Thursday, 29 April 2010

Only in New York

It must be Garment District Day over at the New York Times today. Two interesting and informative articles have been published on the state of manufacturing in New York.

The first, "The Gimlet Eye: Needle and Thread Still Have a Home," by Guy Trebay discusses what he describes as the "ecosystem" of the Garment District. In the District's Golden Age, manufacturers, suppliers, and designers all shared space in the same building. In fact, until the 1960s, the area between blocked in by 36th Street, 40th Street, Broadway and 8th Avenue produced 90% of the clothes in America.  The ecosystem works like this:

Thanks to a compact and centralized garment is still possible for an unknown to design and sew a garment at home, and then — with luck and an initial order from, say, Bergdorf Goodman — to take that sample to a building like 347 West 36th Street and have a pattern made, graded for size, the fabric rolled in from a nearby wholesaler, the pieces cut and assembled and the finished product shipped without leaving a single block in the center of Midtown.

 All of that is starting to change. The area has been gentrified and more and more factories are leaving. A lot of these factories were sweat shops and obviously it's a very good thing that they've disappeared (though not vanished completely--sadly, sweat shops still exist in areas like Chinatown and Morningside Heights). This change does, however, transform what, exactly, is being manufactured in New York, and that's luxury goods.

Eric Wilson marvels at how a simple pair of designer chinos can cost anywhere between $350 and $780. According to Wilson, some think that the wide price range stems from the fact that designers don't know what to charge for luxury goods in an uncertain economic climate. Scott Sternberg of Band of Outsiders begs to differ. He leads Wilson on a tour of the Martin Greenfield factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where his clothes are made. Wilsion writes,

A man was hovering over an 80-year-old contraption called a jump iron, hot enough to mold fabrics into shapes they will be unlikely to forget. Another man basted panels of suit fabric to springy canvas, which makes the garment more flexible. In a machine-made jacket, the canvas would be fused or glued into a suit.
Mr. Sternberg’s khakis are tailored like dress pants, and the details are largely sewn by hand, including buttonholes and split waistbands, which can be altered easily. The fabric, which costs $24 a yard, plus $3 a yard to import, is a cotton gabardine fine enough to withstand basting stitches. About two yards, counting for boo-boos and such, is used to make a pair of pants, so the fabric cost is $54.
At Martin Greenfield, a union shop where employees earn about $13 an hour, before benefits, it takes an average of four hours of labor to make a pair of pants. The pants pass through the hands of at least 20 people in the process of cutting fabric, adding pockets and building out a fly. 

This attention to quality and detail simply can't be found in overseas manufacturing. Quality control would be a nightmare. And that's why New York's garment factories are here to stay, for now. There are, however, some concerns with New York's luxury good status--for instance, how can young designers afford to manufacture their goods? What if a designer wants to do a low-end line? And there are many unspoken, potentially racist undertones: the United States means quality, but workers in developing countries don't have the brains or the talent to make quality goods of their own.

According to Trebay, the  Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the Design Trust for Public Space, a non-profit organization, have written a report about the state of the Garment District, to be released in June. The release will be accompanied by a pop-store in the Port Authority, opening up on June 2nd, dedicated to the Garment District's production cycle. This effort comes on the heels of recent public support for the Garment District, including a Fashion Incubator for up-and-coming designers.

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