By and  on October 22, 2009

“This is the game changer.”

That’s how Yeohlee Teng summed up Wednesday’s Save the Garment Center rally that drew 750 supporters including Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Nanette Lepore, Elie Tahari and other designers onto Seventh Avenue to raise awareness of the New York neighborhood’s plight.

“This will change the conversation with the city,” Teng said after the event. “It won’t just be about square footage anymore. It will be about issues that are more indicative of what is going on now — saving jobs, being American and cultural identities.”

Several of the 16 speakers hammered home the need to protect American workers, to market a Made in New York label and to give domestic companies tax incentives to keep production in the city. The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s executive director, Steven Kolb, helped round up a battalion of designers including Marcus Wainwright, Doo-Ri Chung, Chris Benz, Maria Cornejo, Victoria Bartlett and Charles Nolan. Supporters did their part, waving “Save the Garment Center” and “It’s Sew N.Y.” signs, and shouting their cause when prompted by fiery leaders like Workers United’s Bruce Raynor and Edgar Romney.

Before activists took to the stage set up at Seventh Avenue and 39th Street, Romney said Wednesday’s rally was the first time in his 43-year tenure that industry workers, union members and designers had come together. As one of the leaders who first urged former Mayor Ed Koch to secure six million square feet in the area for apparel manufacturing, Romney told the crowd he was “a bit perplexed” to be standing there again. Today, there are 4,500 to 5,000 union workers in the garment center compared with five years ago when there were 12,000 to 13,000, Romney said. The apparel industry is New York City’s second-largest employer behind the financial sector — a statistic not lost on City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

“If there is one thing that we should have clearly learned this year.…We cannot base New York City’s entire economy on two industries: Wall Street and real estate. Those industries are important — those people wear clothes…” she said. “But we need a diversified economy in New York City, so when there is a Wall Street setback it doesn’t become a massive problem in our city.”

For the past few years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has been trying to iron out rezoning, with the latest proposal being contain the bulk of the industry’s tenants to a 270,000-square-foot building at 270 West 38th Street. With Bloomberg vying for a third term and the election just a few weeks away, talks have picked up a bit.

Bloomberg’s mayoral rival, William Thompson, said, “Government needs to step up to do its part. We need to stand up and save the garment center now. Instead of giving tax breaks to Yankee Stadium, which only employs part-time ushers, let’s save the garment center.”

Noting New York’s reputation as a global fashion capital is under threat and the Garment District is facing extinction, Thompson recalled how 95 percent of clothes sold in the U.S. in the Fifties and Sixties were also made here. Today, 90 percent of clothes sold in America are manufactured in other countries.

“Top fashion designers say they depend on nearby manufacturers to fill their orders, and if there is further contraction they will leave the city, along with the fashion shows and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity,” Thompson said. “A failure to enforce zoning rules in the garment center now threatens our city’s fashion industry. The illegal conversion of hundreds of thousands of square feet of manufacturing space to offices, condos and stores in recent years is a major reason the garment center has contracted so sharply.”

If elected mayor, Thompson pledged to secure up to one million square feet dedicated to garment manufacturing space in nonprofit buildings in the district. He also vowed to replicate programs like the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (which has renovated six North Brooklyn manufacturing buildings for small manufacturers, artisans and artists).

Lepore was joined on the podium by her husband, Robert Savage, who emceed the rally. Lepore, along with Anna Sui and Teng, has been instrumental in spreading the word about the neighborhood’s plight. Lepore said she started out 20 years ago with a $5,000 loan and a dream of building a business. She now employs more than 130 people in the area and manufactures 15,000 to 30,000 units each month. “Why deny that opportunity to others?” she said. “We need our government to understand that it takes a village to make a dress. City Hall, Albany, Washington, Michelle Obama: We need your help.”

Before the event started, Bartlett said half of her production is done here. Just a few days ago, she learned her garment center factory may have to relocate to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, “which is really far.” She is, however, not opposed to the idea of consolidating the industry in another borough, especially close ones such as Long Island City in Queens, where many artists have already flocked for affordable space.

And there is no question many design students come to New York because of the garment center, according to Parsons The New School for Design’s dean of fashion, Simon Collins. Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez, Donna Karan and Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez are among the school’s alumni who put together their first designs in the neighborhood.

Another speaker, Roger Cohen, who runs Regal Originals, suggested setting up tax credits for companies that manufacture in the U.S., offering interest-free loans and grants to help modernize facilities and train workers, extending rent vouchers to help subsidize New York City-based factories, increasing tariffs on imported goods, and initiating a buy-American-made-goods campaign.

Afterward, Joseph Boitano, group senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s at Saks Fifth Avenue, who pledged the support of Saks on the stage, said a Made in New York initiative was “a new idea that should be considered.” He noted years ago there was a SFA USA marketing effort that plugged American design. “We should all be proud of the fact that we make garments in New York,” he said.

While the CFDA’s Kolb doesn’t think a Made in New York campaign would be the single component that would save the neighborhood, he said it could be part of a bigger plan. “This is not really about the rezoning of the district. It’s about looking at production and supply in New York in a modern way,” he said. “There are enough people in the industry who could bring in their advertising and marketing people to promote a Made in New York label. But you have to shore up making clothes in New York before you can promote Made in New York.”

Among those in the crowd, people were frustrated with government inaction and took issue with landlords in the area — but were optimistic key issues could be ironed out.

“I think there is hope. We can fix this. There is a solution,” said Amanda Corey, an associate production manager at Nanette Lepore. “We are really hoping to draw attention from the government, with the new mayoral election coming up. There needs to be enforcement of the zoning laws. There needs to be some tax incentives, and people need to be proud of wearing things that are made in New York.”

Barbara Elliott, who has worked in various jobs in the garment district for 28 years and is a trim buyer for Anna Sui, was hopeful a dedicated building for manufacturing would be created in the district. The city has proposed a West Side building. “Somebody has to do something, because everyone is losing their leases,” she noted. “Landlords would rather have condos than manufacturers.”

Arthur Cohen, who owns Studio One Leather and employs 15 people in the district, said rents were the most important issue to him. “This is the last affordable space in New York City,” he noted. “But when I look for space, landlords don’t want to rent if you have a factory. I’m OK right now, but as soon as things turn around and business gets better, the real estate industry is going to raise the rents. I’d like to see government support the garment industry by requiring landlords to allocate a certain amount of space for factories.”

En route back to his office, former CFDA president Stan Herman said action is in order. “The big thing is zoning, zoning, zoning. If we don’t get the zoning, we need, it’s all b.s. If we don’t preserve the core of production, we could stop being a viable industry.”

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