Fashion Designers, Factories Fight to Save Manufacturing Jobs in New York

PHOTO: Yeohlee Teng (2nd from right) stands with models after her fall 2011 fashion show in front or her boutique, the first flagship store of a designer in the Garment Center on Feb. 14, 2011.
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As the President kicks off his plan to lower the unemployment rate, currently at 9.1 percent, the issue of job creation is alive and well during New York City's Fashion Week.

Nanette Lepore, one of over 99 fashion designers presenting their spring lines this week, says her colleagues hold the future of American apparel manufacturing, especially in New York City's garment center district, in their hands.

"There are 20,000 manufacturing jobs in this neighborhood," Lepore said, referring to the historic district. "I just hope more designers onshore their manufacturing in New York City and we increase to full capacity."

According to New York state's Department of Labor, there were 19,823 apparel manufacturing jobs in New York state last year, compared to 65,182 of those jobs in 2000.

"The area got wallopped," said Steven Capozzola, media director for the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Capozzola said the majority of the state's apparel manufacturing jobs are based in New York City.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 154,400 apparel manufacturing jobs in all of the U.S. as of August.

Despite a few high-profile departures from the neighborhood of designers' offices, such as Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta, Lepore said the clothing factories in the tight real estate market of New York City are alive, but in danger.

That is, unless more designers bring their businesses back.

"This block used to be lined with UPS trucks," Lepore said, referring to a street in the garment center. "It was a block that was so busy and thriving in manufacturing, and it's so sad to see it go. I am going to be one of the last holdouts. I don't want to let go of my American manufacturing."

About 1.6 million square feet of manufacturing space remains in the neighborhood, according to the Garment Center Supplier Association, which has 125 supplier members, all based in the area.

Joseph Ferrara, who leads the Garment Center Supplier Association and owns a handful of factories, said the neighborhood's economic life is especially apparent during Fashion Week. He said his companies serve 10 to 20 designers and work on close to 4,000 samples during New York Fashion Week, which takes place twice a year.

Lepore said she often orders 1,000 pieces per clothing style in local factories and has worked with the same factories for the past 20 years.

She helped organize two rallies in support of the garment center. Erica Wolf, who works for Lepore's clothing company, is executive director of a trade association called Save the Garment Center.

"The area is an amazing cluster of people using creative resources," Wolf said. "It kills me when people say it's dead. It's in trouble, yes, but it's not dead."

Lepore said many designers are taking their manufacturing either out of the city or the country with the goal of cheaper production costs. As a result city factories, already squeezed by rent, have less business. Not only does that harm factory jobs but it also affects the resources available to emerging design talent and the creative process.

"So one of the reasons that you want these factories to stay in New York and why Americans should support it, is because having this sort of neighborhood of manufacturing enables young, new talent to start off really small and start manufacturing and producing their own things without having to have huge minimums and a big money machine behind them," Lepore said.

Lepore said the billion-dollar American fashion industry could be at jeopardy if emerging designers, such as those attending the several of the city's design schools, do not have the resources to create locally.

"Otherwise, the avenue for talent will dry up and we will not be a world leader in fashion," she said.

Yeohlee Teng, a fellow designer, agrees that the district is a "creative hub" that is especially helpful during the frenetic activity leading to Fashion Week.

"During Fashion Week it provides a support system," she said. "You can have samples made rather quickly and control how they're cut and made."

Teng moved her business from across town into the garment center in the 1990s.

"The reason is because I recognized that proximity is certainly efficient. Today, proximity equals sustainability. And as the world knows, time is of the essence," Teng said. "Having your cutters, sewers down the street from you really helps. It really helps in your creative process and it helps you save time."

The Malaysian-born designer said she also believes the country needs a manufacturing sector.

"Everyone is reaching for the financial and tech industries. A diversity in jobs and sectors enriches and protects our economy," she said. "If we lose all our manufauring, we would be a poorer country because it makes us extremely dependent."

Teng is also an advocate to improve the quality of life for the garment center's tenants, manufacturers, landlords, and the good of the city. She said she became a neighborhood case study as the first designer to open a flagship boutique in the district in October 2010.

Teng and Lepore say the majority of their lines are manufactured in New York, but they do have some specialty work manufactured abroad.

However, Lepore said rising labor costs there and extra hassles in the creative process lead to almost no cost benefit in producing her clothing abroad.

"I really don't like working overseas. We do it sometimes when it is necessary for, like, really embellished garments or embroideries but we lose control of the fit. We have so much more control here," Lepore said.

Currently, the city has a zoning law in the garment center that protects manufacturing space in the neighborhood. But there was discussion in recent years to lift the law to make way for other real estate space.

Ferrara said one problem for factory owners is that many are leasing their property, adding to their expenses and possibly hindering them from adding jobs and capital improvements.

To help solve the issue, the association submitted a proposal to the New York City Economic Development Corporation to preserve 1.2 million square feet of manufacturing space in the neighborhood. The association has also pledged $100 million of the $150 million to support the plan.

Jennifer Friedberg, assistant vice president of public affairs for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said it is continuing to evaluate alternatives for preserving production space and supporting the area's revitalization.

"We are committed to the Garment Center's function as a central place for fashion designers, suppliers, and manufacturers to congregate, recognizing that it is essential to New York City's economy," she said in an email.

Ferrara hopes the city will approve the proposal this year after working with building owners, tenants and other factory owners.

"Everyone is talking about jobs," Ferrara said. "People talk about jobs for designers, publicists, and merchants. Don't forget the economic opportunity for the skilled artisan and craftsman, who has spent their life crafting beautiful clothes. Growth only happens if it's at all levels of economic opportunity."

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