While no longer a bustling center of manufacturing, New York's Garment District between Thirty-fourth and Forty-second Streets and Fifth to Ninth Avenues still hums with fabric stores, machine shops, specialty notion stores, and showrooms catering to the fashion and theatrical trades. Shoppers for domestic and imported fabrics or silk or lace or even spandex explore the streets of the neighborhood, variably called the Fashion District, for particularly good deals from suppliers. Students of fashion, like the aspiring designers enrolled at Parsons or the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), roam the stores in search of swatches for projects. Maybe one day their names will be as acclaimed as those honored along the Fashion walk of fame on Seventh Avenue - among them, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Halston, Marc Jacobs, Anne Klein, Perry Ellis, Oscar Del La Renta, and Giorgio Di Sant’ Angelo. With the right fabric, Project Runway is in their future.
A good place to begin a walk through the Garment District is on the NE corner of W. 39th St. and Seventh Avenue. In addition to picking up information at the Fashion Center Business Improvement kiosk (official site), look at the oversize needle threading a button and the bronze sculpture of the garment worker sitting at a sewing machine. Walk north and wander west along 40th Street to browse a large selection of fabric in NY Elegant Fabrics or for wedding lace in Sposabella. Wander down W. 39th Street and look for buttons, sewing and knitting supplies in Vardhman. Nearby, Beckenstein Fashion Fabric carries on its legacy from its Lower East Side Orchard Street origins, providing high quality fabrics for men's wear. Look for sewing notions at Steinlauf & Stoller Inc. At Hecht Sewing Machine & Motor Co., the long-standing family-owned business in the Garment District can repair any sort of sewing machine. Many of these businesses reveal the heritage of early 20th century garment workers, especially Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants. Today, workers in the garment trades are more likely to come from Central America, Asia, and the Caribbean. Stop in for a drink at Stitch's, a nicely tailored bar, or have lunch at Ben's, an old-school deli that recalls the days of an older New York.
View New York's Garment District in a larger map
The Garment Industry in New York: Tragedies, Crime, and Economic Decline
Occasionally, down in my Village neighborhood, someone will ask me for directions to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building, the site of the horrific fire that killed 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911. At the time of the fire, the building at 23-29 Washington Place, a block east of Washington Square Park, housed a factory that made women's blouses and employed 600 workers, most of them immigrant women and many of them quite young. They worked long shifts and were paid low wages. When the fatal fire broke out in the factory, seamstresses on the ninth floor found one staircase full of smoke and flames, and the other exit door was locked. Many jumped to their deaths. The shame of the working conditions revealed in the tragedy helped spur growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (now part of UNITE, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees). Complaints about substandard labor conditions in New York still keep investigators busy today, with many new complaints coming from older neighborhoods downtown or in Long Island City in Queens (see this news story from Crain's New York.).
Sweatshop conditions and exploitation of immigrant labor are only part of the industry's unfortunate history. By the 1920s organized crime took hold in the Garment District, and in the 1950s, the Gambino crime family started controlling the trucking companies that served the district. By the 1980s, Gambino's control was so pervasive that many companies could not afford to do business in the area. In more recent decades, the shift to overseas factory production coupled with rising Manhattan rents has contributed to an overall decline of the district. A recent article from The New York Times characterized the area as "in danger of extinction," noting new efforts to save the district by consolidating businesses in specially designated buildings. If New York is to remain a fashion capital, many workers in the fashion industry argue that they need to keep the suppliers nearby. (See NYT, "New York Seeks to Consolidate Its Garment District," Aug. 19, 2009.)
The two seasonal events known as Fashion Week (one in September, the other in February) publicize the importance of the fashion industry in the overall economy of New York, the second largest after finance. Considering what has happened to finance, industry leaders in fashion naturally worry about the effects of a prolonged recession. On top on the agenda is creating a more optimistic consumer, and if the traditional advertising strategies of manufacturing desire do not work, an argument about saving jobs just might. The language on the website for Fashion's Night Out (official site), a multi-venue public event scheduled for the evening of September 10, 2009 and sponsored by American Vogue, NYC & Company, the City of New York, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, makes this argument clear. And, as merchants reminded me during my walk through the Garment District, there's a critical symbiotic relationship between the Garment District and the nearby Theatre District.
So, finally, what must we wear this fall? Synthesizing the fall fashion previews, I think the following list about covers it (so to speak) - short biker jackets, party outfits from the 1980s, layers, pinstripes and camel hair, tights & leggings with shorts, tailored skinny jeans, layers of gray and black, revealing shoulders (preferably one), short velvet dresses, shoulder pads, tall boots, neon pink and chartreuse dress, and something in brick red. For men, the list is shorter - classic shapes, dark shades and suits. Think Don Draper of Mad Men. If you're ever in doubt as to what to wear in New York, my advice is to go for the classic tailored look, in whatever shade of black you prefer.
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple: top, window, NY Elegant Fabrics, W. 40th St., middle, "The Garment Worker," 1984 (info at Smithsonian) by artist Judith Weller near corner of W. 39th and 7th Ave., and bottom, window, Invisiwig, W. 36th St.
• For more information about garment workers and labor history in New York, please see the NYU's Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives' New York City Labor History Map.
• Read about one West Village designer's efforts to keep the work within the Garment District in "Made in New York," by Adrianne Pasquarelli, Crain's New York Business, Sept. 6, 2009.
• To read more about the individual businesses described in this walk, please read my list on Metrotwin titled "Fabricating Fashion: New York's Garment District."
Please read the follow-up post, My One-Night Stand With Fashion, for a report on my experience at Fashion's Night Out.