By Matt Kapp
“New York is one of the greatest fashion centers in the world, standing with Paris, Milan and London,” declares Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents Manhattan’s storied Garment District. “The industry is integral to our city’s fabric—pun intended.” The fashion-forward congresswoman knows how to dress for political advantage on the floor of the House. In 2001, she wore a burka while giving a speech about the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. She later donned an F.D.N.Y. bunker coat before voting for a bill to renew federal benefits for 9/11 first responders (for which she was admonished by a House staffer who told her, “No uniforms whatsoever in Chambers.”). She’s also determined to see New York retain its status as the nation’s undisputed fashion capital and credits the Garment District as the backbone of the industry.
Today’s Garment District covers about two-dozen midtown blocks, roughly hemmed by 34th Street to the south and 40th Street to the north, Sixth Avenue to the east and Ninth to the west. It’s still home to hundreds of garment businesses employing some 5,000 workers. But that number may yet dwindle, if City Council moves forward with a plan to lift a 1987 zoning rule that has preserved much of the district’s real estate for garment manufacturing. The number of garment workers has nevertheless declined by 83% since then. And landlords have found ways around the rule: fashion tenants have been outnumbered by other businesses—including hotels, tech, media and advertising firms—since 2013.
It’s a far cry from October 27th, 1960, when the neighborhood was a compulsory presidential campaign whistle-stop that employed hundreds of thousands of garment workers, who made the vast majority of Americans’ clothes. “I come to this garment district and ask for your help,” Senator John F. Kennedy, flanked by Tallulah Bankhead and Janet Leigh, entreated the quarter-of-a-million-strong crowd, the biggest turnout of his campaign. “It was a place where glamour met the factory floor,” wrote Jean Appleton in the New York Times in 2012. As head of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, Appleton’s father had been there that day too. Decades before garment manufacturing would migrate overseas, “[He] could insist that presidential spouses wear ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ labels—and they’d listen,” she wrote.
The saga of New York’s fashion industry is cyclical—and inextricably interwoven with the city’s political life. It began downtown with the Dutch and English fur trade, especially beaver, which would make John Jacob Astor rich in the late 18th century and adorn the city’s official seal to this day. As the city spread north up the island of Manhattan, the industry followed. By the late 1800s it was centered on the Lower East Side, where Eastern European Jewish immigrants toiled away in residential tenements, literal “sweat shops,” day and night. In 1890, journalist Jacob Riis described the “the whir of a thousand sewing machines, worked at high pressure from earliest dawn till mind and muscle give out together. It is not unusual to find a dozen persons—men, women, and children—at work in a single small room.” Two dozen blocks northwest and worlds away was Ladies’ Mile, the Gilded Age mecca for society ladies who patronized its high-end department stores and retailers, including Lord & Taylor, Tiffany, and B. Altman.
In 1892, the New York State legislature banned the Lower East Side’s tenement sweatshops and introduced comprehensive workplace safety standards, such as fire codes, for the first time. As a result, manufacturers moved north and west into industrial loft spaces in the Village and beyond. The Triangle Waist Company was one of the city’s biggest, occupying the top three floors of the newly built Asch Building on Washington Place, a block east of Washington Square Park. On the last Saturday afternoon of March 1911, the factory was running full bore, 600 workers hunched over sewing machines elbow-to-elbow, back-to-back, most of them teenaged Jewish and Italian girls who lived with their families in nearby tenements.
Just after 5 p.m., fire broke out in a corner of the eighth floor. Within minutes it engulfed the entire factory. Despite the recent laws, the building lacked a sprinkler system, and its one fire escape collapsed as firefighters—whose ladders were too short to reach the upper floors—unraveled “life nets” to catch jumpers overcome by smoke and flame. “The sky seemed to rain flesh,” Edward Robb Ellis described the ghastly scene in his Epic of New York City. The nets were futile. “Spectators winced at the sound of bodies hitting the ground.” Worse yet, many of the exit doors had been locked by the factory’s bosses to deter theft, trapping scores of girls who were burned alive as they tried to break out.
Public outcry was swift. The Triangle Waist Company’s owners were tried on manslaughter charges, and acquitted, triggering more outrage. But the 146 young victims wouldn’t die in vain. “Monumental reforms flowed from the Triangle fire,” wrote Edward Robb Ellis. “New York State’s entire labor code was rewritten, becoming the best of any state in the nation.” It would remain the deadliest workplace tragedy in the city’s history until 9/11.
The garment industry would again push north, eventually devouring the entire Tenderloin district north of 34th Street, once a “Satan’s Circus” of brothels, saloons, and casinos. In its place would rise more than a hundred expansive Art Deco and Beaux Arts-inspired buildings, with factories on the upper floors and showrooms on the lower ones, most of which remain in today’s Garment District. By 1931, the area had the biggest concentration of apparel makers—and high-rise factory buildings—in the world.
While Kennedy’s grand 1960 whistle-stop helped turn out the vote, the district’s heydays were numbered. As the cost of making clothing in Manhattan continued to rise, manufacturing was outsourced to cheaper overseas markets like Asia. Meanwhile, many of the city’s remaining garment manufacturers migrated back downtown in search of cheaper rents. In 1991, there were nearly 500 garment factories in Chinatown, employing 20,000 Chinese immigrants. But the devastation of 9/11 would choke off the neighborhood’s economy, and by 2004 nearly half of Chinatown’s garment factories had shuttered.
While the Garment District’s future hangs in the balance, even formerly staunch defenders have jumped ship. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed entitled “Save New York City’s Fashion Factories,” designer Nanette Lepore argued that if the city allows the district and its distinct “ecosystem” to vanish, there could be a mass exodus of young designers to rival cities like Los Angeles, London, and Paris. “We are a global fashion capital because this vibrant, innovative neighborhood has existed for nearly a hundred years,” she wrote. Yet in June, she moved the majority of her operation to Brooklyn Navy Yard. “It’s exhilarating to join such a diverse group of innovators, from fashion to art, food, and film,” she said of her new neighbors, while remaining loyal to her old ones. “I will continue to work with all the suppliers and factories in Manhattan’s Garment District who have been an integral part in building my business through the years.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been pushing a plan to relocate much of what remains of garment manufacturing in midtown to distant Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where the city is investing $136 million in “best-in-class industrial facilities for garment manufacturing, film and media production,” called the “Made in NY Campus.” “Despite the lure of cheap rents, the fashion industry isn’t keen on relocating to Sunset Park,” declared the Real Deal of the plan. “Sunset Park will never be able to replicate the transportation options, infrastructure and proximity found in Manhattan’s Garment Center,” says Congresswoman Maloney. “If you split it up and start to decentralize it, you cost people time and reduce the reasons why businesses want to and need to be in New York City.”
And who stands to lose the most if the Garment District goes the way of the Tenderloin and fades to black? Broadway costume designers. “If Bette Midler rips the train of her dress because the understudy chorus boy steps on it,” Steven Epstein recently told the New York Times, “the wardrobe supervisor can head to the garment center, buy the fabric, get it back to the theater, get that train recut and stitched before the show even begins.” Even in a city overrun with Ubers, you can’t do that with a trip to Sunset Park. DT
Opening photo by Matthew Usukumah