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NEW YORK — On a cold Monday morning in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a handful of seamstresses bent over their machines in a small, tidy apparel factory sewing up a run of jeans. In an adjacent office, the facility’s owners, Raul Arevalo and Bradley Schmidt, ate pizza for lunch delivered from nearby Roberta’s, the local culinary gem in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood.
This story first appeared in the December 12, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Arevalo and Schmidt design and operate a men’s wear label called Cadet, with three stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well as in the East Village and Meatpacking District in Manhattan. Central to their business plan was opening this production facility in Brooklyn, which manufactures all of their garments while also producing for clients like Kenneth Cole, Nautica and a number of independent New York designers.
“We have a nice space that is bright and airy and open. To establish something like this in Manhattan would be outrageously expensive,” said Arevalo of the 3,500-square-foot space at 56 Bogart Street, a building mostly occupied by artists’ studios and galleries. The facility, which opened in December 2011, employs nine sewers, four pressers and trimmers and additional cutters and patternmakers.
The Cadet factory is one of the newest apparel manufacturing facilities in a borough that is experiencing a spate of activity in fashion production. Drawn to its lower costs and proximity to Manhattan, brand owners, factory operators and real estate developers are turning New York’s most populous borough — already a magnet for trend-conscious consumers — into a growing hub for apparel and accessories manufacturing.
The total number of apparel manufacturing establishments in Brooklyn inched up to 269 in 2012, up from 259 in 2011 and 261 in 2010, according to New York State Department of Labor statistics. (The number is down from the 2008 figure of 319.)
Employment in apparel manufacturing in Brooklyn reached 3,587 jobs in 2012, up from 3,151 in 2011 and 2,905 in 2010. (Again, the number is down from 3,684 in 2008.)
Among the most ambitious plans for Brooklyn is Manufacture New York’s blueprint for establishing a 160,000-square-foot manufacturing complex for fashion companies in the Liberty View Industrial Plaza building on the Sunset Park waterfront. Bob Bland, founder of Manufacture New York, is aiming to create a home for about 30 companies that will produce their lines on-site, in spaces ranging from 1,000 to 20,000 square feet. Her plan is to bring an array of different businesses related to fashion manufacturing, such as screen printers, label makers and packing and shipping firms, to create an integrated supply and services chain in a single building.
Bland has an enthusiastic backer in Salmar Properties, which acquired the long-empty 1.2 million-square-foot building in 2011 from the city for $10 million and has spent another $70 million renovating and upgrading the interiors to meet 2008 code, the highest standard in industrial buildings. “Every elevator, toilet and wire is new. There’s central air conditioning,” explained Marvin Schein, a co-owner of Salmar Properties.
Bland signed a letter of intent in July to lease an entire floor in the eight-floor building. She is currently in the process of securing funding for the high-concept project from New York’s Economic Development Corp., along with other sources. She and Schein are confident the funding will come through. “A project of this size needs to be a public-private partnership,” explained Bland. “At the time we receive that funding, the build-out will commence,” which is forecast to take six to eight months.
“Brooklyn has become very popular but there really isn’t a good place to manufacture,” said Schein. “Everything is old and rundown and the infrastructure is 100 years old. There’s a need for modern space.”
Adjacent to Liberty View Industrial Center is another group of 16 buildings zoned for manufacturing, collectively called Industry City, comprising 6 million square feet of space.
In August, a group of investors — Jamestown Properties, Belvedere Capital and Angelo, Gordon & Co. — acquired a 50 percent stake in the properties from the Schron and Fruchthandler families with the goal of upgrading the facilities and luring technology, fashion and other advanced manufacturing companies to the massive complex. The new partners plan to invest about $100 million in modernizing the buildings, which are over 100 years old and lacking amenities.
“Design and fashion manufacturing is one of our target sectors and something that is growing,” said Andrew Kimball, chief executive officer of Industry City. He was the president of the Brooklyn Navy Yard for eight years and was recruited to Industry City this past summer by its new investors to oversee its transformation.
