After decades of debating how to modernize the Garment District and revive the neighborhood’s apparel manufacturing, industry specialists are working toward realizing those plans.
Eight months after the New York City Council approved the district’s rezoning, the Garment District Alliance’s special program committee met Wednesday to review 22 proposals to rejuvenate local production. The GDA has as much as $25 million to fund programs that support manufacturing and fashion production in the area over the next 10 years. GDA’s president Barbara Blair, the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s president Steven Kolb, Stan Herman, Yeohlee Teng and the Launch Collective’s Rob Spira were said to be among the 12-member group that reviewed 22 proposals during a two-hour meeting Wednesday including one presented by the CFDA. About eight have been eliminated and four leading ones will be recommended to collaborate to create a stronger option that avoids redundancy. Blair declined to identify those four parties.
The next step follows last year’s landmark decision to free up parameters that were put in place in 1987. Mayor Ed Koch’s administration had established the district at that time, mandating that Garment District landlords add a square foot of garment space for every square foot removed for some other use. The new rezoning was supported by the city’s Economic Development Corp. and the Garment District Alliance Business Improvement District, which more or less covers the area bordered by 35th to 41st Streets and Fifth to Ninth Avenues in Manhattan, which they feel would benefit the local economy.
Blair said, “One of the things we have been hearing over and over for many years is that a number of the factories in the Garment District look like they came out of the 1950s or something. The idea is, ‘Could the proposers create programming to try to work directly with those factories to get them up to speed in terms of marketing to the design communities so that more production is given to them?’ Many of these factories don’t even have an e-mail [address] so you can’t even communicate with them.”
The first request for proposals was put out several months ago, and others will be posted every six months to a year on an ongoing basis, depending on how much is spent. The plan is to have a rolling-type admission, based on the number of proposals that are submitted. A number of the 22 in the first round would extend for two or three years. With a total of $25 million, the plan is to spend up to $2.5 million a year contingent on the proposals that are submitted, their expense and subsequent success rates and impact on the industry. “We’re not just going to keep funding things year after year, if they aren’t working. That’s really just throwing good money after bad,” Blair said.
Funded twice a year by the City of New York in July and in January, those funds would be distributed on a rolling basis based on the proposals that come in, Blair said. “The idea is what can we and proposers do to assure the sustainability and the robustness of local manufacturing in the Garment Districts? What are programs that are actually going to have positive outcomes to make these businesses grow? That is the end goal.”
In order to try to achieve that, business skills-building would be offered, not on a mentoring level but more as a one-off to help update existing old business models, Blair said. “The question is, could you go in with expertise to get them more up into the contemporary world?”
Consumers’ interest in American-made goods and savvy marketing on the part of domestic manufacturers have helped to spike sales for American Giant, Reformation, BLDWN and others. Reshoring is catching on with larger conglomerates as well. Walmart has reportedly made a commitment to source an additional $250 billion in products made, assembled or grown in the U.S. over 10 years ending in 2023.
Speaking hypothetically, Blair noted how a proposer could be in the program for 10 years with a continually successful initiative, whereas another may wind down after 18 months without any impact. A subcommittee is being formed to review the four strongest proposals but the next meeting has not yet been scheduled. As a sign of the times, some have taken to calling the area the Fashion District versus the more dated Garment District — whether or not that will stick is another matter of discussion.
Teng said, “The initiatives are to reinvigorate both the district and the industry. Every effort is being made to build that out. Right now we are in a reviewing phase of the RFPs. It’s important that a differentiation is made between tactical needs and strategic needs. There is a lot of work ahead for us to identify the RFPs and the different time frames. There are initiatives for the immediate, and initiatives that need years to build out.”
Seventh Avenue’s “Walk of Fame” is also up for a renovation, with Blair hoping that the CFDA will take on that project. In addition, the neighborhood’s Pentagram-designed giant needle threading a button sculpture is about to be demolished and replaced with a modern stand-alone sculpture designed by Local Projects with further development by UAP New York. The impetus to replace the Pentagram sculpture, which was erected in 1995, was due to another do-over — eliminating the Garment District Alliance information booth. “That will be part of the branding and messaging of what this neighborhood is all about. It’s twofold — the neighborhood identity of the Fashion District and almost hand-to-hand combat with the manufacturers to make sure that they remain viable and sustainable in the neighborhood,” Blair said.
The area has experienced a transformation with an influx of business-to-business and creative services, nonprofits, hotels and restaurants. Levi’s recently opened an office but only five percent of the tenants are fashion-related companies, with Uber and multiple WeWorks a few of the new additions, Blair said. With the strongest job numbers in years — 195,000 currently versus 64,000 in 1995, the aim is to highlight the neighborhood’s multidimensional image. In addition, people access information with their smartphones or other digital devices so information booths are unquestionably a thing of the past. Once unveiled on the northeast corner of West 39th Street and Seventh Avenue, the new sculpture will be less obtuse, easing up pedestrian congestion on what is a briskly trafficked area.
A CFDA spokesman acknowledged an interview request for Kolb Wednesday, but one was not arranged.
Herman said, “Anything that brings the spotlight back onto bringing manufacturing back to the Garment District and New York is a worthwhile project. This is a very worthwhile project.”
He added, “Steven [Kolb] is a mover-and-shaker in all this. The CFDA is an important factor. Of course, we’ve worked over the years trying to bring this whole manufacturing sector to life again. He’s well-versed in this.”