New York’s Garment District at a Crossroads

By Maurice Pinzon
Earlier this week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had only positive things to say about New York’s fashion industry, pointing to the cultural and economic benefits the industry provides for the city. So did Commissioner Raymond R. Kelly, who went to see the Diane von Furstenberg runway fashion show this past Sunday at Bryant Park.

At a Tuesday news conference, Mayor Bloomberg said, “The fashion industry is a very big part of our economy and it certainly is something that the public seems to love. It’s great fashion, it’s great public interest and we love having the designers here. We love having the jobs here that the fashion industry creates and we’ll do as much as we can to help this industry, like we’ll help other industries.” (Full transcript of Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks at Fashion in the Public Interest.

In a brief interview with New York News Network just before Ms. Furstenberg’s show, Commissioner Kelly was asked what New York Fashion Week meant for the city. He said, “It means a great deal for New York. This is a major business plus for the city.” The commissioner added, “But I’m here because I like to look at good-looking women.”

But beyond the models, celebrities, fashion trends and all that glitters at the 250 city-wide events at New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and its members are not very comforted by the mayor’s words.

That is because the apparel factories, suppliers, wholesalers and showrooms in the Garment District that many in the fashion industry depend on have continued to disappear during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. Despite the fact that in 1987 the city created a Garment Center Special District (GCSD) to protect the area, illegal conversions have eroded the space available for fashion industry use.

The GCSD was created to protect apparel production, wholesale and showrooms west of Broadway, between 35th and 40th streets. But the zoning law is only as good as its enforcement and that enforcement is the job of the understaffed and often dysfunctional New York City Department of Buildings (DOB).

According to a study from July 2006 by the Garment Industry Development Corporation (GIDC), a non-profit corporation, the special district zoning regulation “was not enforced for 12 years, leading to a fair amount of illegal conversion to traditional office space. At least 800,000 sf have been illegally converted.” The study also states that, “factories are finding it harder and harder to renew leases and/or find new space.” The study indicated that “landlords are seeking non-industrial, higher paying tenants.”

According to the study, the space that does remain available to the garment industry is heavily used, with production taking place in more than “200 small factories that employ over 4,000 people, whose wages exceed $100 million annually.”

The Hudson Yards rezoning, which the Bloomberg administration supported in its efforts to push for a West Side Stadium, further encroached on some of the city blocks previously protected under the special zoning. In addition, the Bloomberg administration is proposing to rezone the district and that most likely would further erode the garment district’s protected area.

This past July, the CFDA, in apparent frustration over the lack of progress in getting a clarification from the city on the proposed new zoning, urged its members in a letter to contact City Hall directly. The letter indicated that the goal was to “ensure that a core of stable and enforceable production space remains in the Garment District.” The letter went on to say, “After two years of discussion, no agreement has been reached and this administration is coming to an end. We are running out of time.”

In an interview with New York News Network on Thursday, CFDA Executive Director, Steven Kolb, said, “It’s a significant problem for designers, particularly younger designers who do small production runs and need regular contact with their factories when they are in production and that’s one of the benefits of the neighborhood and the factories that still exist there.”

He added, “It’s a destination for young designers, both starting out and who are already working, that can’t really afford the bigger production runs that are going overseas.”

But it is not just new talent that benefits from what many describe as a unique mix of garment businesses in the district. Established and successful designers such as Nanette Lepore and Anna Sui find that rapid turnaround and quality control are essential benefits to having work done locally.

For Ms. Lepore, who had a well received fashion show this Wednesday during New York Fashion Week, the advantage of working with local factories in New York City is essential to the high quality of her collections.

Ms. Lepore told New York News Network: “The advantage for me and my customer is that I have amazing quality control. I have better inventory control and I have great fit. And it’s all because I have a production staff that’s in and out of the factories three and four times a day. We’re able to stop and measure things, spec things, inspect things, change fit and do sewing corrections. We have so much more control because we’re hands on. We have better inventory control because we’re cutting closer to season. We have better turnaround time because if someone wants to reorder, I can flip it in ten days.”

Ms. Lepore pointed out that she and quite a few other big designers, by producing in New York City and not going overseas, are keeping factories open for new and upcoming designers. Sounding a little exasperated, she said she did not understand why Mayor Bloomberg works with the CFDA and attends award presentations for young designers and at the same time “is not supporting zoning and policing of what’s happening in the Garment District. You are closing the door to young talent by closing these factories.”

Mr. Kolb said, “There is zoning already that’s been in place for a long time, but it’s not being enforced and the landlords are illegally converting what should be protected space into higher paying rent.”

At the New York City Department of City Planning, the new zoning seems to be only inching along. Rachaele Raynoff, the chief spokesperson for the department, told New York News Network, “It’s a complex issue with lots of stakeholders and it’s important to build consensus in order to go forward.”

Ms. Raynoff amplified her remarks in an email message: “The city continues to pursue a rezoning plan to catalyze investment in the Garment District and keep New York City the fashion capital of the world. Our primary objective has been and continues to be the ongoing health of New York City’s vibrant fashion industry which relies on a wide array of fashion design, marketing and wholesaling activities in the Garment Center and the surrounding area. A successful rezoning plan will balance the needs of the garment industry, the property owners and other developing businesses, and as soon as we achieve a consensus on what the right balance is, we will take a proposal forward into public review.”

Mr. Kolb told New York News Network that he was more optimistic after a meeting with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) this past Wednesday, the lead agency that is tasked with figuring out how the Garment District businesses can survive. A spokesperson for the agency would not confirm the Wednesday meeting, but they did provide a statement from Patrick Murphy, Head of Fashion/Retail Industry Growth Initiatives at EDC. In the statement, he said, “We’ve had constructive conversations with property owners and industry stakeholders. We expect to have a number of follow-up meetings in the next few weeks and we’re optimistic a consensus can be reached.”

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