POSITIVE IMPACT AWARDS: Save the Garment Center Wins Leadership, Community Building & Collaboration Award

Image: Save the Garment Center

This year, Save the Garment Center is the first ever recipient to win a Positive Impact Award for “Leadership, Community Building & Collaboration.” With a mission to promote and preserve New York City’s Garment Center, a unique cluster of master-craftspeople, designers, manufacturers, showrooms, and service providers, STGC has kept intact a network that makes Manhattan the Fashion Capital of the World.

Yet consider this, according to the Save the Garment Center site, New York City’s garment manufacturing industry has lost 95% of its workforce since the industry’s peak in 1950. In the Garment Center alone, garment manufacturing jobs have declined by 83% since 1987, when the City put in place special zoning regulations to attempt to preserve garment manufacturing in the district.

Image: Save the Garment Center

The site reads: “The fashion industry is a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing over 5% of the city’s total workforce. Local garment manufacturing is integral to the success of the fashion industry and can be competitive with respect to quality, time and convenience, and local production is equally important to both emerging and established designers.
Today, there are approximately 1,500 garment manufacturing firms citywide, and about 30% of these businesses, or approximately 400 firms, are located in the Garment District. These companies face immense global competition and real estate pressures despite preservation attempts, including rising commercial rents and an outdated building stock that fails to meet modern industrial needs.”

We caught up with the team behind the cause to see what they had to say about the current state of NYC’s fashion industry.

Image: Save the Garment Center

New York City’s fashion sector is an important economic driver and a rich ecosystem for apparel design. How will Manhattan change if the Garment Center relocates to the outer boroughs (at best) or disappears entirely?

The Garment Center will not relocate to the outer boroughs. Most of the manufacturers would rather simply cease operations than move out of Manhattan. The 900+ niche manufacturers take up over 1.4 million square feet of space and probably another 1 million square feet are occupied by suppliers and service providers, and then that’s not counting showrooms and ateliers. So, you would need to find about 4 million square feet, factor in the cost of moving all of that, and then that still leaves you with the issue that the garment workers commute in from three other boroughs and New Jersey, and transportation between these places is spotty at best.

You can get to the Garment Center from Queens in about 30 minutes, but to get from Queens to South Brooklyn, it’s an hour and a half. Who is going to commute 3 hours a day? It’s just not practical. None of the options offered by the city so far are workable at all. If the Garment Center gets disrupted much more than it already has been, the fashion industry will simply leave New York City. The clustering of businesses and education centers and easy access to transportation from all around are part of what makes it work.

Image: Save the Garment Center

Is there a need for a fundamental reorganization of the supply, manufacturing, and distribution chains, locally and across the country for the apparel industry?

The current rapid deterioration in the retail marketplace and the difficulty designers see in moving innovative products through traditional wholesale channels are symptomatic of deeper issues in the fashion industry, related to a general lack of planning and innovation in the fashion cycle, from materials supply to manufacturing to distribution. We’re seeing progress in e-commerce and conversion to omni-channel sales strategies, but these are small boosts against a greater downward force.

To reverse the decline, a concerted reorganization is needed which we believe requires changes in federal policies and an infusion of capital that doesn’t come with massive debt strings attached. There is an opportunity to increase America’s share of the $4.5 trillion dollars and growing global fashion market with strategic infrastructure, technology, and training investments. If we can increase the national cut of the international market by even one or two percent with these measures it will entirely reverse the domestic industrial decline, and we can do this with a fraction of the monetary infusion that was required to turn around the (smaller) auto industry.

Image: Save the Garment Center

Can you share a brief history of how the garment industry has changed over the past 50 years? This could be specific to NYC or include globalization.

In the 1960s, over 90% of the clothing sold in the United States was manufactured in Manhattan. In the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of that manufacturing was moved overseas to cheaper labor markets. If a company could get a pair of blue jeans sewn for $3 in Manhattan versus $0.50 in Africa, and they had to compete with other brands with the same opportunity, there was a very clear choice for survival. Even most of the equipment went overseas. What remained in New York City was the higher quality shops with the most highly trained craftspeople, and this allowed Manhattan to remain a product development hub.

Today there are over 900 niche manufacturers still in the Garment District. They make limited quantities of high-quality garments for the top designers, and enable the product development for the mass production that happens elsewhere. These manufacturers operate interdependently, with one shop cutting, another sewing, another pleating or adding trims. Components of a dress might see the inside of seven or eight different factories before the garment is finished and ready to be packed and shipped at yet another facility. Together with countless suppliers and service providers, these manufactures form a unique ecosystem of business and artistry.

Image: Save the Garment Center

Today we see labor costs overseas beginning to rise into an equilibrium with the United States. The cost of living in China is way up from where it was in the 1980s, to a point where it is reported many Chinese factories are now having production done in North Korea to save on labor costs. Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India are some of the last places with massive income inequality, and now there are not many places left to move production, and those machines we exported along with the jobs are now very old and in need of replacement.

When you look at all this in the context of improvements in automation and the cost of shipping products in from overseas, it suddenly looks like there is a much brighter future possible for American domestic manufacturing. Mass production is certainly not coming back to Manhattan in the foreseeable future, but the City of New York should protect the ecosystem that enables the product development hub, and we hope to help the Federal government wisely invest in new technologically advanced local sustainable factories across the country.

Meet the Save the Garment Center team by RSVPing for the Positive Impact Awards here.