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The American Garmento: An Endangered Species in its Natural Habitat

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Last week Guy Trebay compared New York City's Garment District to a coral reef; Today, have a peek into its nooks and crannies via a few little videos, for a glimpse at the American Garmento--an endangered species in its natural habitat.

Herewith, a post from Closettour's archives, in light of the recent interest in New York City's Garment District.

If you are a New Yorker, or a regular reader of Closettour, you may already be aware that New York City's Garment District is at risk of re-zoning. Maybe you saw the rally in October, watched Schmatta on HBO, read this New York Magazine bit about why NYC is the best place for even a Parisian designer, heard Anna Wintour was expected to show at a forum (at Macy's!) Monday night to discuss the future of the area, or noticed that Seventh Avenue was temporarily named Project Runway Avenue in honor of the show that has raised nationwide awareness of the area. (I remember when Mood was just another stop on my errand list.)

What's at stake? Who works in this Garment Center anyway? Today, I'll give you a run-down of the issue at hand, and share some video-windows I made into a few businesses in the neighborhood.

Since 1987, Manhattan's Garment District, which falls between 34th and 40th Streets east of 9th Avenue and west of Broadway, has been protected by a zoning regulation that requires landlords to devote a minimum area of their space to manufacturers. Now, after New York City lost 12,500 manufacturing jobs over the last year, local politicians feel the space can be put to better use, and that regulation is under re-negotiation.

Andrew Ward, Executive Director of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, said his organization, which represents the fashion faction, is in discussions with developers, landlords, and union workers about how best to proceed. He wasn't at liberty to discuss the next steps just yet, but he did note that although only 5% of the clothing Americans buy is made in the USA, 1.3 million square feet of the Garment Center--about 1/6 of the commercially zoned area, are still occupied by manufacturers, wholesalers, suppliers, and designers--that rare breed of New Yorker we affectionately know as garmentos.

As I said in this previous post, when I ran around the Garment District years ago as a design and production assistant, I took the industry's grittiness, diversity, and camaraderie for granted, as part of New York City. Watching Schmatta helped me put my experience in historic context, but here's the thing--it's not just history.

Although according to Wikipedia's definition, the American garmento is an endangered species, (threatened by changing environmental parameters) they're still very much alive here in Midtown Manhattan. Here, have a peek into the work-spaces of a belt manufacturer, a bathing suit designer, and a button wholesaler, and let them tell you what the Garment District has meant to them throughout their careers. Terry Schwartz, 58 years old, Sherry Accessories, 23 years in business. If my landlord wants me out, I'm out of business because I can't afford to move anymore.Malia Mills, 43 years old, Malia Mills Swimwear, 18 years in business. The closer your team is, the more you can supervise it. The garment center is absolutely vital to what we do.Teddy Haft, 54 years old, Buttonology, 5 years in business, a "whole adult life" in buttons. The companies are still here and they do their sourcing here. And then everything gets produced overseas. It's become very, very difficult.

Andrew Ward couldn't say what will happen next. The city has scrapped one plan to consolidate the Garment Center's protected area into a single building, and the negotiations continue.

"It would be a shame if we lost what's here," he said. "What's left."

This post was originally composed for Closettour.