Group Touts Importance of NYC Makers

The Fiscal Policy Institute reports on the state of New York apparel makers and outlines some strategies that have been successful for city producers.

Every New York City apparel job produces 1.5 other jobs in the city, according to a soon-to-be-released

Every New York City apparel job produces 1.5 other jobs in the city, according to a soon-to-be-released

WWD Staff

NEW YORK — With domestic apparel manufacturing employment continuing to decline, some observers have wondered whether there’s any future in U.S. production.

This story first appeared in the August 19, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In an effort to answer that question, the Fiscal Policy Institute has commenced a two-part study looking at the state of New York’s makers that outlines some strategies that have been successful for producers in the city.

An initial report, called “NYC’s Garment Industry: A New Look?” is due to be released publicly early next week. A preview copy of the 21-page document provided to WWD offered an outline of the city’s production base, an explanation of why manufacturing jobs are important to the city economy, and five competitive approaches that local manufacturers and contractors are taking.

The group expects to release a more extensive and detailed report on the apparel production business this fall, according to Sarah O’Connor Crean, the FPI research analyst who served as primary author of the report.

“The purpose of this report was to set up a number of ways in which people had demonstrated that the industry could sustain itself,” she explained. “There are areas where New York City companies have created successful zones for themselves.”

In an interview at the institute’s Midtown offices last week, deputy director James Parrott said the group also wanted to show city government officials that manufacturing in general, and apparel manufacturing in particular, is an important part of the city economy.

“It is important to keep a diverse economy in New York City, but the tendency has been to see the ongoing decline in employment numbers [for apparel manufacturing] and assume this is an industry in decline that is already well on its way out the door,” Parrot said.

According to New York State Labor Department data, in July there were 32,600 people employed in apparel manufacturing in New York City. That’s down 20.5 percent from last year.

Still, Parrott argued, industries ranging from the devastated dot-coms to the more stable securities and advertising fields have had major rounds of layoffs in recent years as well.

“This has been a very hard economy for the city in general,” he said, arguing that people can’t write off industries just because they fall on hard times.

“The city economy has become increasingly dependent, and I would say overdependent, on the financial services sector,” he said, adding that has tied the city to Wall Street’s cyclical swings. “We have a very diverse population in the city and not everyone can be an investment banker.”

The report said the FPI’s research has shown that every $1 million of apparel production in the city represents 16.2 jobs — 10.6 direct employees of the apparel and textile sectors, and another 5.6 jobs in support areas like business services and indirect supplies. The report said each apparel job in the city creates another 1.5 jobs, as off-duty apparel workers patronize other businesses, like restaurants and gas stations.

The report found that extra 1.5 jobs exceeds the 1.2 other jobs produced by retail employment and the 1.4 other jobs produced by health services.

The report, which draws on interviews with 15 industry officials and observers as well as press reports and government data, also emphasized the industry’s important role in providing employment for immigrants and bringing them into the workforce. It noted the industry’s entrepreneurial nature, showing with Census Bureau data that in 2001 75 percent of the cut-and-sew facilities in New York employed fewer than 20 people.

Suggesting ways to revitalize New York’s industry, the report offered five ideas. They were:

  • “Improve local production capabilities,” meaning that contractors should broaden their scope and when possible offer full-package production services.
  • “Build on short-cycle production,” with makers focusing on reorder business and fast-fashion styles.
  • “Develop flexible retailing,” a corollary to the short-cycle model, suggesting that retailers could benefit by working on shorter turnaround times with goods produced in New York.
  • “Integrate design and production,” meaning that more contractors could join forces with high-end or up-and-coming designers who could benefit from in-house production.
  • “Develop export capacity,” suggesting that marketing the “Made in New York” label could make products more desirable abroad.

The report also noted that apparel manufacturing remains concentrated in Manhattan, with 56 percent of industry employment there. Crean said her research has shown that many Manhattan contractors regard their location as crucial and are visited daily by their customers.

Overall, Parrott and Crean said they hoped the study would influence the debate on the future of the West Side of Manhattan. As a part of the redevelopment of the rail yards along the Hudson River, groups including the Fashion Center Business Improvement District have backed a lifting of the special zoning rules that set aside half the space in side-street buildings for apparel manufacturing.

Crean complained that zoning is poorly enforced, noting that the city eliminated the budget for inspectors a decade ago.

The FPI was founded in 1991 and originally drew most of its funding from labor unions. Today, it is largely supported by donations by charitable foundations, Parrott said.

Crean said the second report would total about 100 pages and draw on interviews with about 80 people.