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NEW YORK — The chicest thing to wear this fashion week may just be a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Save the Garment Center.”

This story first appeared in the August 21, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Anna Sui conceived the idea for the T-shirt, which also has e-mail addresses of important New York City officials on the back, to raise awareness of the shrinking manufacturing and production facilities in the Garment Center. She has teamed with several designers to galvanize members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America to find a way to preserve the Garment Center. She specifically worked with Yeohlee Teng, who, on behalf of the CFDA, has been spearheading the issue and served as a liaison between the CFDA board and City Hall.

Saving the Garment District is an important issue for Sui, who said zoning law changes have resulted in many landlords looking to redevelop factory buildings in the area into luxury lofts and hotels.

“I understand that it’s all business, but where are we going to go?” Sui told WWD. “What are we going to do? In my lifetime, I have seen the area changing, but I can’t believe New York can’t set aside some building designated to preserving the industry here. The CFDA and many other people have been working on trying to come up with a solution for the Garment Center. It’s a really difficult process but the longer it goes on, the more businesses will have to leave because they lost their leases or their landlords are raising rents.”

Sui herself has been experiencing these changes firsthand. Three of her contractors recently lost their leases. While one was able to renegotiate the lease, the other two are still looking for new spaces. “There used to be the little guy who would hand-cut zippers, or who sharpened scissors, and down the line, there were many embroidery people,” Sui said. “But now, only a handful of people are left because they couldn’t afford the spaces.”

On Wednesday, several CFDA members sent out a letter raising awareness of the Save the Garment Center campaign and T-shirt. The letter was signed by Sui, Teng, Calvin Klein Collection’s Francisco Costa, CFDA executive director Steven Kolb, Lambertson Truex’s Richard Lambertson, Nicole Miller, Narciso Rodriguez, Rag & Bone’s Marcus Wainwright and Vera Wang. They are asking other CFDA members to circulate the T-shirt at fashion shows and through their Web sites.

Sui is also working with design schools such as Parsons the New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology to get students involved and raise further awareness of the campaign. “I keep thinking that the enrollment in design schools is up, but where are these kids going to work?” Sui said. “Will they go to China to work?”

Kolb concurred, calling this a “grassroots” campaign. “The current zoning that is many years old isn’t working,” he said. ”There has been little or no enforcement or penalty to those forcing the factories out.”

Kolb noted that while the city is keen to preserve a core of production and manufacturing here, “All we hear is talking and nobody is taking ideas and turning them into action. After many meetings with City Hall, the CFDA is trying to push them to action. Also, Mayor Bloomberg’s term in office will soon be over,” Kolb added. “If nothing happens while he is mayor, we’re afraid nothing ever will.”

The T-shirts will cost designers $6 each to cover the printing and material costs, and orders for the shirts must be submitted to Thomas Miller at Anna Sui by Friday to secure production in time for fashion week.

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