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How Manhattan Could Lose Its Iconic Garment District

The Fashion Walk of Fame in Manhattan’s garment district adorns the sidewalks with gold plates honoring the legacy of American fashion designers like Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. A giant button and needle sculpture stands on West 38th street and Seventh Ave as a symbol of the neighborhood’s main industrial force: fashion.

The garment district has been New York City’s main fashion hub since the early 20th century. But now, a new proposal by Mayor Bill De Blasio and the New York City Economic Development Corporation could threaten its existence.

Last February, De Blasio announced a $135 million investment on a “Made in NY” hub in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Bush Terminal would be converted into a space for fashion, food and film production.

The announcement has raised questions for the already established garment industry, who are skeptical the city will attempt to attract higher-paying tenants in Midtown’s underused buildings by creating cheaper space in Brooklyn, which could decentralize the industry as a whole.

We are the only city in the world that in less than four blocks away you can find everything you need to support the fashion system,” said Samanta Cortes, a board member at Save the Garment Center.

For the past few weeks, Cortes, 44, and Save the Garment Center* have campaigned against a proposal made by the New York City Economic Development Corporation to lift a 1987 zoning law that preserved space for factories in Midtown Manhattan, which was presented at community board meeting last month.

It’s amazing what they are doing in Sunset Park,” said Cortes. “But if they do it so drastically, it will destroy the garment district.”

The ecosystem of the garment district consists of 419 manufacturing companies, two fashion schools and 7,100 jobs. Big name companies like Carolina Herrera and Calvin Klein hold offices in the neighborhood, as well as famous fabric suppliers like New York Elegant and Mood Fabrics.

The area has remained a center for garment manufacturing thanks to a 1987 zoning law that forced tenants to provide 50 percent of their space to manufacturers. The regulation was put forth as a method to secure jobs and stability for the garment industry amidst a daunting decline in production and employment.

But, the plan failed. The city’s once-thriving garment district has continued to suffer a loss of employment with only 5,000 manufacturing jobs remaining in the neighborhood today, compared to 21,000 city-wide.

City officials have argued that the neighborhood is not just for manufacturing anymore. Instead, the zoning regulation is restricting other types of companies like tech and law firms interested in moving to the area, according to Barbara Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance, a non-profit organization.

The garment district has become increasingly unaffordable for many fashion companies, where the average rent is $47.39 per square foot, according to Commercial Real Estate Services (CBRE). Yet, for other industries, like tech, the price seems attractive compared to $69.82 in Midtown and $64 in Midtown South.

Blair, the president of the Garment District Alliance,  argues that the fashion industry needs to move forward from the cluster model. She said big name designers like Diane von Fürstenberg and the Council of Fashion Designers of America have already moved out of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, New York Fashion Week left Bryant Park 2009 for Lincoln Center and later the Meatpacking District.

Some have already moved to Sunset Park.  

Malia Mills, a fashion designer, moved her company to Sunset Park in 2014, where she now pays half of her previous rent in Midtown’s garment district. Her business has also expanded in the three years since the company’s move. “The space you get here, you’ll never be able to grow that much in Midtown,” said Mills, 50.

Yet, Barbara Blair insists the new proposal is not designed to relocate the fashion industry. “No one is forcing them to move,” she said. “It’s very disappointing how this has been mischaracterized.”

Meanwhile, Samanta Cortes said her skepticism is rooted in her own story. She suffered the consequences of previous zoning laws, which prompted her to close her 10-year-old embroidering company Fashion Design Concepts. She recalled having to fold after her landlord, Ira Fishman, raised her rent “about 35 percent,” which to her company meant a monthly rent of $8,000.

Ryan Charlie, a young fashion designer, stands on a corner of a pattern-making room on West 36th street. His workspace is a tiny area in a small chamber he shares with four other pattern-makers and seamsters surrounded by mountains of fabric and garment samples. But, to Charlie, it’s where fashion should be made.

“The garment district has everything for us,” he said. “Fabric stores and suppliers are here and we need them to survive.”

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