Among the current fashion tenants at Industry City are Rag & Bone, Aston Leather, That’s My Girl, Double Take Fashions and Lana Stepul. The companies have spaces that range in size from 1,000 to 20,000 square feet, said Kimball.
The 13,000-square-foot Rag & Bone space houses the company’s in-house custom fabrication team, which constructs tables, shelving, mirrors, frames and benches for the brand’s retail stores. The division moved into Industry City in July 2011.
“Where there is regular and intense demand is for the small spaces, with smaller creative types doing design and prototyping, and, in some cases, sample and production lines in them,” said Kimball. He pointed out that the Brooklyn Navy Yard is fully occupied — Gilt operates a warehouse and photo studio there — with a long waiting list of companies seeking space there. Additionally, there are very few available vacancies in the industrial district in DUMBO, aka Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In contrast, Industry City is only 67 percent occupied at this time.
“That occupancy rate is going up rapidly, with the new management here rehabbing the spaces. We definitely have more fashion companies seeking space. I think it’s driven by people’s interest in local and authentic goods, particularly Brooklyn-branded goods. It’s something that is really growing,” said Kimball.
He and his team are striving to move away from storage and warehouse tenants to high-employment manufacturing tenants centered on the innovation economy. “The main measurement of that is in jobs. About 2,400 people work here today and we hope to make it over 10,000 people [by 2020],” he noted.
To raise its fashion profile, Industry City recently hosted a 22,000-square-foot pop-up marketplace, called Fashion on the Factory Floor, which was open to the public and featured 50 independent New York City designers. The event took place on the two weekends following Thanksgiving and was presented by a range of organizations with an interest in promoting local fashion, including Made in NYC, Con Edison, the Citi Foundation, Manufacture New York, Save the Garment Center, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and The Emerging Designer.
To help continue the revitalization of the Sunset Park area and make Industry City a more attractive place to work, Kimball has a list of improvements he hopes the new administration of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will implement. “The roads in the area haven’t been rebuilt in decades and there are storm water runoff issues. We would love to see a ferry service stop here. We’d love to see the Brooklyn Greenway, which is the bike and pedestrian path, extended here. And we want to see the pedestrian experience improved, and made safer, under the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” he rattled off.
In the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard area, Brooklyn Industries makes bags and some T-shirts and cut-and-sew knits at its Hall Street warehouse and production facility. Its brand name practically requires it to produce in the hipster-beloved borough but there are challenges — particularly the high-cost of making products anywhere in New York City.
The company’s products that are made in Brooklyn bear a special hangtag, so consumers are aware of their origin — although Funk isn’t sure that it actually increases sales. “We want and need to pay our sewers a living wage, so that means that product is priced at a premium. The question is, ‘How do you have that conversation with consumers?’” pondered Lexy Funk, cofounder and ceo of Brooklyn Industries, which operates 17 stores in New York, Chicago and Portland, Ore. “There’s so much pressure from the market in terms of price point. I believe that local manufacturing is the wave of the future and I really believe in it, but it has to happen holistically within the marketplace.”
For its leather bags, Brooklyn Industries outsources production to another Brooklyn-based manufacturer who recently moved from Manhattan to the outer borough. “One of the challenges with making bags yourself is that’s hard to find sewers for leather and bags,” noted Funk.
The company makes about 15 percent of its products in Brooklyn, with the rest manufactured in China, Peru and other areas of the U.S., including Los Angeles and Pennsylvania. “Prices coming out of China are getting more and more expensive, especially as our unit counts are not that high, so domestic manufacturing is becoming more attractive,” said Funk. “We can’t and don’t want to go to Indonesia or India; we don’t have the units. We are looking to bring 100 percent of our T-shirt production to Pennsylvania or Brooklyn. You are paying more for labor but less for shipping and duties.”
