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Study: New York Garment Center Vital

Coauthors Sarah Williams of MIT and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett of USC the social networking app Foursquare to track the activity of New York’s fashion designers.

The Garment District remains a hub of activity for New York’s fashion designers, despite changes in manufacturing strategies, the impact of consolidation and shifts in the neighborhood’s personality.

This story first appeared in the February 6, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A new study released Wednesday from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy shows that nearly all the designers continue to conduct a significant portion of their business within the confines of the city’s historic Garment District.

Study coauthors Sarah Williams of MIT and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett of USC used the social networking app Foursquare to track the movements of fashion workers at apparel firms in the New York metropolitan area over a two-week period last year — an unprecedented use of social media and smartphones for such research.

The study found that 77 percent of all trips made by fashion designers across the region, and 80 percent of business-related trips, were logged within the boundaries of the Garment District, showing the important role of the district in the development of their products. Of the businesses visited in the district, defined by the boundaries of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, 42 percent were “manufacturing,” 36 percent were “supply,” 13 percent were “wholesale,” 7 percent were “other” and 2 percent were “design.”

“Previous research has argued that proximity matters, using interviews and empirical research as evidence, but this study is the first where we were able to track where the workers were going in real time,” said Williams. “The result was a minute-to-minute account of the interworking of the industry.”

The authors noted the research is particularly relevant given that New York Fashion Week is under way. It also adds new information to the long-term loss of manufacturing in the district and efforts to preserve it, as well as the change in the types of businesses that inhabit the district. Over the last decade or so, the percentage of companies in the district that are fashion firms has fallen below 50 percent, replaced by advertising, technology and health-care companies.

“You’re not just preserving eight blocks of Manhattan, nor is this some romantic throwback to the city’s history,” said Currid-Halkett. “Even in the 21st century, the benefits that we thought might be most exclusive to those in the Garment District actually spill over much more than we think across the metropolitan region, and on a daily basis. As cities, we should take these districts very seriously and invest in them as a very viable and impactful economic development and competitive advantage.”

Their study bears on the larger issue of proximity in urban economies, and suggests that having clusters of firms remains essential to economic activity — whether in New York or in rebuilding cities such as Detroit and Buffalo.

It also shows that space still matters, the researchers said. Economic clusters have long been shown to offer businesses economies of scale and scope, the benefit of creative synergies, shared resources and up-to-the-minute awareness of industry innovations, and intimate knowledge of competitors’ efforts.