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New York’s Garment Center was born around the turn of the 20th century in tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, where immigrants brought their sewing and tailoring skills from Europe. After spreading to factories in nearby neighborhoods, the Garment Center was soon ready to make a permanent move to Midtown Manhattan—but not before some controversy.
On July 13, 1910, the day WWD became a daily, it reported on page one that “Mass Meetings of Manufacturers Today” were being held to discuss a strike by unions demanding a 25 percent increase in wages and a 48-hour workweek. The strike was settled by the famous “Protocols of Peace,” and the movement also gave rise to two apparel worker unions: the ILGWU and the ACWA. The lack of labor laws protecting workers in the early 20th century was felt most keenly in garment manufacturing, where workers toiled seven days a week without overtime or benefits in conditions that came to be known as sweatshops. By 1911, when 146 workers, mostly women, died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Greenwich Village, the issue could no longer be ignored.
The ILGWU steadily built its membership and gained substantial power under David Dubinsky, who became president in 1932. Dubinsky’s 34-year reign was marked by aggressive organizing, and ILGWU ranks swelled from 45,000 to 450,000 and came to dominate New York manufacturing. During that time, factories that had sprung up around Madison Square were soon pushed out, as the area evolved into the fashionable Ladies’ Mile shopping strip, whose merchants lobbied City Hall to rezone, forcing the factories to relocate.
In September 1919, two sites along Seventh Avenue between 36th and 38th Streets were developed by the Garment Center Capitol Co., comprising 38 women’s clothing manufacturers and revitalizing a vice-ridden area then known as the Tenderloin. The company erected 498 and 500 Seventh Avenue for about $20 million, and between 1921 and 1926, more than $125 million was invested in construction alone. By 1931, according to a WWD report, the Garment District—an area from Sixth to Ninth Avenues and from West 30th to West 42nd Streets—had the world’s largest concentration of apparel manufacturers. Buildings became market-specific in the Fifties and Sixties; for instance, 1385 Broadway was the bridal building, 498 and 530 Seventh Avenue housed dress manufacturers and 500 and 512 Seventh Avenue were the coat buildings.
The Eighties brought the rise of imports, and domestic manufacturing jobs plunged. At its peak in 1973, there were 400,000 apparel production jobs in New York, but by April 2000, according to figures published in WWD, the city’s total fashion, textile, apparel manufacturing and wholesaling employment stood at 113,838. As of 2009, that figure had dwindled to about 87,500.