. Chirlane, who wore a bold raspberry-colored coat during the January 1 ceremony, released a statement explaining her family’s fashion choice: “This city needs more creative entrepreneurs like Nanette Lepore who are committed to keeping our city’s garment industry thriving.”

Well into the 1960s, the vast majority of clothing sold in the United States was made in New York. After a half-century of job loss (including more than 200,000 cut-and-sew jobs nationally in the last two decades alone), there’s a renewed interest in made-in-America fashion and, surprisingly, a renewed faith in the industry as a source of quality job creation. To be sure, this is a mission that faces plenty of obstacles—the scarcity and high cost of industrial space among them—but a number of organizations and activists are determined to overcome them and to reinvent the industry.

Reviving and reinventing the garment trades could address one of New York’s most pressing problems: the lack of decent-paying jobs. While post-recession job growth has been concentrated in low-paying service-industry positions, there is evidence that the average pay for cut-and-sew workers, now $12 an hour in New York State, is rising. (Nationally, it increased 13.2 percent between 2007 and 2012.) There’s also potential for advancement within the industry: pattern-makers, for example, can fetch $30 or more an hour.

In some ways, the buzz about local fashion recalls the way the tech industry caught the imagination of urban policy-makers in recent decades. But there are good reasons why the city and other institutions have been slower to see apparel as an economic powerhouse: unlike tech start-ups, new fashion companies have a lower return on investment and can take a decade or more to develop into multimillion-dollar enterprises. Still, there’s a compelling argument for building up the garment sector: apparel is exceptionally labor-intensive and has the potential not only to absorb unemployment but to create jobs for those who need them most—the non-college-educated and the nonwealthy.

Apparel-making is not the most lucrative of factory gigs: after the collapse of the city’s once-vibrant apparel unions, most of the sector’s jobs are now nonunion. But supporters argue that investment can be targeted to factories that emphasize quality—of jobs and product—over price. Plus, they point out that apparel has wider economic implications. As Josh Eichen of the Pratt Center for Community Development notes, support for garment-making is a barometer of support for manufacturing overall. “We want to promote these garment businesses, because they are the more outward, public-facing manufacturing sector,” he says. In other words, fashion is the extrovert of the manufacturing world. If land use and zoning policies are devised to help foster apparel-making, the benefits flow out to machinery, metalworking and other types of industry that are more commonly unionized and pay higher wages.

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One organization supporting a full-scale revival of the garment trades is Manufacture New York. At its pilot program in the heart of Manhattan’s storied garment district, the organization provides fledgling fashion designers with the leg up they need to launch a clothing line. Its members enjoy below-market-rate workspaces and branding and merchandising training. Skilled garment workers are also finding new jobs here, stitching together designers’ visions. “Domestic manufacturing is coming back. We can’t keep up with it,” says Bob Bland, founder and CEO of Manufacture New York. “We’ve had to hire new sample and pattern-makers every week for the last four weeks to keep up with the demand.”

For the city’s established manufacturers, a new program has been launched to help them dust off, modernize, and take advantage of the sudden surge in domestic orders. Launched in September by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (whose members include fashion heavyweights Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta), the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative provides grants of up to $150,000.

Johnny’s Fashion Studio, located a few blocks from Manufacture New York, is among the applicants. “We’re growing and we’re transitioning,” says Joann Kim, the factory’s sales and marketing director. “We need everything.” During the lean years of outsourcing, Johnny’s stayed afloat by developing samples for high-end clients like Phillip Lim and Helmut Lang. In the past year, the company has been able to hire five more full-time garment workers in addition to Kim, who helps with the outreach to emerging designers increasingly committed to making their lines in New York.

Pay in New York’s garment trades varies based on experience and from factory to factory. Johnny’s newest sample maker, for example, was just hired at $13.50 an hour, and Kim says she’s a candidate for quick promotion. But with limited space, there are only so many more people Johnny’s can take on. Real job growth is predicted to occur as new factories open up—and that will depend on the mayor and his wife sticking to their inauguration day sentiments.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg approached factories as so many inconvenient roadblocks to his post-industrial urban utopia. Countless manufacturing spaces were rezoned and rehabbed or torn down to make way for sky-high condos. According to a Pratt Center brief, “Of the 95 rezonings from 2003 to 2008, one-quarter converted manufacturing districts into some other category of land use.” As a result, the city lost more than 1,700 acres of manufacturing space during the Bloomberg era.

Still, the former mayor had one redeeming industrial policy: in 2005, he set aside sixteen industrial business zones, or IBZs (five each in the Bronx and Queens and six in Brooklyn), protected areas where residential development is prohibited and industrial businesses are offered incentives, such as tax credits for relocation and grants for employee training and technical assistance.

To secure the apparel renaissance far into the future, the city must protect the remaining industrial space. Even within the IBZs, manufacturers are still at risk of being pushed out by hotels, big-box retail stores or large office buildings, which can legally be built in many of these areas. De Blasio’s four-point industrial development plan, released during his campaign, looks promising on this front, as it includes new regulations that would forbid nonindustrial development in the IBZs.

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