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NEW YORK — It should have been a monumental journey, thousands of Garment District employees commuting to offices in the shadow of the Republican National Convention’s “frozen zone.” But as Oscar de la Renta realized when his driver crossed West 40th Street on Monday morning, Seventh Avenue as a ghost town was not such a bad thing after all.
“It was very easy,” said de la Renta, wearing a navy sports jacket that was slightly creased from the drive and carrying a camel leather briefcase as he walked around the corner to his offices at 550 Seventh Avenue, arriving for the workweek at 10:25 a.m.
“I’m coming from Connecticut, and there was very little traffic,” he said. “They let me through on 40th Street and I left my driver on Eighth Avenue.”
Designers — who are preparing to show their spring collections around the city beginning Sept. 8 — had feared a difficult commute, with a handful of companies based in the Garment District shutting down for the week or allowing employees to work from home in the face of tightened security surrounding the RNC.
But as the opening session had just gotten under way at Madison Square Garden, seven blocks to the south, many people showing up for work on Monday said they had, in fact, made record time. The Port Authority bus terminal, for example, was a breeze once commuters got through the Lincoln Tunnel, which was bottlenecked from street closures inside Manhattan.
The enormous police and security presence throughout the city, the arrival of nearly 5,000 Republican delegates, the media swarm, the numerous protests expected to take place this week and the specter of possible terrorist attacks have put the fashion industry on edge during what is an especially busy time for designers, who generally lean a bit to the left anyway.
Many of them view the RNC as a major headache, as they are expecting fabric shipments to arrive this week from European mills and at the same time are coordinating model fittings and castings in advance of their shows. Seventh Avenue and other streets in the district are subject to closures throughout the week, leaving delivery trucks to plan drop-offs during off hours.
Barbara Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, said she was unaware of any complaints on Monday, noting she had heard from employees that some access routes, such as entrances to the major commuting hub of Penn Station, that had been expected to be closed were actually open on Monday.
“I am completely amazed at how well everything is going,” she said.
The impact of the convention was plainly evident on the sidewalks in front of the major designer buildings, where building managers reported a marked decrease in the number of people showing up. Those who did were dressed casually, with one man entering 550 Seventh Avenue wearing cutoff shorts and flip-flops, although they did look expensive. Francisco Costa, the women’s designer of Calvin Klein, walked into the coffee shop next to 550 around 10:10 a.m. wearing a white V-neck T-shirt with a big hole in the back.
Calvin Klein Inc. told its employees last week that the company will be closed this Thursday and Friday, citing the possibilities for protests and further disruptions, as President Bush is expected to accept his party’s nomination on Thursday night. Most firms have equipped workers with ID cards or letters of employment showing they have business on Seventh Avenue, but otherwise are taking a “business as usual” approach to the week.
“We said we would play it by ear,” said a spokeswoman for Donna Karan International. “We’ve kept the office open, and we’re being very flexible for everybody, but this morning nobody had any problems whatsoever coming in.”
The designer was not in on Monday, but plans to be there this week, the spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for Liz Claiborne Inc., one of the biggest companies in the neighborhood, said it will be fully open for business throughout the convention, although flexible hours and telecommuting have been explored as options for employees most affected by difficult commutes.
With all the forethought that went into corporate emergency plans, after the experiences of 9/11 and the August blackout last year, some companies found it ironic that employees actually had an easier time getting to work, even for those coming from distances farther than uptown or downtown Manhattan.
“It was the fastest ride from the Hamptons I’ve ever had,” said eveningwear designer Roland Nivelais, who ambled up Seventh Avenue to his showroom on West 40th Street around 10:30 a.m. He estimated the commute took less than two hours.
“I’m loving this,” he said of the streetscape, absent the typical array of town cars, taxis and trucks. “I was afraid to be here this week, but maybe we’ll be able to accomplish some things after all. It’s much quieter than I expected.”
Walter Baker, designer of contemporary apparel line Walter, with a showroom at 37th Street and Eighth Avenue, said he had corporate IDs made up for all his employees, but “no one needed them.”
“I think because of all the hoopla, a lot of people took off, so there’s fewer people around, and it’s easier for those of us who stayed [in town],” Baker said. “I gave people the option to take vacation this week, but everybody came to work.”
David Flohr, chief financial officer at Betsey Johnson, 498 Seventh Avenue, added that the company’s shipments had already arrived, so it was operating as normal.
“I think enough people got scared away that people are getting through whatever security zones they need to get through very quickly,” Flohr said. “Our office is about 50 percent full. Betsey’s here, but Chantal [Bacon, company president] is off. Everyone has said their commute has been easier than it is under ordinary circumstances. In a certain way, it’s very good for Betsey. It helps her to focus on the task at hand and getting her show up and running better than it would have been under the ordinary course of a business day.”
Vivienne Tam was one of the first designers to show up at 550 Seventh Avenue, just after 10 a.m., having taken a taxi from her apartment up Sixth Avenue. She had flown to Miami last week for the Video Music Awards and attended a party thrown by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs there on Friday before returning to the city on Saturday.
“From 15th to 24th Street was easy, because there were no other cars,” she said. “We’ve been working over the weekend, too. There’s nobody here, and that’s great. It’s easier to get a taxi.”
— With contributions from Emily Holt
Tuesday: 7-11:15 p.m.
Theme of the Day: People of Compassion
Speakers and Agenda:
- First Lady Laura Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
- 3 p.m.: Nonviolent “die-in” and march from World Trade Center site to Madison Square Garden.
Parties and Events:
- 11 a.m.: Schwarzenegger to arrive at Planet Hollywood, 1540 Broadway.
- 11 a.m.: Federation of Republican Women honor Laura Bush, Marriott Marquis hotel, 1535 Broadway.
- 5 p.m.: Ronald Reagan Foundation Reception at Le Cirque restaurant, 455 Madison Avenue.
- 6 p.m.: Rock the Vote/French Connection U.K. party at SoHo store.