Throughout New York and the larger U.S., the macroeconomics of global manufacturing have drastically shrunk the manufacturing job base. The total number of manufacturing jobs in New York City across all industries has halved from 150,000 in 2001 to just over 75,000 in 2012, according to an October report by the New York City Economic Development Corp. That pace of decline exceeds national statistics, which show the U.S. lost 21.7 percent of all manufacturing jobs from 2002 to 2012.
On an upbeat note, those job losses in New York may have bottomed out: from 2011 to 2013, the number of manufacturing jobs in the city actually increased, with particular strength in the food sector. To help spur that upward trend, a new initiative called the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative was launched in September, spearheaded by Theory’s Andrew Rosen and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, with support from the city’s Economic Development Corp. and Ralph Lauren. The program provides grants to factories throughout the five boroughs that modernize their equipment and boost worker training.
“Although it is widely believed that New York City’s manufacturing sector has disappeared, it in fact has not….It has simply changed form. While our city is known for skyscrapers, behind the closed warehouse doors abundant in manufacturing districts, you can find manufacturers of chocolate, men’s clothing, home furniture and specialty drinks,” wrote the report’s authors. “The profile of manufacturers in New York City has changed; once dominated by large-scale plants serving the U.S. market, New York City’s current manufacturing sector is built on local demand and an export-worthy reputation. Small, technology-driven firms leverage strong ties to industries headquartered in New York City, such as theater, architecture, design, fashion and advertising.”
That point is stylishly illustrated at the Artemas Quibble workshop and production facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn. There, owners and designers Jason Ross and Natasha Chekoudjian craft small runs of metal jewelry and leather goods in three rooms of about 1,200 square feet total.
“My goal is to never create something that someone else can get elsewhere,” said Ross, showing a visitor how he hand made 2,500 metal grommets, incorporating them into about 150 belts. Ross cut a tube of metal using a band saw and hammered the grommet pieces into shape, using an angle grinder to polish them. A flame and a water bath were used to anneal the pieces, making them more workable, several times through the process.
“We develop our own methods of production. No one is teaching me how to do anything,” said Ross. “I do my own research and develop techniques using the scientific method and trial. I’m often wrong and I can curate through my mistakes.”
The duo has designed and supplied Donna Karan with jewelry, such as leather cuffs inlaid with metal work, for 10 seasons. They also sell their own line to high-end specialty stores like ABC Home, Urban Zen and Cristina Nicoletti.
Unfinished leather hung from the wall, and in a separate room two workers sat with masks over their faces as they dipped cloths into a dye, rubbing it onto belts. In the adjacent metal-working room, a large anvil dominated the center, with an array of hammers hung around it, ready for use. “I need three more anvils and then I’ll be on my way to being happy,” said Ross.
Also in Red Hook is the extensive manufacturing facility for the architectural hardware maker E.R. Butler & Co. Taking up half of an entire block, the 130,000-square-foot plant in five interconnected buildings mostly turns out luxury doorknobs, hinges, finials, escutcheons and the like. It also does a small, complementary business in fashion products like bejeweled accessories for Kiki de Montparnasse and silver and gold jewelry for Ted Muehling.
The company has been in the neighborhood since 1997 and owner Rhett Butler has seen the area evolve over the years. “We moved [from Manhattan] because we needed more space. People told us we’d have trouble as [Red Hook] was a bad neighborhood, with muggings,” remembered Butler. “In the last decade, a real community has built up, with great coffee and lunch places. It’s still pretty much off the grid, which is one of its strengths, but it’s become quite an awesome place to be.”
At the Cadet facility in Bushwick, the owners counted their local production prowess as central to their business plan. “Working in the industry for so many years, I’ve worked with many factories and always had issues with quality and fit,” said Arevalo, who worked as a technical designer for 20 years at companies including Abercrombie & Fitch, Club Monaco, American Eagle and Converse. “We thought the best way to have total control over quality and fit was to have our own production. It also allows us to react immediately — if we have a shirt and it sells out, we can remake the shirt and have it in stores in two weeks. If we did our production overseas, we would never be able to do that.”
