When we heard Tim Gunn would moderate a panel discussion on the future of New York’s fashion hub — known here as the garment district — we jumped at the chance to go see him. After all, it’s not every day that you get to see a household name talk about what he loves — and about what you love — in person.
But when we got to New York’s Municipal Art Society‘s talk about the findings of the Made In Midtown study — which we covered when it first came out — last night, we were surprised to learn that the issues the district faces aren’t simply economic.
The district’s future – and the future of American fashion, most of which is initiated in the district – is contingent upon a whirling mix of problems including a proposal to rezone the district and consolidate certain fashion-related businesses into one building; pressures from real estate developers who want to re-purpose buildings in the district; designers outsourcing their manufacturing processes to other cities and other countries, and the overall cohesion and identity of the blocks and buildings that comprise it.
The study, conducted by the Design Trust for Public Space and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, started with a simple question: Is the garment district still important to New York City and to the fashion industry? As it turns out, the answer is yes.
“Design and manufacturing are inextricably linked, and what they produce is innovation,” said panelist Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, who presented the study’s findings clad in caramel-colored Christian Louboutin stilettos.
Because fashion is a team effort, having all the bits and pieces of a fashion manufacturer located within a few blocks of each other – from fabric sellers to button sewers to zipper finishers – has turned the district into a research and development hub for the industry. And, as we’ve written in the past, producing goods locally and avoiding shipping brings the costs of those goods down and boosts the local economy.
The district also helps support young designers in a way that no other major fashion hub can. The study compared New York to Paris, Milan and London and found that for new talent, there’s nowhere easier to start a line than right here in the big apple.
“We offer opportunity to entrepreneurs, startups and anyone with a dream,” said Yeohlee Teng, a renowned designer who started her house in the garment district in 1981 and has been there since.
For his part, Gunn, who is now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne, said he’d spent all of his 27 years in New York working in and around the garment district.
“The resources that my students had and that the designers at Liz Claiborne have are in this neighborhood. For me it still remains active if not robust and of extraordinary value to all of us,” Gunn said.
The district was formed as a special district in 1987 to preserve manufacturing space. It’s kept rents in the area low and promoted closeness between the creative process and the end result.
And while the district promotes working together, it’s still susceptible to outside forces coming in and taking over.
“I would hate to think that we’re going to wipe out all the industry and live among lawyers and brokers,” Teng said to laughter from the audience.
Luckily, every cloud has a silver lining. Some of the panelists were optimistic that there’s still time to figure out how to keep the district strong.
“It’s not necessarily a problem we have to solve, but a series of strengths that are struggling to remain,” said Sarah Crean, deputy director of the New York Industrial Retention Network. She mentioned womenswear as a category of the fashion industry that New York still has a very strong hold on.
Gunn wrapped up the discussion by saying he felt “very optimistic about where this can go if we stick together.”
And after the panel wrapped, Teng told us that she agreed.
“I think that we have marshaled enough of a coalition and a lot of very bright people are working on this subject, so I think this is something that we can overcome,” Teng told Styleite. “But the thing is, it’s really not to just overcome it. It’s really to look toward a brighter future.”
Photos by Giles Ashford