NEW YORK — In the past few years, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has done a lot to try to preserve the Garment District’s fashion culture and future with programs like the CFDA Fashion Incubator and the “Made in Midtown” study.

This story first appeared in the January 31, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Its next move, however, is almost definitely going to stir up a hefty dose of controversy: The CFDA itself is leaving the Garment District.

On Friday, the organization signed a lease for a 9,310-square-foot office space at 65 Bleecker Street — the landmark Bayard-Condict Building located between Broadway and Lafayette Street and designed by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. The move, from 1412 Broadway where the CFDA has been located for more than 15 years, is expected to take place this summer, though an exact move-in date is still being determined.

Sitting in his Broadway office on Monday morning, Steven Kolb, the chief executive officer of the CFDA, explained the association’s reasons for the board-approved relocation, stressing repeatedly that it wasn’t a snub to the Garment District.

“Right now, if you look around, we are busting out of the seams,” Kolb said. “We can’t have any significant meetings here. Given the fact our lease is up next year and we have outgrown it, we started looking.

“When we went on that hunt, we were sensitive to neighborhoods,” he added. “Our intention was to look heavily here, and we considered buildings in the Garment District significantly in our search. The criteria by which we were finding space was ultimately based not on neighborhood, but what the best space for a functioning office for the CFDA was.”

The CFDA will take the entire 11th floor of the building, which can house offices and conference rooms and compares to the 4,200 square feet the organization currently occupies, which house the CFDA’s 12 employees as well as its several interns.

“We looked really deep in this neighborhood and when you look at the spaces in this neighborhood, we didn’t find anything suitable sizewise,” said Kolb. “There were a few sublets but they were too big and too complicated for us to take. Pricewise, comparatively, the landlord came in on a really good deal for the space we are getting.”

Kolb added that the negotiated deal includes a free space for a nine-month period, “which gives us the time to have the space ready.”

The CFDA worked with Robin Zendell of Retail Space Partners and Douglas Hand of Hand Baldachin & Amburgey LLP on the 10-year lease in the Shulsky Properties-owned building.

“We are extremely disappointed by the CFDA’s decision to leave the Garment Center,” said designer Nanette Lepore, who has long been involved in the efforts to preserve the Garment Center. “We only hope this does not signal the end of their previous support for New York City manufacturing and emerging American designers.”

Her husband, Bob Savage, who has also been instrumental in the Save the Garment Center campaign, said, “The question goes back to the CFDA. With this move, are they saying they are turning their back on the Garment Center? I am concerned that this is a signal that the Garment Center is not relevant to the CFDA. ”

Yeohlee Teng, a proponent of preserving the Garment Center and the Made in Midtown initiative and a CFDA board member, said she had mixed feelings about the decision. “Because I feel the fashion district and the CFDA is one community, only time will tell how the move will affect the neighborhood,” she said. “I can’t really predict what will happen.”

Anthony Lilore, a founder of the Save the Garment Center initiative, said, “Symbolically, I do think it is a black eye, but the New York Times is not located in Times Square, Sullivan Street Bakery is not on Sullivan Street and Madison Square Garden is not at Madison Square, so the CFDA should be where the designers are and that could just as easily be L.A., but they are still in New York City. I wish them well in their new home.”

Lilore added that the CFDA has been “a staunch supporter of the Save the Garment Center movement. They have been allies, so I don’t take this as a jab or a stab against the industry. They probably need more space for less money, and Midtown is outrageously expensive. I think that, symbolically, it’s not right, but the industry has changed so much over the past 20 years and even five years that I don’t think it makes a whole lot of difference where they are.”

The CFDA board voted to make the move, and while the decision was not unanimous, it was “close,” Kolb said.

“When you look at the CFDA, we’re not a design house and we’re not a manufacturer. We are a foundation. The proximity to the neighborhood in terms of factories and suppliers is less important to the CFDA. If we were able to find a space in the neighborhood, it would clearly be a very symbolic statement. It would be a tangible testament for all the good work we have done in this neighborhood over the last six years. The work remains and the programmatic piece of what CFDA does for the neighborhood continues, but for us to function and to really grow over the next 10 years, 65 Bleecker presented a better scenario for us.”

Asked whether the move could impact the CFDA’s credibility with landlords and other organizations looking to secure a future presence of fashion in the Garment District, Kolb said, “The work that we do in the neighborhood is current and strong and significant, and I would hope that the stakeholders who have been involved in this neighborhood would continue to want to work with us to look at the neighborhood. We are in the neighborhood with the Fashion Incubator. That’s our space. ‘Made in Midtown’ is a CFDA study.

“The CFDA is still there and to what extent the other stakeholders are disappointed about the move, our work is going to keep going,” Kolb added. “We are not abandoning anything. Our commitment stays strong.”

The CFDA is partnering with Design Within Reach and Sayigh+Duman to design the space. Kolb also didn’t rule out the possibility of an eventual presence in the Hudson Yards development project on the far west side of Manhattan. “The mayor spoke about the cultural shed at the press conference [in early November],” Kolb said. “The CFDA plans to be part of how that development includes fashion, but right now, we have a 10-year lease.”

CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg said that, despite the move, she will always consider the CFDA “the soul of the Garment District.”

“We needed a very large space so we can have board meetings and clinics there,” von Furstenberg said. “We found a great space with a great deal, and that’s that. We looked for a long time, and we didn’t find the right opportunity.”

She stressed her personal belief in the future of the neighborhood. “I am getting more space in the Garment District,” von Furstenberg said. “I am expanding my factory and sample room there, so I am certainly all for [the area].”

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