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NEW YORK — Frustrated that talks with city officials about the Garment Center’s rezoning have stalled, designers and union officials staged a Midtown rally Tuesday to try to rev up interest in their cause.
For years, city officials and other interested parties have debated behind closed doors how best to modernize the neighborhood without losing its manufacturing core, but resolutions have yet to be finalized, or even presented for the public to consider. An influx of creative companies, such as advertising and graphic design firms, have moved into the area, as well as hotels, cafes and restaurants that are more than a notch up than the mom-and-pop shops and delis that used to have a lock hold.
But nearly a year to the day that a similar rally attracted 750 supporters and Yeohlee Teng described as “a game changer,” activists were once again rallying the troops Tuesday near the Needle and the Button sculpture at 39th Street and Seventh Avenue. This year’s installment drew 300 people, according to police officers on the scene.
While Anna Sui, Yigal Azrouël, Nanette Lepore, Steven Alan, Malia Mills, Charles Nolan and Teng represented the fashion contingency, a few onlookers wondered why more designers were not present, especially since the event on Seventh Avenue, near West 39th Street, was literally steps from 550 Seventh Avenue, base camp for plenty of big-name designers. The absence of anyone from the Council of Fashion Designers of America was also noted by a few.
Those who did show up were ardent about their support. Right off the bat Robert Savage, Lepore’s husband and the event’s emcee, shouted to the crowd, “We’re here today to save jobs.” That was a welcome theme for another speaker, Bruce Raynor, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and president of Workers United. “We’re now in the worst recession America has had in 70 years. The way you come out of a recession is you create jobs, not destroy them.”
Keeping New York City factory workers employed, salvaging America’s middle class and maintaining America’s dominance on the worldwide stage were themes reinforced by various speakers. Organizers noted how there are currently more than 800 fashion companies in New York City, employing 175,000 people, and that figure is larger than the New York City publishing, advertising and film industries combined.
Lepore told the crowd how her company’s production is responsible for 600 jobs within a few blocks. Speaking more broadly of the area’s impact, she said, “With over 24,000 manufacturing jobs — these middle-class jobs are indispensable to the $10 billion that the fashion industry brings annually to our New York City economy. This number can only grow if we get the policies in place to bring production back to our shores. We aren’t asking for a bailout. What we want is our local, state and federal government to acknowledge our presence by working with designers and manufacturers to develop policies that protect the factories in the Garment Center. Incentives for businesses producing in NYC, incentives for consumer purchases of items made in NYC, tax-free zones, trade shows for the manufacturers and suppliers to showcase their skills and resources…the list goes on…we just need to work together.”
Sources familiar with the negotiations said the main deterrent has been that neither party — one comprised primarily of designers, property owners and manufacturers, and the other made up of city officials — has put forward a concrete rezoning plan to be discussed.
Reached after the rally, a spokeswoman for New York City’s Economic Development Corp. said Tuesday, “We are committed to preserving the Garment Center’s role as the leading place for fashion designers and believe it is essential to New York City’s economy. But any plan to strengthen the Garment Center will only be successful if designers, property owners and manufacturers in the district are willing to come to the table and work with the city in a serious way to find a solution.”
Afterward, Sui said there have been signs of progress even though negotiations have waned. More New Yorkers are aware of the issue, and a wider range of people have gotten involved, she said.
“Things have certainly changed in this area. It didn’t look this good two years ago, and I think that’s progress,” Sui said. “I also think The Design Trust’s [Made in Midtown] study definitely opened up a lot of eyes, and we learned from that.”
Azrouël said he maintains 70 percent of his production in the city, and would keep even more here if he could. Manhattan’s lack of quality knitwear manufacturers, for example, has forced him to make some goods elsewhere, he said. Keeping as much production as he can in local factories is as much about helping the city as it is anything else, he said.
The Made in New York City label also has cachet. So much so that the designer made a point of sewing “Made in New York City” labels into each style in his new contemporary collection, Cut25.
“For me, the Made in New York City label is even more important than Made in America,” he said.
Others used the event to champion aspiring business owners. Swimwear designer Malia Mills told the crowd how she would not have been able to realize her dream of starting her own company in New York had there not been a Garment Center. Now, 17 years later, she has 10 stores, including three in New York City, and has broadened her range to include ready-to-wear and accessories. But Mills’ emphasis was securing the neighborhood for future like-minded entrepreneurs who come to New York with a dream of opening a business here.
The CFDA did not respond for comment Tuesday regarding the Garment Center rally. CFDA officials said Wednesday that a representative attended the event in lieu of executive director Steven Kolb and associate executive director Lisa Smilor, who were traveling for business.