Earlier this month, the Design Trust for Public Space and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), launched madeinmidtown.org, an inside look at the Garment District, the heart of American fashion. Featuring videos, comics, maps, diagrams, and written profiles of people at every level of the fashion industry (including several pieces that have appeared on this site), our research shows what makes the Garment District essential to New York's fashion industry--and why it matters to all New Yorkers. Here, Made in Midtown's journalism fellow Tom Vanderbilt offers a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion world, and reveals how an industry inseparable from New York continues to thrive.
There are many reasons why Tony Singh would like to keep his factory at its current location on 39th Street. The last time he moved, more than a decade ago, it cost him roughly $75,000 -- not including real estate fees. "Hiring the mover, setting up the factory -- plumbing, electrical, boilers. I don't think the city's granting the permit anymore to do that boiling," he says, gesturing to the huge steam pressers in a corner of the factory floor, which hiss away on a cold January day as workers prepare spring collections for shipment to stores by mid-March.
For another, even in the face of steadily rising rents in the Garment District, he believes his business would not be viable in a place like Long Island City, Queens. "There's always things happening while we're processing the garments," he says. "The designer tells me 'This is not working, what we can we do to change it.' We go back and forth five or six times with a pattern. If we went out of the Garment District, it could take us a whole day to resolve one problem."
Singh, who came to the U.S. from Guyana in 1982, started as a "floor person" at a Garment District factory. By "watching and learning," he began to develop an understanding of garment production. After a decade working in the factory (where his English language skills proved invaluable to the owner), he struck out on his own, backed by a loan from family members. Business was good, he says -- with occasional blips, such as after September 11, 2001 -- but he has struggled in the face of the recession. "Our business last year was down 60%," he says. While he currently produces 3 to 4,000 garments per season, he says he could easily handle twice that. He closed a cutting room he ran on another floor in the building (donating the machines to New York City's High School for Fashion Industries, which, as it happens, his daughter attends), and has struggled to retain workers, already a challenge given the cyclical inconsistency of the fashion industry. "In our shop we train workers to multi-task," he says. "When there's not enough work, we lose those operators. Then they'll find another job. We get busy, we call them back, but they're already working somewhere else."
This inconsistency extends beyond the labor force (currently 50 strong). Take cash flow, for instance. "Collection is one of the biggest things we have to manage," Singh says. "Younger designers don't have the capital of the bigger guys. They might work two seasons with me, but the next season they might go to another shop. It takes me another year to get paid." While he likes encouraging younger designers, he is thankful the core of his business comes from established labels. "Working with the bigger ones you get paid."
On Tuesday, June 15, the Design Trust for Public Space partners with the Municipal Art Society to present a dynamic panel discussion on the role of urban creative districts, like the Garment District, play in shaping our city's neighborhoods. To learn more, visit www.mas.org.