Save New York City’s Fashion Factories

Save New York City’s Fashion Factories
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Credit Librado Romero/The New York Times

Manufacturing in New York City’s garment district is in jeopardy of unraveling at its seams. The city’s Economic Development Corporation may soon begin the certification process to lift the zoning laws that have protected fashion and apparel businesses in these few blocks in Midtown Manhattan for decades.

The intention is for manufacturers to relocate to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. With lower rents and longer leases, the development corporation hopes to lure factory owners to a 200,000-square-foot industrial space, now being renovated. The garment district’s Business Improvement District has voted to provide financial assistance to cover some expenses for relocating factories; in exchange, the zoning laws will be lifted. If the local community boards approve the plan, it will be brought before the City Council for a vote, and the changes could occur in as little as a couple of months.

By moving forward with this proposal, the city is asking hundreds of small businesses to jump without a safety net. Sunset Park is untested territory. Its distant location from Midtown, with poor access to transportation, would present a tremendous obstacle for the thousands of garment district workers who live throughout the city. There is also far too little space. Manufacturing alone occupies about a million square feet in the garment district; the proposed industrial space would accommodate only a fraction of this, let alone the related businesses. Our company works with 13 factories to produce garments, and they all have informed us that they won’t move to Sunset Park. Many would rather shut down than risk an uncertain future.

These factories are critical to the district’s ecosystem of designers, showrooms, fabric suppliers, cutting rooms and the host of specialized services that make the area an innovation hub. Developing a similar ecosystem in Sunset Park could take decades. As a result, New York may lose young designers to other fashion capitals like Los Angeles, London, Paris and Milan. Fashion schools will risk slumps in enrollment, and the city may see a significant drop in the number of New York-based fashion companies.

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First look at the Nanette Lepore show during New York Fashion Week in 2013. Credit Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

We are a global fashion capital because this vibrant, innovative neighborhood has existed for nearly a hundred years. Within these blocks — between 35th and 40th Streets and Sixth and Ninth Avenues — all the components of the fashion process are within walking distance. This synergy brings hundreds of aspiring designers to New York each year to learn their craft and start their lines, and it sustains some 200,000 jobs and generates billions of dollars of revenue every year. Broadway and Off Broadway theaters as well as Lincoln Center costume houses all use the garment district daily. The fashion schools, including F.I.T., Parsons, Pratt, LIM, Kent State and others that have branches here, use the district as a springboard for young talent. The development corporation’s plan puts all of this at risk.

Over 20 years ago we started a business in a small design room in the garment district. We had a $10,000 loan and fierce determination. The local factory owners and suppliers worked with us to help us succeed, and we grew from a tiny brand to the international company we are today. And yet we still produce 80 percent of our goods within this five-block radius, which lets us oversee production every day.

The dream of bringing more manufacturing back to America would be eroded by the loss of this historic area, where American craftsmanship thrives and where young designers can build businesses on a shoestring while working alongside craftspeople from around the world. We must make every effort to preserve the garment district.

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