If one looks only at the Western World, Europe inevitably predates the US in the establishment of a garment industry. In the UK, whereas textile production became industrialized in Northern England during the industrial revolution, the garment industry remained very firmly in London. The East End Rag Trade became iconic in the early 20th Century, populated by immigrants who settled from Eastern Europe to ply their trade. Paris also saw a major growth spurt around the same time in an industry formalized back in the 1840s. By the turn of the 20th Century, up to 300,000 workers were beavering in garment production, where Le Marais was arguably the epicenter of immigrant workshops. In Milan, the relatively high concentration of retail designers stores isn’t quite matched by manufacturers, who now seem located in a diffuse pattern around Lombardy.
In New York, as in Europe, garment manufacture migrated from a home task to a mechanized industry in the mid 19th century. And the workers were, by necessity, immigrants. The same diaspora from Eastern Europe, but also Italians, came to New York where the sidewalks were apparently paved with gold. What distinguished New York is that the area of design and production was well delineated, and whereas European production suffered a severe set back during the 1929 crisis and the second world war, New York merely suffered a hiccup but thrived thereafter, obviously taking share from the war ravaged cities of Europe.
The Garment District grew and is claimed to have had its hey day in the 1970s. As Meghana Gandhi, Assistant Director of Fashion and Retail Team at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, commented, “The main hurdle is external. [After the ’70s] the cost of production overseas diminished… and drove big designers to produce abroad.”
Perhaps there is something ironic and plaintive to the closing lyrics sung originally by Liza Minnelli in the 1977 Martin Scorsese film “New York, New York” when re-framed in a garment manufacturing context. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, Come on come through, New York, New York..”
Whereas New York was once the center of production, it had been demoted to a testing lab and launch point for outsourcing to other (and cheaper) centers of production. Garments were being made less and less in New York New York but merely were “come on and come through”.
In 2010, the mayor’s office and some grass roots designer cooperatives kicked off Fashion NYC 2020, a program to determine how to foster growth within the fashion industry. There was the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, and the recognition that a less price-sensitive industry, removed from fast fashion, could emerge from the ashes.
I have made New York my home for design, production and distribution over the last couple of decades. There are just huge advantages in having all steps of the garment process in one central location when making small scale boutique and exclusive product. Many entrepreneurs like myself continue to produce in the canyons of Broadway and the Garment District in New York – for me, it’s an historical legacy that is stitched onto every piece of lingerie I make.
Time to start spreading the news.
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