Interview: Anthony and Erica of Save The Garment Center.

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Anthony Lilore and Erica Wolf, Portrait by Philip Mauro (www.philipmauro.com)

Having spent over 20 years in the Garment Center, learning the ropes from old-school Italian tailors and fitting samples sewn in the same room by Carmela, (not counter samples couriered from China), Bloginity asked me to put together my view of the place I have worked every day as a fitting model.

The hustle of 7th Avenue is certainly different nowadays. The guys who would catcall every woman as they weaved their racks of newly finished garments around the Pontiacs and Checker cabs went the same way the cars did. Fabric delivery vans drove off and in their place are gourmet food trucks.

Specialized button and supply stores are being demolished to make way for characterless budget hotels and it is now mainly tourists who slowly waddle along Fashion Avenue, between Macys and Times Square. But all is not as it seems at first glance. Detroit car makers that fought back from the brink of extinction in the face of cheap foreign imports and repaid their bailout early provide the inspiration to those who remain as Manhattan manufacturers.

“We are excited, not depressed” says Erica Wolf, the Executive Director of Save the Garment Center (STGC), a coalition who are convinced that we all lose out if the ‘Garmentos’ move out.

So what’s to save and why bother you might ask? What is the sense in having the majority of workshops and design studios in the most expensive real estate city in the world? Why try to compete with China and India when most US customers just want cheap clothing from places like Walmart? I asked Anthony Lilore, owner of organic clothing firm, RESTORE and a STGC activist. “You know very well the Walmart design studio is in the Garment Center” he retorts with a wry smile. I have indeed visited Walmart and Target’s NY design studios and their business model seems a lot like that other epitome of retail success, Apple, in that most products are designed in this country but made abroad. Is it ridiculous to ask why Americans are proud of firms who use local design talent, and then send almost all of the production overseas? New York has white collar “Wall Streeters” and creative talent by the thousands, but I miss the blue collar garment workers and their wolf whistles.

New York is arguably the best city in the world. Some of the brightest, richest and most creative people in the world have flocked here for years. There are songs about this place, and TV shows, hundreds of movies too. Lilore points out that fashion is the one thing that links so many arts together and really makes New York such an aspirational place. “Fashion designers may be best known for garment design, yet many working in Manhattan provide costumes or as stylists for Broadway Shows, Opera, TV and movies.” Fashion is vital to many other business sectors. An obvious one is fragrance, which is peppered with designer scents. The music business relies on fashion for videos and concerts, loaning singers and celebrities garments for the red carpet appearances. Newspapers and magazines rely on photos of who-is-wearing-what to boost sales. Art and fashion blur with characters like Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George, or Ryan McGinness posing in J.Crew. Vogue makes millions, and Si Newhouse, along with thousands of NY execs keep designers busy making crisp shirts and sharp suits. This eight block district is home to designers dressing people who shop in supermarkets and also tailoring bespoke suits for those who own the supermarkets.

That could be seen as ironic, but is in fact a perfect example of the Garment Center’s current diversity. Walmart and Wall Street both rely on workers in the Garment Center to look good and to make money.

The Garment Center plays a big role in the wellbeing and creativity of Manhattan. The area spanning 34 – 42nd streets and Sixth Through Ninth Ave has rightly been recognized for it’s cultural, historical and architectural importance, by being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Buildings with polished marble lobbies and ornate gilded elevators still provide me with a sense of awe and always give me a grand entrance into fittings.  Zoning laws set up by Ed Koch back in 1987 should protect the Garment Center buildings from developers, but the reality is that the rules are not always enforced and real estate lawyers find ways around the laws, thereby evicting tenants and razing buildings. Owners or tenants of the manufacturing facilities or design studios in NY should be eligible for lease protection, given tax incentives and improvement grants to ensure their place of work isn’t taken away by huge rent hikes, unscrupulous landlords or conversion to residential use. The city earns enough from property and income taxes to do better than it has in the past. The Fashion Center Business Incentive District website is an excellent online information resource, including specific details on their current push for better zoning.

