Progress Seen in Garment District Debate

Meetings go on over zoning issue.

After meeting with city officials Wednesday morning to discuss the fate of the Garment District’s zoning, the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s executive director Steven Kolb said he left feeling enthusiastic.

This story first appeared in the September 12, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“For the first time, I felt that things are being crystallized,” he said after meeting with executives from the city’s office of Economic Development Corp.

Of course, this being a bureaucratic matter, it is expected to take many months before an actual proposal is approved. Adding to the urgency is the fact that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration is expected to wind down in 16 months — provided term limits are not repealed and he does not seek a third term.

Industry insiders and designers are trying to ensure that a suitable amount of the 1 million square feet in the Garment District that is being used by apparel manufacturing factories will remain in the neighborhood or perhaps be housed in the same general vicinity in Brooklyn or Long Island City.  Staying local is the preferred scenario, according to Garment District tenants.

Yeohlee Teng, who trekked to City Hall with Kolb, said, “It appears the city does care about the district,” but declined to elaborate.

Barbara Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, was also buttoned up about her meeting with city officials, which took place Monday. However, she said she plans to discuss the situation with her group’s 30-person board at a meeting Tuesday.

UNITE officials had a separate meeting with city brass, but declined to comment.

Patrick Murphy, the EDC’s head of fashion-retail growth initiatives, said, “We’ve had constructive conversations with property owners and industry stakeholders. We expect to have a number of follow-up meetings in the next few weeks and we’re optimistic a consensus can be reached.”  

While Kolb said it was too soon to talk about specifics, he did say the preliminary talks covered the variety of ideas that have been bantered about such as clusters of manufacturing in Brooklyn or Long Island City.  One point of agreement seems to be the situation’s complexity and the many factors that surround it — preserving some semblance of manufacturing, while addressing the downturn of domestic production at a time when fashion design as a career has never had so much pop culture cachet, and strong student enrollment throughout the city.

Anna Sui, Nanette Lepore and Maria Cornejo tried to keep the zoning issue top-of-mind with their showgoers by wearing Save the Garment Center T-shirts for their respective final bows.

After her show, a few major retailers asked Lepore about how they might get involved. Lepore doled out Save the Garment Center pins and placed “Save the Garment Center” lettering at her runway’s entrance. Her show notes included a personal plea, stating that “thousands of jobs will be lost.” She also encouraged guests to contact Jed Howbert, senior policy adviser to the deputy mayor, and provided his e-mail address.

Having worked with the same local factories for 10 years in “a very hands-on way,” Cornejo said her company relies on them for all the services that go into creating a collection — grading patterns, supplying trims, fusing our coating.…It would just be much harder were these small companies to move out of the center of the city. We are always looking for more ways to get our collection produced locally when we can. New York is the only city in the world where you can get an entire collection made in 20 blocks.”

On their way into the tents for Sui’s runway show, guests were asked to sign a petition to try to preserve the area’s manufacturing. Samantha Cortes, who set up savethegarmentcenter.com about 18 months ago to spread the word about the neighborhood’s potential rezoning, recruited apparel manufacturers and Fashion Institute of Technology students to gather signatures and hand out information about the cause. They collected 200 signatures last night and 75 online after Anna Sui.

A reporter for National Geographic magazine was also on the scene for an article that will run in the magazine next year. “The story is going to look at the Garment District as a unique piece of Americana and its unique geography of being a manufacturing center in one of the most urban areas in the world. We are not looking at any one issue. We’re looking at its past, its present and its future challenges,” a National Geographic spokeswoman said.