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.”