Detroit automakers received about $80 billion in the last financial crisis but the Garment Center, once New York’s biggest industry, got practically nothing. In the Sevenities there were 450,000 apparel production jobs in NY, by 2009, the industry was down to 87,000 which included all textile and apparel manufacturing and wholesaling jobs. The documentary Schmatta showed this job loss loud and clear, putting blame on unions, NAFTA, retailers and the government’s non-protectionary actions for the sharp decline. That is not the complete picture however. Jerome Chou, director of Programs for the Design Trust for Public Space, was quoted in WWD saying “The recession has proven to everyone that NY needs a diverse economic base. We need to be able to provide jobs, and the Garment Center is still an important part of that economic diversity.” The Garment Center still accounts for over a quarter of all manufacturing jobs in the city and is second only to Wall street in terms of revenue. Just nine of the huge fashion brands based here have revenues of over $30 billion. The city and state of NY receive 2 billion in direct tax revenue from the garment center, with 135,000 employees working in it today.

There are indirect financial windfalls too,with Fashion Week alone estimated to bring in $700 million worth of economic benefit to Manhattan in terms of increased sales, hotel stays, restaurant, media and tourism business. A report just put the extra city income generated by the Met’s Alexander Mcqueen exhibit at over $900million! Bloomberg took criticism for allowing zoning and construction in the Garment Center to get to the point where activist groups like “Save the Garment Center” and “Made in Midtown” had to be formed to get some action. There now seems to be a snowball effect of increasing support and publicity, but it has taken a lot of effort to get to this point.

Anthony and Celeste Lilore are founding and sustaining members of STGC. “We got involved in 2006-07 because factories and the cutting room that we worked with were being “forced” to relocate because of escalating rents and pending rezoning discussions. We just could not stand around and watch the industry be further decimated.” Hizzoner took note and has come up with a plan called FASHION 20/20. “Industry leaders like Diane von Furstenberg, Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren and others helped us develop these seven initiatives to nurture the next generation of fashion talent in New York City and to help make it easier for fashion entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality.” “Macy’s is proud to be a major supporter of the FashionNYC2020 initiative,” said Mr. Lundgren, “We believe that it is critically important to preserve New York City as the fashion capital of the world.” However, on my last look round Herald Square Macy’s, it didn’t appear ” important” enough that they label or promote NY made garments to shoppers in a store that lies within the Garment Center. If truth be known, the seven Bloomberg initiatives are fairly simplistic and hopefully NY won’t have to wait nine years for them to be implemented.

If NY collects so much tax and indirect income from the fashion industry, it should be looked after and not taken for granted. If corporation, sales and income taxes are lost because the Garment Center closes down, everyone’s taxes will have to rise to cover the shortfall. One idea floated by Erica Wolf is that the sales tax or import duties on garment components such as thread, fabric or fastenings coming into NY could be eliminated. As Wolf points out, “A manufacturer importing raw materials and making a garment in the city is subject to higher taxes than someone importing finished foreign garments. It is a completely unfair system whereby our own manufacturers are at a disadvantage before they even thread a needle.” This genius idea may result in lost import taxes short term, but it has potential to create manufacturing jobs and product sales, both which generate a higher long term tax income.

Local government is finally being pushed to act, so what about those that train the next generation of Garment Center workers? Erica Wolf singles out Pratt’s Adam Friedman and Parson’s Simon Collins as deserving special praise for their enthusiasm and support.

A symposium organized by Collins at Milk Studios included a panel with Andrew Rosen (Theory), Jeff Rudes (J Brand) and Tommy Hilfiger to discuss ways to support and improve the Garment center. The audience was made up primarily of students and it was certainly an inspirational event for them. All spoke on the need to support manufacturing in the Garment Center. However, there was silence when the panel members were asked by STGC to verbally commit to producing a mere 10% of their manufacturing in NY, in gratitude for how the local garment center had contributed to their successes. For the record, Mr. Rosen already produces close to 35% of his collections locally.

