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On the fourth floor of an aging building in New York City’s garment district in the heart of Manhattan, Marcello Morales sits at a sewing machine on a small, well-lit factory floor.
From the back of the room, he oversees a group of mostly women, seated at other machines, tables piled high with brightly colored swatches of fabric and leather. Their fingers feed the machines quickly and carefully, sewing straight lines, churning out the first shells of what hopefully will be next season’s fashions for some of the city’s hottest young designers.
Morales considers himself lucky. He has worked there, at One Stop Design Studio, for more than 25 years, starting out as a minimum wage sewer, working his way up to factory foreman, now teaching other workers, most of them immigrants, to sew.
He knows he works in a city and a neighborhood in a long state of decline as a place to make clothes. “There were so many factories here,” he says. “Now many are closed. Without the factories, so many people won’t have jobs. We’re already living paycheck to paycheck.” He raised three children on his factory wages. His three brothers also worked in garment factories. But, he says, “they are all closed now.”
Morales and his family are part of a storied chapter in American labor history. The district of New York where he works, also known as the garment center, was once the heart of clothing manufacturing in the U.S. As recently as 1960, some 95 percent of the clothes sold in United States were made in this single square mile of Manhattan. Manufacturers held 7.7 million square feet of space, filled with 105,000 workers.
Things have changed as factory owners have fled to the developing world, with cheaper labor and lower safety standards. Today, only 3 percent of the clothing bought in the U.S. is made in the garment center. Manufacturing floor space is down to 1.1 million square feet, with just 24,000 workers. By comparison, the garment industry in Bangladesh — plagued by accusations of young, locked-in employees forced to work day and night and home to several deadly fires and building collapses, including the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 that killed 1,100 people — continues to grow, up 16 percent in the past two years, to $23.9 billion annually.
But now some groups are seeking to save what garment jobs remain and draw new ones to New York City, if not always to the garment district. Despite the dwindling number of factories, the garment industry still brings more than $2 billion into the city each year. The city’s Economic Development Corp. and Council of Fashion Designers of America have launched the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, providing matching grants to manufacturers for equipment or capital improvements, funding training programs to teach American workers the kind of sewing skills some designers think exist only in Italian workshops.
Perhaps with an eye toward what could be the realistic future of apparel manufacturing in New York, the Economic Development Corp. has granted $15 million to a relatively new venture, Manufacture NY, a massive space in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn dedicated to giving ousted factory owners a new place to build their businesses, with affordable rents in a part of the city zoned only for manufacturing. The organization also offers help to designers trying to start businesses in New York.
The project is the brainchild of CEO Bob Bland, a young designer struggling to keep manufacturing her own line in New York. “I just woke up one day and posed the question to myself, ‘What would it take for me to make clothes in a fiscally sustainable way so that I could stay in New York City for the long term?’” she says.
Dozens of new designers have committed to manufacturing their garments in the garment district. Daniel Silverstain is one of them. He started his collection in 2010, and his decision to make it in New York was all about quality and attention to detail. “I’ve seen from experience being hands-on during the production and development has a significant impact on the final product,” he says. “The people who are working on it are not making thousands of pieces. It’s much more personal to have it done here.”
He says he sees the decline slowing, with more designers eager to manufacture in New York. “I see a lot of designers coming to the factories,” he says. “It’s starting to change, and consumers are valuing how the product is being made in quality facilities.”
New York’s garment industry has always been changeable.
It began in the early 1800s, first producing clothes for the South’s slaves, then for soldiers fighting the Civil War. As women decided they would rather buy their clothes than make them, the garment industry grew, at first in sweatshops in tenements on the city’s Lower East Side. Workers were usually immigrants, mostly Italians and Eastern European Jews, often paid by the piece, working long hours behind locked doors preventing them from taking breaks or leaving early.
Two strikes in 1909 and 1910 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 — which killed 146 people, mostly women, some as young as 14 — brought attention to their plight, resulting in at least some protections for the burgeoning workforce and the growth of the mostly female International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Innovation, in the form of high-rise buildings dedicated to manufacturing and showrooms, and a new subway system, helped the apparel industry move to what is now the garment district: Manhattan between 35th and 41st streets, from Fifth Avenue to Ninth Avenue. By 1931 the garment center was home to the largest group of clothing manufacturers in the world. “Push boys” wheeled racks filled with clothes and fabrics from factory to factory, dodging traffic and pedestrians. Storefronts featured all the items necessary to put together clothing, with one block featuring buttons; another, fabric; another, zippers.
It stayed that way for decades. Then everything changed.
The price of manufacturing here was rising. High rents and the cost of union labor made it more expensive to make clothes domestically than in emerging markets overseas, starting a decline that continued for decades, according to Steven Frumkin, dean of the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“It started with retailers wanting more and more inexpensive products,” he says. “Not less quality but inexpensive products that could be produced elsewhere.”
So the supply chain dwindled. American textile factories disappeared, as did the knitting mills.
The final piece of the manufacturers’ money-saving puzzle came in the form of free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization. “They opened our borders to more and more countries and more and more trade agreements more favorable for foreign countries to bring their products here,” Frumkin says. That opened the doors for manufacturers to move facilities overseas and for mass retailers and design houses to cut their costs by having their clothes cut and sewn abroad.
Rising rents remain a threat. Ericka Mays manages development and production at One Stop Design Studio. She has been there for more than 20 years and says the biggest threat is from developers eager to turn prime Manhattan properties from factories into luxury living spaces. “The neighborhood has changed so much,” she says. “There are apartments now in buildings I used to have my factories in and my cutting rooms in. There’s a luxury apartment on floor 10 and a cutting room on the sixth floor. It’s just getting smaller.”
According to One Stop’s owner, Julie Oh, landlords’ desire to convert buildings into more lucrative spaces is forcing factory owners out. “Our rent went up three times the amount,” she says. “Ninety percent of my friends who owned factories have moved to China or Mexico.” She attributes her survival, in part, to the fact that One Stop is a full-service factory, providing everything it takes to get a garment made, from creating a pattern to adding the finishes.
It’s old-fashioned, painstaking work, done by hand or on small sewing machines by workers who, without the now defunct union, earn mostly minimum wage, plus overtime in reputable factories, though exceptional pattern or sample makers can command $30 to $40 an hour.
‘The neighborhood has changed so much. There are apartments now in buildings I used to have my factories in and my cutting rooms in. There’s a luxury apartment on floor 10 and a cutting room on the sixth floor.’
manager, One Stop Design Studio
Manufacture NY, if it works, may help save the garment industry, but the fear is that it won’t save the garment district, instead offering an alternative locale. But Oh says moving her factory to Brooklyn is simply not an option. “The business is dying. The small designers we do business with, that keep us going? They won’t come. Here, they can just walk over to the factory.”
Silverstain agrees. “If you move the factories to Brooklyn, now you’re spending hours just to go to check on your collection.”
So what will save the garment district? Frumkin says it won’t be the big retailers. “I think the possibility of mass quantities of manufacturing coming back to this country is difficult,” he says. “Unless for some reason we are no longer able to freely move our products, no longer able to freely produce in foreign countries, they won’t be making white socks and T-shirts in the garment center.”
Bland says it could be saved by consumers, fed up with cheap fast fashion, made in perilous overseas factories, disposed of at the end of every season, bad for U.S. manufacturers and bad for the planet. “When you think about the small sacrifice of maybe just not making that impulse purchase this time, versus the planet we’re going to give our kids in 20 years,” she says, “I think the trade-off’s clear.”