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.
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.