Mr. Hilfiger has more reason than most to support the Garment Center as his daughter Ally is currently based here while developing a new clothing line. Hilfiger pointed out that profits made by moving his manufacturing abroad enabled the diversification and growth of his company, which sub sequently provided more fashion related jobs in the city, that otherwise might not even have existed.

Andrew Rosen has spent years pushing the idea to establish a single building solely for manufacturing within the garment center. This center of excellence would presumably make the most sense for consolidating the “factories” but the fact is that the Garment Center as a whole is a center of excellence. One building may not house them all and who would choose who got in and who wasn’t “excellent’ enough to get in? There are many skilled crafts people and tailors, all up and down the center’s streets. Some factories are running at full capacity with many well known lines like the Row (the designer label by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen) being made here in NY.

Perhaps NY’s Garment Center needs some group marketing showcasing traditional artisans and the pride in how they turn design sketches into luxurious production. One that promotes Midtown internationally as an area of unrivaled talent, not of forlorn workers in a shrinking industry.

The internet should aid design talent to find exactly what is needed within this 3 by 8 block area. Ms. Wolf is a big proponent for an improved physical and online directory that would encompass manufacturers and suppliers locally, in NY. A nice practical and appealing step forward. The giant button is a 7th Ave location where any buyer from around the world can get advice and directions to a firm that could match their needs. On a test visit this week, I asked the lady in the kiosk if she could give me the names of knitwear manufacturers in midtown and within a minute, I had a printed sheet listing 8 factories. We should be proud of our skills and show them off with daily Project Runway style walking tours of manufacturers, suppliers and design studios.

Designers have a big part to play in the success of the Garment Center. Just as LA has become world renowned for denim and washing factories, NY designers can use and develop the local manufacturing base as a mark of excellence and hand made American production. The lead times are faster and there is less of a carbon footprint, walking a few blocks to your factory versus sending fabrics, samples, and production literally to and from the other side of the world. These days many design firms are forced to work under ever tighter budget constraints by their corporate accountants or the shareholder‘s need for growth and profit. Accountants may see only numbers on a balance sheet, and not long term implications of manufacturing everything offshore.

Wholesalers have to cope with currency fluctuations, increasing costs of foreign labor, delayed deliveries and oftentimes lower production standards. Many foreign suppliers believe they have now cornered the market and can therefore start dictating their own terms. I know one company that was put out of business because a Chinese factory changed the amount of advance payment and extended delivery dates after an order had been made . Subpar quality and unreliable imports do no favor for the American wholesaler or retailer.

When a designer or wholesaler manufactures locally, a loyal working relationship develops. The ability to make alterations quickly is often more valuable than saving pennies by using remote factories. Beside the longer lead-times, Andrew Rosen spoke about a denim finish born by “mistake” from a local manufacturer. He said he would not have seen the fabric swatch as it was not to his original specifications, had it been produced abroad. The local agent would have rejected it. It was the fact that he was at the factory, developing washes, awaiting swatch samples and talking with workers that enabled him to spot the production quirk and turn it into a unique looking garment.

