NEW YORK — Beyond demonstrating how to survive a pandemic, Ferrara Manufacturing’s chief operating officer Gabrielle Ferrara champions American-made goods and New York City’s Garment District, just as her parents have.
While pandemic-related safety restrictions are easing and remote workers are grappling with the looming reality of returning to their office desks, the Manhattan-based executive has weathered the past 15 months in the city by adapting to the needs at hand. Instead of laying off workers, the company has strengthened its team by 45 employees.
Much of that upswing is due to a federal government order for 17 million face masks, one of the first to be filled through the American Rescue Plan. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand toured Ferrara Manufacturing’s facility last Sunday to see its setup and to meet Workers United members. In an interview Tuesday, Ferrara said workers were proud to have her visit, since many of them are putting their kids through college by working on the masks and other Made in the USA products.
“There are a lot of personal journeys that are impacted by our decisions as a country to invest in American manufacturing. We’re very proud to be made in the USA and we hope to see continued support from this administration,” Ferrara said.
As a sign of the firm’s strength, there are plans to open a second plant, a 35,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City. That is expected to open in the fourth quarter. Having invested in custom-fit technology, that factory will specialize in custom products such as a custom suit with a custom lining.
Founded in 1987 by Carolyn and Joseph Ferrara, the company has always focused on manufacturing and specializes in tailored garments for high-end luxury brands. Ralph Lauren has been a longtime client. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi and Norma Kamali are among the companies that have relied on Ferrara. Two years ago Ferrara convinced her parents to return to the business full-time by reminding them what they built was really amazing. The younger Ferrara said, “It’s been really fun being in the second generation of the business and seeing all the different ways that we can rethink American manufacturing.”
Instead of downsizing during the pandemic, Ferrara employs 120 people compared to its typical count of 75. Its mask program and PPE division led to more hires. “We’re all New Yorkers here at Ferrara Manufacturing, and we’re proud of our New York history, especially connected to the Garment District. It was scary in New York in March and April last year,” Ferrara said.
After receiving “a lot of phone calls” from government officials, who explained there was a shortage of PPE for health care workers in the city, Ferrara activated the supply chain that it has been working with for decades to identify sources of protective fabrics and materials that it could then convert in the Garment District into hospital gowns. In March 2020, Ferrara Supply Division was launched to deal with the PPE shortages.
More of a mission than a business strategy, Ferrara said, “We were very focused that we got as many gowns out as possible.”
During the first few months of the pandemic, the company was essentially 100 percent dedicated to PPE and protective garments. That was a dramatic shift for a company that had never stopped making suits or jackets in its history, Ferrara said. All of its orders were put on pause until New York City “got to a safer place,” PPE shortages stabilized and Ferrara could “with good conscious presume our normal business operations,” she said.
Currently, the company is 99 percent committed to mask production and normal operations will have a more balanced approach once the contract is fulfilled. Its additional hiring would not have happened without the support of Gillibrand, an advocate of Made in the USA products. Eager to keep as many people as possible employed once the mask contract is fulfilled, the company is looking for additional contracts and opportunities.
As apparel production in China has come back on line, the PPE market is becoming more price-sensitive and buying patterns are returning to typical players, whereas last March the demand for PPE made price less of an issue. “A lot of Made in the USA product is always going to be a little more expensive than made-elsewhere product,” she said.
In March, only 10 percent of Manhattan office workers had returned to their offices and with Garment District hotels housing some of the city’s impoverished residents, the area is noticeably changed. “It’s been really tough to see this neighborhood transform. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of hope for reinvigoration especially around the Garment District and with some of the investment programs that the city was making. The pandemic has really hit hard the fashion industry and the small businesses that operate in the Garment District. We’ve seen a lot of businesses go out of business. We feel very strongly about the Garment District and its importance to the fashion industry. It’s been really tough.”
To try to turn things around, Ferrara said the hope is that federal, city or state contracts “could help reinvest in the garment industry and the fashion industry in New York City, which is so important to creativity and our local economy.” Noting the neighborhood’s base of people who know how to make clothes, there needs to be a better organization to promote the Garment District’s capabilities to help secure public and private contracts, as well as businesses, Ferrara said. That would help to ensure that highly skilled and specialized businesses will be around for the next emergency, when protective clothing or something else may be needed quickly, she said.
Workers rolling racks of new clothes used to be the norm in the Garment District, the heart of which stretches largely between Fifth and Ninth Avenues from 34th Street to 42nd Street. Design, production, wholesale and other elements of production can be sourced in the area. In recent years, several designers and brands have opted for other pockets of the city and increasingly more nonfashion companies have moved into the neighborhood.
As of 2019, there were 321 apparel manufacturers in the district compared to 366 in 2018, according to the most recent figures provided by the New York State Department of Labor. There were 808 apparel manufacturers 20 years ago.
Noting how the Garment District houses fabric shops, notion shops, trimmings stores and factories, Ferrara said, “It is always fun bringing people upstairs to our factory. They can’t believe we have a 15,000-square-foot factory here in the Garment District just an elevator ride away. There’s a magic in New York City that way. You never know what us hiding upstairs in all these different skyscrapers. There’s a real community and ecosystem right under your nose, when you’re walking around in the 30s on the West Side of Manhattan.”
The fallout from the pandemic shutdown, however, is evident in the fact “that a ton of businesses have gone out of business. If the Garment District wasn’t in a crisis mode before the pandemic, it definitely is now. And [there’s] that risk of completely going away. That would be a truly shocking thing for the fashion industry. The Garment District has been the pillar of operations for the fashion industry for the last century. It’s really at risk of finally — just poof — going away like the Flower District did,” Ferrara said. “I know it seems like for the person, who is not in the fashion industry, ‘Who cares about a bunch of businesses that sew clothes?’ But it’s going to have a real impact on the fashion industry and a bunch of other industries that no one ever thinks about. For example, there are trucking companies that support all the logistics and coffee shops that sell coffee to employees. There are small restaurants that service all the sewing operators with cuisine from all of their various countries. There’s just a lot of activity that is tied into the Garment District businesses. When that goes away, it will also blot away the character of New York.”
Asked about First Lady Jill Biden’s policy not to discuss the clothes that she wears, Ferrara said she strongly believes that women should not have to talk about their clothes and focus more on their actions. “As a fashion person, it is great to support Made in the USA product. I think there is a balance of the two. That’s a tough call. Why don’t we talk about what [President Joe] Biden is wearing? It’s a bit of a double standard.”
As for discussing the first lady’s fashion choices in relation to supporting small businesses or buying American-made goods, as opposed to her favorite trends, Ferrara said explaining the whys of what she chooses to wear could be an appropriate approach. “We’d love to dress the first lady. I know a lot of other small businesses that specialize in Made in the USA product would really benefit from someone as prominent as the first lady to be wearing their clothes. It’s a balance but that’s a decision that she’ll have to make,” Ferrara said.