By  on October 14, 2011

NEW YORK — Unlike fashion, which pretty much lives and dies by speed, the Garment District has been nothing short of sluggish in terms of change. But the historic neighborhood and its fashion businesses may be about to get a much-needed makeover if recommendations from a new survey are adopted.

Consolidating manufacturing in nine buildings, tax credits for relocating to the area, freeing up zoning, pitching a Made in New York label, using vacant space for pop-up shops and financial incentives for entrepreneurs are some of the pointers spelled out in the Municipal Arts Society of New York’s new survey. MAS president Vin Cipolla will release these and other findings gleaned from “Fashioning the Future: NYC’s Garment District” at a press conference today at Rose Hall.

In an interview Thursday, Cipolla listed a few of what he viewed as the $55 billion industry’s top priorities — job protection, job creation, support for young designers and the integration of local design schools “starting with the premise that this is something worth saving.”

“If we lose our position as the fashion capital of the world, we will lose not only leading companies, but leaders in other areas,” Cipolla said. “One of the most interesting things about the fashion industry in New York and the Garment Center is it is such a complex ecosystem with so many different activities and facilities beyond fashion. What happens in the industry and the district spills over to so many areas of New York. It is hard to contemplate a New York where the industry and the Garment District are not preserved.”

Cipolla noted there are 165,000 fashion-related jobs in the five boroughs — 25,000-plus in the 10018 zip code alone — that generate $9 billion in annual wages. Fashion-related jobs make up 5 percent of the city’s workers, whereas media ones account for 5.1 percent and financial services comprise 5.6 percent. “We incentivize things we want to happen, why not this? Incentives are important tools for municipalities to use, but we need to look at creative industries, too.”

Rezoning, a touchy subject among tenants, landlords and city officials for years, was also addressed in the report. With Times Square to the north, Penn Station to the south and the Hudson Yards project’s residential and retail components in development to the west, the Garment District is in need of rezoning and updating to make the area more attractive to commuters and tourists alike, according to the report. The MAS’ recommendations range from financial ones to cosmetic ones, such as widening sidewalks in heavily-trafficked areas and jazzing up the area’s dingy sidewalks.

More interesting is the claim that the nine buildings with the most amount of manufacturing in the district could hold more than 1.4 million square feet of manufacturing space — sufficient for that amount of production currently being done, according to the study. This setup, however, would not require these particular nine buildings to be the only ones designated for garment manufacturing.

Another suggestion would involve setting up a tax increment finance mechanism for rezoned areas. Since property values would rise, owners would turn over a portion of the increased tax revenue to help manufacturers secure space. The additional money could help fund a bond that would finance the purchase of space by manufacturers or a nonprofit representing manufacturers to alleviate business displacement that would occur with rezoning.

Yeohlee Teng, who has long championed the need to save the Garment Center, said of the report, “It’s a very good opportunity for all stakeholders to work together for a bright future because everyone thinks of the Garment Center and says, ‘Ugh.’ But really there’s a vision and a challenge and together we can be even more effective.”

The MAS also suggested creating a program that offers benefits to designers who manufacture in the district or elsewhere in the city, potentially through a reduction or elimination of sales tax for goods bought in New York City. It noted how New York state has a tax incentive for New York-made films. In addition, the city offers free publicity on bus shelters for films made in Manhattan that meet certain criteria. “Expanding this campaign to garment manufacturing — particularly in the area around the Garment District and in key retail destinations — should also be explored,” the study contended.

With 48.8 million visitors passing through the city each year, there needs to be a more concerted effort to make them want to buy New York-made goods and visit the Garment Center, according to the report. Singling out DKNY’s and Brooklyn Industries’ success in marketing their companies’ ties to the city, Cipolla’s team suggested a Made in NYC label would appeal to shoppers. The aim would be to develop a campaign encouraging designers to use local businesses for sourcing and production and help them market those locally made products better. A recent survey conducted by American Express and the Harrison Group, a luxury research firm, found that 65 percent of affluent Americans try to buy local goods whenever possible. Designer Prabal Gurung said being a New York made label helped him break into China, according to the report.

Supporting entrepreneurs and small manufacturers — something singled out by the Made in Midtown study presented by the Design Trust for Public Space and the Council of Fashion Designers of America — is essential, Cipolla said. “Some people want to say, ‘It’s gone forever and it’s not coming back.’ We think that is a big mistake.”

Citing the effectiveness of the Italian Trade Commission to plug Italian-made products overseas, as well as the National Chamber for Italian Fashion and the Fédération Française de la Couture’s effort to develop and sell luxury products in noneuro areas, the report noted some domestic efforts. The Obama administration, for example, has the much-publicized goal to double exports by 2014. To achieve this, the U.S. Department of Commerce created the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee, which developed a strategy to increase exports.

Perhaps an easier way to get American-made clothes in front of non-Americans would be to make getting street permits for street closings easier and then holding fashion shows, including public ones, outdoors. That was another recommendation, as was the establishment of a visitor center or buyer center to give out-of-towners access to computers, meeting spaces and bathrooms.

And just as Stanford University has played a crucial role in establishing Silicon Valley, so too can New York-based design schools help elevate the Garment Center beyond hiring recent graduates or adopting innovations. Students and faculty can develop a fashion app highlighting Garment Center resources and help provide reviews for companies. Cipolla said, “So many aspects of why we love New York and live in New York are centered in design and style. Culture and art all seem to emanate from creating and building things. Even though manufacturing has left, there is so much here still made here.”

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