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New York City’s Garment Center Revs Up

Once the hub of American apparel manufacturing, the district is at the heart of the revival movement, as well.

A Stoll knitting machine being delivered to Keff NYC's factory on West 36th Street.
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WWD Special Report issue 09/05/2012

As Made in the USA products continue to gain ground with consumers, domestic manufacturers are stepping up their commitment.

New York’s Garment Center, once the hub of American apparel manufacturing, is at the heart of the revival movement, as well.

The nonprofit Save the Garment Center now lists an assortment of resources for apparel labels that want to manufacture in New York, and the new Web site, keepinitlocal.org, was created to help emerging designers do just that.

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Even at trade shows like Designers & Agents, locally made lines promote themselves as Made in the USA labels. At this month’s Sourcing at MAGIC show, the U.S. Department of Commerce dedicated more space to and an even bigger focus on Made in USA, with 40 companies represented. Save the Garment Center executive director Erica Wolf, who also works for Nanette Lepore, another big supporter of U.S.-made goods, was among the speakers at a one-day seminar there geared to stimulate manufacturing.

Gary Wassner, co-chief executive officer of factoring firm Hilldun Corp., which works with 350 fashion firms, said, “More than ever, people are asking us for local resources. They are finding it more expensive and more difficult to source overseas, and the quality of production in China is going down. They also need to be in their factories more frequently to get their products quicker. Every day somebody is asking us how they can bring production or some part of their production back.”

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The U.S. is expected to see a manufacturing renaissance within the next five years, according to a report released this spring by the Boston Consulting Group. With wages in China climbing at an annual rate of about 17 percent and the value of the yuan also on the rise, the gap between American and Chinese wages is narrowing. In addition, government incentives in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama are making these and several states more competitive alternatives for companies with U.S. clients.

There are 7,100 apparel manufacturers within New York’s Garment District and 284 contractors for all different kinds of production, according to Susan Chin, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space. Citywide, there are about 28,000 manufacturers, making fashion the leading manufacturing sector in the city. Having just completed the final part of its “Made in Midtown” study, Chin’s group hopes the results will help to preserve, maintain and improve the 1.1 million square feet in the Garment District that are earmarked for apparel manufacturing.

The neighborhood has also gotten a lift from an influx of different firms.

Fashion Center Business Improvement District executive director Barbara Randall said, “The good news is that there has been a growth in Fashion District jobs that has outpaced the growth in both Manhattan and New York City [overall] — that includes fashion- and nonfashion-related jobs. There are currently about 4,500 manufacturers in the district, according to a survey commissioned by the FCBID.”

In the wake of the dust-up over Ralph Lauren’s Made in China opening-ceremony uniforms for American athletes at the London Olympic Games and the brand’s — as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s — commitment to make the 2014 team’s uniforms domestically, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) has introduced a “Buy America” plan to ensure that the federal government purchases apparel that is 100 percent American made. Lepore, an Ohio native who has helped champion New York-made goods for years, is lending her support.

Far from the city but symbolic of the revival mood, Faribault Woolen Mill Co., which reopened last year after a two-year hiatus, has hired 80 workers since October and will add 50 more this year. Dating back to 1865, the company’s Minnesota factory was revived by cousins Paul and Chuck Mooty, who both came out of retirement — Paul was an attorney and Chuck served as chairman and ceo of Dairy Queen — to help recharge the local economy.

“This was a vacant mill. Everything was tagged and ready to be shipped to Pakistan,” said Mich Berthiaume, vice president of sales. “Before our looms were even running again, I had calls from clients saying, ‘Promise me that we can get everything domestically. We need Made in America products.’”

A sign of the increasing interest in Made in the USA goods, Keff NYC, a 7.500-square-foot knitting factory owned by industry veterans Ricky Schiffer and Leonard Keff, opened a knitting factory last month in the Garment District at 142 West 36th Street, feeling the time had come to bring such manufacturing back to the city.

Caravan Stylist Studio houses an array of locally made labels, including Tucker, Callula Lillibelle, Dana-Maxx, Primary NY, Synderla, Quincy and Kim Hicks. After people started requesting Made in the USA clothing, owner Claudine DeSola rounded up 20 celebrities to shoot a video encouraging others to support New York manufacturing and the Save the Garment Center campaign.