Her rise to the top is the stuff of fashion lore. Scrappy, broke and determined, fashion designer Anna Sui started her business during the ’80s in New York’s Garment District, where she found the inspiration and the resources to build her fashion line.
In this storied neighborhood, Sui was able to rent workspace and find an ample amount of talented patternmakers, seamstresses and embroiders, along with suppliers of fabrics and trims who were instrumental in helping Sui create her fashion line. Today, Sui has grown her business into a multi-million dollar fashion empire, with 32 locations in five countries.
But the Garment District that served as a launching pad for Sui and countless other fashion designers risks extinction. Rising rents, low profit margins, and the high cost of labor have driven manufacturing to Asia, where the vast majority of American apparel is made today. Rezoning and market demands for Manhattan office space continue to chip away at the few apparel companies that remain.
Once the visual center of New York’s fashion industry, the Garment District, which encompasses 34th to 41st Street between Fifth and Ninth Avenue, has given way to a hodgepodge of discount clothing stores, fast food franchises, parking garage complexes, and hotels.
Under mounting pressure, generations-old apparel companies are being forced to close their businesses, unable to withstand escalating rents unleashed by hot demand for Manhattan real estate. The result is a diminished Garment District that may no longer be able to support the fashion industry’s talent.
“Are you going to let something slip through your fingers?,” asked Samantha Cortes, a veteran fashion designer. “People don’t realize the impact to the Garment District once these old timers leave. When the last patternmaker goes, there will be no fashion industry left.”
For Cortes, the fight to preserve the Garment District is personal.
After arriving from her native Puerto Rico, Cortes leased a small room in the Garment District where she began sourcing lace for designers and manufacturers in the area. Her proximity gave her a distinct advantage over salesmen who commuted from New Jersey.
“When it would take them days to produce samples of prototypes, it would take me a day,” Cortes said. “Being located in the district was very important to my business being successful.”
Cortes did well, doubling and even tripling her revenue. But in 2005, with little fanfare, a section of the Garment District was rezoned. This was done despite the Zoning Laws of 1987, which were designed to preserve space for apparel companies and showrooms by regulating the percentage of traditional office space that could be rented. Landlords and property owners were then able to command much higher rents from financial services companies, law firms and other white-collar tenants.
“I was affected directly,” Cortes said. “Because of rezoning, when my lease came due my rent went up 35 percent.”
Cortes mobilized the area’s fashion designers, manufacturers and business owners and founded www.savethegarmentcenter.com , a grassroots movement that has raised awareness and maintains pressure on city officials to keep the existing zoning laws intact.
“We can’t let another section of the district become unzoned,” Cortes said. “I want to be in this industry for the next 30 years.”
Marc Cohen is the President of Colorblind, a manufacturer of junior sportswear, and has worked in the Garment District for more than 30 years. Two years ago, he was evicted from his building along with other fashion tenants because the landlord planned to convert the building into a hotel.
“So the first thing they do is empty out all the tenants like myself,” Cohen said. “I had three-and-a-half years left on my lease. They didn’t think about the Garment Center or saving it. They thought, ‘Here’s a piece of property — we can make money on it.’”
Amy Koo, owner of clothing contractor New Dynasty, remembers when she could count Bill Blass, Calvin Klein and Polo Ralph Lauren as her clients. Over time, Koo lost these clients because she could not afford to pay her factory workers union wages. Her business continued to decline as more fashion companies moved their manufacturing and production overseas.
“I have no work,” Koo said. “A lot of times I have to tell my workers to stay home.”
Today, Koo depends on her client of 18 years, Nanette Lepore, and other smaller designers who can only afford to do small production runs. A recent job that involved assembling 200 vests was welcomed, but just represented two days’ work.
Koo is worried about keeping her business alive for her 40 factory workers, all of whom are immigrants with limited English.
“They will lose their jobs and they won’t know what to do,” said Koo. “It’s very hard.”
The future of zoning in the Garment District and its impact on New York’s $14 billion fashion industry has spurred aggressive negotiations between city officials and various stakeholders, including the Fashion Center Business Improvement District and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA), led by Executive Director Steven Kolb.
“Fashion in New York in the past was defined by production,” Kolb said. “While that is not true anymore, without production we will lose the foundation on which our industry was built.”
While the CDFA and other industry activists are receptive to proposals that would include developing manufacturing sites in parts of Brooklyn and Long Island City, they are determined to keep the district intact, especially for those coming into the industry.
“The loss of production is hard on young designers,” said Kolb. “Many of them learn as they go by walking the streets of the district to find vendors. Without that it will become much harder to source.”
Fashion entrepreneur Marcia Henry took several years’ experience in the fashion industry and launched a custom hat business. Limited in capital, Henry, 52, believed she would be able to contain her costs by sourcing her materials directly from the Garment District. But this proved much more difficult than she imagined.
“The majority of sources are not here,” said Henry. “The area has shrunk. There was a time when you saw clothing carts going up and down the streets. Now you see people going to work.”
A sign of a vanishing trade, Henry has only been able to identify two companies in the district that specialize in millinery supplies.
As a Fashion Institute of Technology faculty member, Linda Cohen prepares the next generation of fashion designers to be realistic about the limitations that make it tougher to start a business.
“Could an Anna Sui or Nanette Lepore start now?” Cohen asked. “If someone is starting up, where is there anyone locally to source from? The choices are narrowing down because of changes in the industry.”
F.I.T. student Aaron Crosby recently prepared a Versace-inspired gown for a final project. He explained it took him visits to 15 stores in the Garment District to acquire the perfect three fabrics for his hand-sewn creation.
“If I had to run around to Brooklyn or Queens it would take me weeks to accomplish what I could do in a matter of visits to the Garment District,” said Crosby, 20.
For Cortes, the Garment District represents the lifeblood of New York’s fashion industry and something more.
“All over the United States is the hope of some kid watching ‘Project Runway’ and hoping to be the next major fashion designer,” Cortes said. “Without the Garment District, where are their hopes going to go?”