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Designers Turn Out for Garment Center Meeting

In the first meeting with Garment Center tenants, city officials got an earful about the plan to designate a 300,000-square-foot building for manufacturing.

In the first of what will no doubt be many meetings with Garment Center tenants, city officials got an earful Wednesday about the plan to designate a 300,000-square-foot Eighth Avenue building for apparel manufacturing.

This story first appeared in the April 30, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While Yeohlee Teng, Anna Sui, Narciso Rodriguez, Nicole Miller, Nanette Lepore, Sylvia Heisel, Kathlin Argiro and the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Steven Kolb represented the designer contingency at the 45-person gathering at Teng’s showroom, several attendees emphasized the need for all apparel-related businesses to voice any concerns and to get involved with the process. In a phone interview, Sui noted how pleaters, contractors, textile firms and trimming companies turned up, but many more need to be heard from. Foremost among the unspoken are companies that are “in the most dire situation” of needing to find adequate and affordable space, such as textile firms that generally require a lot more square footage than most apparel-related businesses, Sui said.

“One of the things that was really apparent was that we need to find out more about the needs of the garment community,” she said. “We finally have open ears. These will be difficult negotiations with so many people involved. But the apparel industry is one of the most viable, successful and money-making industries in New York. We’ve got to do this.”

All in all, Sui and several others viewed the closed-door meeting as positive and said more would follow. However, some attendees were concerned the 270 West 38th Street address does not have sufficient square footage. Others requested the Garment Center’s existing zoning remain intact, and more importantly that it be enforced. Landlords and real estate developers have been lobbying to try to free up some of the 10 million square feet for higher-paying tenants or even residential buyers. In recent years, the more unscrupulous have not renewed leases with apparel companies and have jacked up rents and in some cases have even bullied tenants into exiting their respective buildings.

Warren Brand, president of M&S Schmalberg, which specializes in flowers made of fabrics, said he hoped the city would put in place “a good, trustworthy board of people that will do the right thing — unfortunately, today many people don’t,” referring to the general public.

As the third generation of a 90-year-old family business, Brand said makers of American-made goods, not importers, should have the first crack at building space. In addition, they need to keep overhead expenses down since they have a tougher time competing with the prices of products made by lower-paid overseas labor, Brand said. For the past two years, his company has been operating in the red. “If it weren’t for my faith, hope and love of this industry, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Others wondered how city officials would define apparel manufacturers and whether that definition would include trimming, textile companies and other enterprises integral to the apparel industry.

Afterwards, Patrick Murphy, head of fashion-retail growth initiatives for New York City’s Economic Development Corp., said, “It is always helpful to hear directly from the people whose businesses are so integral to New York City’s fashion industry and who are so passionate about maintaining the city’s fashion leadership and the importance of the Garment Center. We look forward to a continued dialogue with all of the stakeholders as we work towards a solution that maintains the Garment Center as the vital core of NYC’s fashion industry.”

Meanwhile, the Fashion Center BID, which was not included in Wednesday’s meeting, plans to invite the neighborhood’s 350 building owners for a May meeting to hear their thoughts on the city’s proposal. At this stage, they have not been involved with any meetings. In addition, the FCBID plans to hold a second meeting for area tenants. Executive director Barbara Randall said, “Now is when we want to hear the different points of view, sort out the issues and maybe hear some ideas we haven’t thought of.”

Sui said her contingent’s next meeting has yet to be set, but is eager to widen the audience. “We’re just a small cross section of the industry. What people have to realize is you can’t have one without the other. One company goes with the other.”