This story first appeared in the January 11, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The artisans sit at wooden tables three deep, piled high with python and cayman skins, stitching and folding as sewing machines whir in the background. It’s a scene typical in a luxury accessories designer’s workshop — except it’s being played out in New York, not Florence, and the honking from down below is coming from Seventh Avenue.
“Every business adviser I talked to told me not to make my product here, to do it in Italy, but I needed to oversee it myself,” says Carlos Falchi of his decision 30 years ago to open a New York atelier, the aforementioned eighth-floor workshop. Falchi may be the best-known luxury bag designer to elbow his way into the Garment District, but others have followed suit in recent years, from Be&D and Bulga to Lauren Merkin and the Brooklyn-based company Dunlin, which last year jumped from a Chinese manufacturer to several contractors just a subway ride away. So what, precisely, is the appeal of setting up shop in New York City? Designers admit the manufacturers here can be more expensive than those in Asia and often even Italy, but say the increase is offset by eliminating shipping costs (accessories production is almost universally cheaper in Asian factories). For most designers, the allure of crafting one’s luxury wares in New York is the same as what Falchi had in mind in the late Seventies: In a word, control.
Steve Dumain, a co-founder and now sole designer of Be&D, has been designing and producing a collection of luxury handbags out of a small atelier on 38th Street for nearly six years. He uses about 25 artisans, all of whom were trained by a New York craftsman he and his former partner, Be Inthavong, hired when the firm launched in 2004. “You can react very quickly to your business and to what’s happening in the industry,” says Dumain. He adds that, because the company produces about 5,000 units per year, larger European workshops were reluctant to take on a small company when he and Inthavong originally began looking for production partners. “In Italy, we were competing with brands like Miu Miu and Chloé [for manufacturing space], and we were put in the back of the line.”
In fact, young accessories designers are exactly the group that New York manufacturers are clamoring to work with, according to Andrew Ward, acting director of the Garment Industry Development Corporation (GIDC). “China is way too complicated to do smaller production runs, and you can do it in Italy, but the euro is exceptionally high to the dollar still,” says Ward. “The faster you can get your bag through production, the better. You can get two- or three-week turns on fancier bags here. And for a new designer, you can be around for any problems.”
For Lauren Merkin, who launched her line of bags, wallets and totes in 2004, the decision to produce in New York was motivated by the benefits of having a direct, no-plane-tickets-necessary relationship with the manufacturer. “We’re able to respond to orders and reorders really quickly,” she explains. Most designers don’t have the resources to hire and train their own labor, as Falchi and Dumain did, which means they look to organizations like the GIDC, designer acquaintances, even the Internet, for tips on where to produce. It is often not an easy process. Tracking down the best manufacturer in a city like New York “took us a long time,” says jewelry designer Kara Ross, who launched a handbag line in 2006. The local manufacturer she chose has also struggled to keep up with the increasing orders generated by the collection’s success. It has also been more difficult, Ross asserts, to source original, top-notch materials outside of Italy.
“I found my manufacturer on infomat.com,” says Merkin, referring to the fashion industry resource site. She won’t reveal the name of her manufacturer, who is based “in the West 30s,” because the firm produces only her line. Indeed, most designers interviewed for this story were reluctant to share their resources, for fear of losing them to competing upstart designers. Ward, however, offered a list of producers he passes along to designers (see sidebar below). “We’re all in such a seasonal business, there’s that crunch time when you’re fighting for resources,” Merkin explains. “You want to make sure you have a good relationship, because [the manufacturer] is going to put their resources toward where they think the volume is going to come from.”
That’s what Shiho Nagashima, a co-founder of Dunlin, was worrying about when she moved production from China to New York late last year. Because Nagashima produces only about 400 bags a year (some of which retail for up to $2,200), the travel to China — and struggle to communicate with manufacturers looking past her shoulder for the next big order — became inefficient. “It’s much easier to tell people what you want here,” Nagashima says. “Even if you just go chat every day with the supervisor and the workers, it makes a difference in making sure things are perfect.” As Natalia Konovalova, the creative director of Bulga, which is produced out of an atelier in Chelsea, puts it, “I’m based here, so why would I go anyplace else? The resources are here; you just have to look beyond the stigma.”
Ah, yes — the label factor. Do consumers, especially these days, want to plunk down hundreds, maybe thousands, for bags that say “Made in New York”? Retailers — after one of the worst fiscal years in recent memory — are confident they do. “We have a democratic approach to the origin of the product as long as it has substantial quality,” says Beth Kanfer, fashion director of women’s accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Assuming quality is achieved, I don’t think [the consumer] is looking for origin.” At the mere mention of label bias, Carlos Falchi shakes his head. “People are surprised that this quality comes out of here” — Falchi gestures toward his workroom — “but it makes us different. And then they think we’re cool.”