Sep 14, 2009
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New York garment district battling for survival

Sep 14, 2009

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's reputation as a global fashion capital is under threat with the city's once bustling garment district facing extinction, experts say.

Just steps from runways of the semi-annual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in midtown Manhattan, design patterns are drawn, fabric chosen and samples sewn for top designers such as Nanette Lepore and Anna Sui.

But the garment district is just a shadow of its glory days in the 1950s and '60s when some 95 percent of clothing sold nationally was made in the United States.

Now just 5 percent of clothing sold is U.S.-made.

Remaining garment district manufacturers are battling to stop more business from moving offshore during the recession as well as fighting for the historic area's survival.

New York is considering zoning changes that would allow the district's factories to become offices. A 1987 zoning amendment created the district to shield it from rising real estate prices, spurred by redevelopment of nearby Times Square.

"The district is in danger of disappearing, with its factories and workers forced out by landlords seeking higher-paying tenants," Lepore wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

"Manufacturing locally ... allows us to quickly increase or decrease production, depending on what customers want, and is the only affordable option for young designers with limited resources working on a small scale," said Lepore, who manufactures 85 percent of her clothes in the district.

The district has some 250 factories and sample rooms employing about 4,600 people, the Garment Industry Development Corp said.


The city wants to drop the zoning, but the industry is lobbying for some buildings to be "designated fashion space," said Andy Ward, the corporation's acting executive director.

"There's no reason (fashion labels) have to be in New York if there's nowhere to get apparel work done," he said.

The fashion industry is a vital part of New York's economy, generating about $1.5 billion a year in tax revenue.

"We are working with varied garment district stakeholders to preserve the critical core that has remained and help keep New York City the fashion capital of the world while spurring investment in the area," said Andrew Brent, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber.

The history of New York's garment district and its demise is the focus of a new documentary by U.S. cable network HBO. "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags," directed by Marc Levin, premiers at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday 20 September.

"You talk to any New Yorker and in one way or another they are going to have a relative, a friend, a neighbor who was at some time part of this business," Levin told Reuters, adding that "schmatta" is Yiddish for rag.

The documentary follows the garment district from sweat shops staffed largely by European immigrants in the early 1900s to a prosperous union-backed industry of middle-class workers from the 1950s to the 1970s. The district declined when companies began to make clothes in Asia.

"There are few stories of a neighborhood that are so emblematic of how immigrants came here, how they organized, how they became part of the American mainstream, how they helped create a middle class," Levin said.

"It's never going to be the same, but there are people fighting to at least keep a part of it alive," said Levin.

One of those people is Samanta Cortes, co-founder of the "Save the Garment Center" lobby group, whose company Fashion Design Concepts creates clothing embellishments for designers including Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan.

"If we don't do things to protect our industry ... we're not going to have an industry," she told Reuters.

(By Michelle Nichols. Editing by Alison Williams)

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