Damon Winter/The New York Times
The owner of Regal Originals said he was forced to halve the size of his factory last month and dispose of the aging machines that he no longer had room for. More Photos
New York’s garment center, once the heart of an industry that employed hundreds of thousands of workers and produced most of the clothing in the United States, is in danger of extinction.
The New York Times
Many landlords complain about the district’s zoning. More Photos »
For decades, cheaper foreign competitors and rising rents forced many of the sewing and cutting rooms and the button and zipper shops that once thrived on the side streets south of Times Square to close, shrink or move as mass production shifted to China, India and Latin America.
Now, even the remaining factories and shops that make the couture coats, dresses and other apparel for glamorous fashion designers like Nicole Miller, Yeohlee Teng, Anna Sui and Nanette Lepore are in jeopardy. Owners say they are caught in a vise between declining retail sales and landlords eager to find better-paying tenants.
Some city officials and industry leaders worry that if manufacturing is wiped out, many of the designers who bring so much luster to New York will leave, along with the city’s claim to be a fashion capital rivaling Paris and Milan. The damage would be undeniable, given that the industry’s two big annual events — Fashion Week in September and February — attract enormous numbers of visitors and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.
“If you don’t have production in the garment center, there would be no reason for designers and suppliers to cluster in the district,” said Barbara Blair Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District. “We’re down to 9,000 jobs.”
The Bloomberg administration is now considering designating one or more large buildings in the garment center solely for manufacturing and related businesses. For 22 years, the city has protected the garment district through special zoning that restricts building owners — from 34th to 40th Street, between Broadway and Ninth Avenue — from converting factory space to offices, which command higher rents. Landlords have long railed against the restrictions, and their complaints have gained traction with the Bloomberg administration.
But even as the city weighs whether to do away with the zoning restrictions, city officials, union leaders, designers, property owners and manufacturers are devising other ways to save the garment center with a proposal that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. But city officials say the industry has shrunk to a point where it could be reasonably consolidated in a few buildings, rather than several blocks.
“It’s not mass production,” Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey said of the garment center. “Clearly, what’s occurring is much smaller and more high-end compared with the actual production that used to exist. The idea is, we want to keep garment manufacturing in the garment district.”
The effort to shore up the garment center comes as Manhattan’s other blue-collar districts — printing, fur, meatpacking and fish — have disappeared, overrun by white-collar offices, residential development and expensive retailers.
Initially, city officials had wanted to quickly rezone the garment center, much as they had revamped the adjacent Hudson Yards district in 2005, and move the remaining clothing manufacturers to Brooklyn or Queens. They argued that the current zoning restrictions had failed to stem the loss of manufacturing jobs in the district, which have hovered around 9,000 in recent years, from 16,000 in 1995.
But a group of industry shop owners formed an organization called Save the Garment Center and resisted, as did the unions, arguing that moving sewing shops to Queens or Brooklyn would mean the end of the industry.
The shop owners soon enlisted some high-end fashion designers who manufacture most of their clothing at the center’s factories. The designers’ orders are more likely to be 3,000 or 4,000 pieces, not the production runs of 100,000 pairs of jeans that are now typically sent to China.
“Sustaining some form of the industry contributes to our status as a fashion capital of the world,” said Ms. Teng, the designer. “Access to manufacturers is profound. After all, fashion is about timing.”
Andrew Ward, director of designer development at the Garment Industry Development Corporation, a nonprofit group of shop owners and union officials, estimated that only 5 percent of the clothing sold nationally is made in the United States, mostly in New York City and Los Angeles. But because those products are generally more high-end, they represent 24 percent of total national sales, he said.
Anthony Lilore, who owns a design house on West 38th Street featuring an organic clothing line called Restore Clothing, said he manufactured 95 percent of his clothing in the garment center, where he can walk to sample rooms, pattern makers and factories to oversee production quality.
Chen Zheng owns New World Fashion, a sewing room on 37th Street, near Seventh Avenue, where 28 employees, most Chinese, stitch together coats, dresses and tops for the designer Nanette Lepore. Her production order this month is for 3,700 pieces, down from 4,000 a year ago. In order to help pay his rising rent, Mr. Zheng said, he recently sublet 15 percent of his space to a yoga studio.
At his factory on the same street, Rodger Cohen pointed to the shirring machines that were steadily gathering and stitching a long roll of hammered silk fabric for a high-fashion dress order and lamented the machines he had tossed away.
Mr. Cohen, president of Regal Originals, a pleating and stitching shop, said he was forced to cut the size of his factory in half last month and dispose of the aging machines that he no longer had room for. “No one else is going to open a shop today,” he said. “It made me sick to throw them away.”
City officials and industry leaders, including the Fashion Center Business Improvement District and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, have started to coalesce behind the proposal, from the unions Unite Here and Workers United, to designate one or more buildings for clothing production, while eliminating the zoning restrictions.
To stem the proliferation of budget hotels in the district, Mr. Sheekey has agreed to a proposal from Unite Here requiring developers to obtain a special permit for hotels in the garment center, and possibly other industrial areas.
Under the proposal, a nonprofit organization would operate and subsidize the designated buildings, charging viable rents for manufacturers: $16 a square foot, for example, instead of the $35 frequently paid by architects and small companies in the area. In turn, the nonprofit group would be financed through a small tax on property owners within the district.
City officials say that they are looking for a 300,000-square-foot building, but the unions and others say that as much as one million square feet of dedicated space is needed for the industry to prosper and expand.
“We need very broad-based support,” said Ms. Randall of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District. “We need to know that the majority of owners approve.”
It is unclear how most landlords view the proposal, which would entail some sort of tax assessment. But Eric Gural, a managing director of Newmark Knight Frank, a real estate company that owns five buildings in the garment center, favors the idea. Lifting the zoning restrictions, he said, would immediately increase the value of the properties, far more than any tax to preserve manufacturing. “The bang for your buck is enormous,” he said.
Still, some shop owners and designers worry that city officials are not intent on preserving enough space for manufacturing. They also question whether the companies that move into the designated manufacturing sites would have an unfair advantage over workshop owners who are paying higher rents in the district.
“We need the mayor’s support to enforce the existing zoning laws as they were intended,” said Ms. Lepore, who makes 80 percent of her clothing line in the garment center. “Without the garment center, young designers cannot survive. If we fail to protect this district today, New York will not be the fashion capital of the world tomorrow.”