LA has become famous for superior denim development/production in the last decade primarily due to designers working with the local factories to create world class ideas. The Garment center has a massive head start on LA and there’s no reason why it ,too, should not be seen as a place for innovation, instead of unemployment. Many designers who are active in the CFDA, Save the Garment Center and Made in Midtown are super pro-NY, like Anna Sui, Derek Lam, Anthony Lilore, and Nanette Lepore, who produces 85% of her collection domestically. WWD is increasingly running articles on NY designers utilizing local production. The sweater designer, Marcia Patmos was featured last week in Shima’s New Jersey knitting factory. Where once a designer would have kept their makers confidential, avoiding competition, there is more of a “group effort” going on in the industry now to save , protect and even foster American production. Outward support and sharing of domestic contacts serves the industry now and hopefully, encourages more domestic operations to be formed. Many NY designers not only want to work with Americans, they are proud to work with Americans. Erica Wolf thinks prominent and easy to understand labels showing a garment was designed and made in Midtown is a perfect marketing tool. Under current laws, a garment can be produced in any US territory such as Guam (7,995 miles from Midtown) but legally carry a “Made in America” label. Another strong supporter of the Garment Center, Yeolee Teng, wants department stores to set up shops with “Made in Midtown” wares. Kelly Cutrone of publicity firm People’s Revolution is already working on red white and blue bar codes that will help shoppers identify American made products. She was quoted last week in WWD stating,“I would much rather give my money to an American factory worker and know that it is going to feed their kids and help their community. I don’t care if people make things in China. I am all for a global economy. I would just like to be able to support my own city. This is something that needs to be done in America.”

With all this patriotism from designers and industry professionals, where does the the American buyer fit in ? Some retailers have received a lot of negative press for reducing the length of the designers’ season, meaning that there is less money to be made between launching the line and having it discounted. We all know stores that have knock-offs of runway clothing on the selling floor in what seems like days after the show, and usually before the actual creator of the runway look is set to deliver. Fast retailing that rotates every 6 weeks, and then is sharply discounted, has perhaps launched a throwaway attitude, where consumers only expect clothes on trend and cheap enough to be disposable when the next trend hits the floor. Whatever happened to buying quality, not quantity. For example in Italy, I saw women dressed in Armani and Missoni, real designer quality and brands. These were average shoppers, they just bought fewer pieces, and wore them more often. I know I personally wore my Miu Miu shoes almost daily, for three years, as I feel special in them, and those shoes were built to last. My inexpensive suede platform shoes (on trend) got out twice last Fall. What I am saying is perhaps in this economic climate, as consumers may be forced economically to purchase less, it makes sense to choose higher quality items and profit from using them frequently, rather than having a new bargain trend garment every week.

Anthony Lilore of RESTORE clothing, likens the growing awareness of the garment center to the “green“ momentum, and the local/organic food movement. “ The general public is beginning to understand, from an economic perspective, that their neighbors are out of work because in the larger picture, they didn’t purchase something made here. Think, be mindful, be conscious of your decisions, read the label. The same actions that have become more common place in food purchases must become the actions that precede other purchases. Try to buy better, buy less, buy local, and think about people, planet, profits, purpose and passion.” Just like the slow food movement, he predicts that fashion will have an ‘A-ha’ moment, where it will be equally important to know that your clothing was made locally, with less impact and waste. Buying American is the new luxury label. It makes the consumer feel good, and supports fellow Americans.

Ultimately, we as purchasers can help shape the continued success or disappearance of the Garment Center. It would be great to see stores have a section or generally promote their American made garments.

I have not only laughed and learned alongside the enthusiastic and talented people of the Garment Center for over 20 years, I live there too. New York’s fashion district is changing for sure, and it always has. From immigrant origins in the Lower East Side, to the purposely built specialty buildings in Midtown, from the mobsters and Unions of the 50’s, to the billion dollar fashion houses of today, there have always been innovators in production, business and design. The fashion industry survived both world wars and both stock market crashes. Despite cheap foreign imports, a lack of support from the government, changing technology, and purchasing habits, New York Fashion is still the best in the world.

The Garment Center may never be the like the “good old days” but it is still where everyone wants to come. Where you can become famous, rich, or both. Walmart’s clothes for the masses and Ralph Rucci’s couture works of art are not created in New York because workers or rents are cheap, but because the people with ideas and artisanal skills are a priceless resource. If they see a future, we all can see it too. Whether consumer, retailer, manufacturer or designer, show support for the Center that supports you. In a future update, I would love to write more about those who are supporting, utilizing and expanding the skills of the Garment Center workers. If you feel you are one of those people, please get in touch by posting a comment below.