As always at New York Fashion Week, there's been a lot of talk about our city's role in the industry -- now changing as quickly as you can say "fast fashion." The consensus seems to be that while Paris may be forever more refined, New York is the place for young designers to get their start.
"It's just very entrepreneurial," said Julie Gilhart, Barneys Fashion Director, "and that's what's so great about New York, is you too can be that."
The Midas Touch: Barneys Fashion Director, Julie Gilhart
Gilhart's approval has helped launch fashion phenomena like Seven Jeans and the Balenciaga motorcycle bag, as well as local labels like Proenza Schouler and Rag & Bone, so if she says designers can "make it," then you better believe it's true. But first they have to make it -- the clothing, that is.
And therein lies the magic of the New York City fashion industry. That sparkling sense of possibility, our very own je ne sais quoi, comes from the most unlikely of places: the touristy, gritty, decidedly unsexy square mile that stretches between 34th and 40th Streets, Broadway and 9th Avenue: the New York City Garment District.
Here, between the peep shows and Port Authority, are workshops, large and small, where pattern-makers, cutters, sewers and pleaters materialize designers' dreams. But this skilled labor base is waning. Since 1990, the number of New Yorkers working in apparel manufacturing has fallen by about 80%, from 90,000 workers to under 18,000 -- about half of whom work in the Garment District.
Their concentration within those few blocks makes it possible for designers to work quickly on intricate garments.
Models in Bibhu Mohapatra's Spring 2011 gowns at New York Fashion Week at Lincoln Center
Earlier this summer Bibhu Mohapatra (whose Spring 2011 collection earned the attention of Vogue's Hamish Bowles on Tuesday) designed, sold and produced a series of gowns to fill Bergdorf's racks between seasons within a matter of weeks -- and a few New York City blocks from his 38th Street studio.
Bibhu Mohapatra, at work on 39th Street
Mohapatra gave his designs to Ari Magallanes, a dressmaker who has made gowns in the Garment District for 34 years, first for designers like Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass and now for the next generation of celebrated American designers, people like Mohapatra and Prabal Gurung.
Dressmaker Ari Magallanes in his 39th Street studio
Magallanes quickly noticed a discrepancy between Mohapatra's design and the pattern he was given for cutting the gowns. He picked up the phone. Shortly thereafter, the designer appeared at his door. Indeed a piece was missing from the pattern -- a long drape of chiffon that would float dramatically from the bodice of the gown. The two men talked through the problem and decided Magallanes would cut that piece intuitively. That sort of immediate, face-to-face collaboration and consultation doesn't happen by email.
Often, New York City factories will create designers' first samples, to be reproduced overseas, but some pieces just can't be copied elsewhere. The New York Times' Cathy Horyn applauded Suno, a bright star this Fashion Week, for producing the bulk of their collection in Kenya. But Nadiyah Bradshaw, the label's Production Manager said some pieces, like this season's blouses with deep pleated collars, must be made in New York -- still the place with the specialized machines, and the specialized expertise. So while Suno's vibrant, smile-inducing styles celebrate the textile traditions of Africa, they preserve a piece domestically too.
Models wearing Suno's Spring 2011 Collection at New York Fashion Week
Much has been made in recent months of preserving the Garment District, which historically served as a gateway to the American Dream for waves of entrepreneurial immigrants: an HBO documentary, a series of demonstrations regarding possible re-zoning, a New York Design Trust study and the CFDA Fashion Incubator, the Council of Fashion Designers of America's subsidized design space on 38th Street, where Bibhu has his studio.
The fashion industry is all in favor. But the designers know the industry needs help in looking forward, not backward, and the issue is not only about a place, but the people who populate it. The Garment District's workforce is aging.
"We pretend this isn't an issue," said fashion designer Yeohlee Tang. "But it is. It's a huge issue."
She and other industry insiders say an apprenticeship program promoting and subsidizing the next generation of cutters, pattern-makers, sewers and pleaters could help ensure that New York continues to attract innovative young designers from around the world.
At 57, Ari Magallanes certainly has the knowledge and expertise to pass along to an apprentice, but unlike designers, many of whom enjoy the assistance of several unpaid interns, no one is training at the dressmaker's hand in hopes of one day taking the reins.
"There's not many people they really want to handle with a place like this," Magallanes said. "A long time ago there used to be money."
"There's not another generation, because those sort of manually skilled jobs are not attractive, and there's not the apprenticeships," said Hazel Clark, a Dean at Parsons the New School for Design. "I think that's where the CFDA ought to give their money."
A program funded by the non-profit association, which is headed by Diane von Furstenberg and supported by Vogue, could bring not just cash, but also cache to the skilled trades in New York fashion and make a worthy addition to the non-profit association's list of support
programs, by helping ensure aspiring designers will have the skilled service sector to make their goods in New York.
And if they do, it seems they might even have a little help on the sales side too.
"I'm hearing lately more people are using the Garment District," said Julie Gilhart one afternoon at Barney's, just twenty blocks north of the manufacturing zone. "And you know, that's a very cool thing."
Maybe Ari Magallanes will get that intern after all.