There are some hurdles to working out of Brooklyn, especially its distance from the Garment District in Manhattan. The supply chain of fabric and trim suppliers — as well as repair facilities for broken machinery — is centered in Manhattan. “There are so many services that are based in the Garment District that support garment production,” said Schmidt.
Cadet has grown at a brisk clip since launching last year, opening its three stores in rapid succession. The company will launch wholesale sales for the first time for fall 2014 and will participate in its first trade show in January.
In Greenpoint, the Dynotex factory has been manufacturing women’s blouses, skirts, pants and blazers for the J. McLaughlin brand for 14 years, growing as their client has multiplied its store count. Dynotex, which employs about 20 people in a 7,000-square-foot space, also works with independent designers, such as M. Patmos and fledgling labels just starting out.
“A lot of designers need a lot of guidance. They don’t know very much about technical design,” said Alan Ng, owner of Dynotex.
Ng said Greenpoint offers very affordable space for manufacturing, at about $7 a square foot, compared to $10 a square foot in neighboring Long Island City. The drawback is a difficult commute for some workers, as the area is serviced solely by the G subway line.
The growing popularity of Brooklyn among residents and businesses alike is increasing real estate prices in many areas of the nouveau-hip borough.
“Years back, the key concern was crime — it was a terribly crime ridden area. Now, we have the opposite problem of crime, which is astronomic real estate value, which makes it difficult for businesses to move here and expand,” said Leah Archibald, executive director of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corp., a trade group for the area.
Archibald said a key priority for her was to urge the new de Blasio administration to refine the zoning rules in manufacturing areas that currently allow businesses like hotels and nightclubs to operate within them. “They don’t even need a special permit. What we are hoping to do is examine land use policy and rethink whether hotels and nightclubs are the right use in manufacturing zones,” she explained. “When these things move in, it really changes the character of the neighborhood in a rapid, immediate and permanent way. If we want to preserve these pockets of creative production in the city, we need to do something about it.”
One of the most venerable clothing manufacturers in Brooklyn — or anywhere, really — is Martin Greenfield Clothiers, located in Bushwick. The rising real estate prices in the once-sleepy area have made the four-floor building the tailored clothing company occupies — which dates back over 100 years — very valuable.
“If we didn’t own this building, we wouldn’t be able to be here,” said Jay Greenfield, a son of Martin Greenfield and a partner in the business. “Our landlord could have rented it out or sold it for more money than a clothing company could afford to pay for this space. If we were focused on money, we would have kicked ourselves out. It’s pressure that is on us on a daily basis — brokers and realtors and developers call us every single day. But our focus is on the clothing.”
The Martin Greenfield company employs 120 people, who produce 12,000 to 15,000 handmade suits a year, for a clientele that has included Presidents Obama and Clinton, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Colin Powell and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, among a host of other luminaries. Also on the client list are film and television productions, including shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Blacklist” and Baz Luhrmann’s recent big-screen remake of “The Great Gatsby.”
Greenfield’s bread-and-butter is making suits for brands like Brooks Brothers, Band of Outsiders, Rag & Bone, Public School and Ovadia & Sons, in addition to individual clients of its custom suit business. For about $1,000, Gilt customers can order off-the-rack suits online.
About 11 hours of handwork goes into each jacket and two hours into each pair of pants, with about 100 people handling each garment between their various stations. “We have people who specialize in each small area of production — there’s a person who sews breast welts all day long and he becomes very proficient,” said Tod Greenfield, the younger son of Martin Greenfield, of the assembly-line approach. “This allows us to produce quantity and yet maintain the hand tailoring. That is the whole key.”
The average worker in the plant has been with Martin Greenfield for 18 years. “The majority of our workers came as immigrants with skills and were able to put their kids through college working here. That’s what my father did,” said Tod Greenfield.
Martin Greenfield himself — who is 85 and a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps — is on the factory floor every day. “I like what I do and I think I do it well. That’s the place I feel at home,” he said. “The styles and the designs have changed, but our methods of making clothing have not changed.”