GARMENT TOWN’S RISE TO FASHION AVENUE
SEVENTH AVENUE’S ENERGY HAS BEEN FED BY MEN AND WOMEN LINKED BY THE COMMON THREAD OF ACHIEVING SUCCESS THROUGH AN UNMATCHED LEVEL OF SALESMANSHIP AND SELF-CONFIDENCE.
Byline: Arthur Friedman
While the apparel industry in New York has gone through many changes over the years, one consistent theme has prevailed throughout WWD’s coverage: the unparalleled entrepreneurial spirit of this special class of immigrants and their progeny, a force that has been undeterred by depression and recession, war and crime, politics or competition from abroad.
Through the last century, the garment business has been not only one of New York City’s most important industries, but one with a distinct personality blending in-your-face competitiveness with a special brand of talent that has made American women the best-dressed in the world.
By the time WWD began publishing, the origins of the industry had grown from the tenements on the Lower East Side, where Jewish and Italian immigrants brought their sewing and tailoring skills from Europe. By 1910, the garment district was centered at Madison Square — where Madison Avenue, Broadway and East 23rd Street converge — but manufacturers were forced out by the Save New York Committee, which wanted to maintain the tony atmosphere of the nearby Fifth Avenue shops that became known as the Ladies’ Mile.
In September 1919, two sites along Seventh Avenue between 36th and 38th Streets were developed by the Garment Center Capitol Co., an association of 38 women’s garment manufacturers, which soon revitalized a vice-ridden area then known as the Tenderloin. Leadership was provided by men like coat manufacturer Saul Singer, who was president of Garment Center Capitol; Reuben Sadowsky, who erected the Sadowsky Building at 1372 Broadway — the first manufacturing site in “garment town” — and Max Meyer, who rose from errand boy at coat firm A. Beller & Co. to become an owner and later one of the founders and president of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The corporation erected 498 and 500 Seventh Avenue at a cost of about $15 million for the buildings and $5 million for the land. In the period 1921-26, more than $125 million was invested in construction alone. By 1931, the garment district had the largest concentration of apparel manufacturers in the world, according to a report in WWD, covering an area from Sixth to Ninth Avenues and from West 30th to West 42nd Streets.
As the industry grew, truck traffic became more intense, generating still more traffic — the characteristic rolling racks and hand trucks steered by “push boys,” who conveyed fabrics and finished garments between the buildings.
In the Fifties and Sixties, the buildings in the garment center became specialized, with companies from specific segments of the women’s market congregating together at one address. For example, 1385 Broadway was known as “the bridal building,” 1400 Broadway was where popular-price dresses could be found, 498 and 530 Seventh Avenue housed dress manufacturers, and 500 and 512 Seventh Avenue were the coat buildings.
By the Eighties, a large chunk of production shifted back to lower Manhattan, particularly Chinatown, where a new immigrant class became the sewers for the industry. But this period also marked the rise of imports, and domestic manufacturing jobs saw a rapid decline.
At its peak in 1973, there had been 400,000 apparel production jobs in New York, but by last April, according to figures published in WWD, the city’s fashion industry employment — including all textile and apparel manufacturing and wholesaling — stood at 113,838.
In May 1985, WWD reported that the New York Fashion Council, comprising top executives in the apparel industry, had sent a letter to Ed Koch, then the mayor, appealing for an easement of real estate pressures felt along Seventh Avenue. The NYFC also sought a general cleanup of the area, which during the Seventies and Eighties were burdened by rising crime rates, dirty streets and an unsavory image that discouraged many buyers from making trips to Manhattan.
These conditions prevailed into the early Nineties, when retail consolidation and recession curtailed retail buying trips to New York. In 1993, as a reaction to that, the Midtown Realtors Association, comprising landlords and property owners in the area, created the Fashion Center Business Improvement District.
The FCBID operates on a budget derived from a surcharge on collected property taxes. It provided a private sanitation and security force, resulting in cleaner streets and a safer atmosphere. Crime and grime dropped dramatically. So did the number of complaints about the district’s image.
In 1996, the FCBID opened the industry’s first information kiosk, on the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 39th Street, a place where buyers and tourists can get information such as listings of companies in different segments of the industry, as well as details on services and entertainment.
During this same period, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave New York’s growing designer sportswear and ready-to-wear crowd a new home for its runway shows with the creation of 7th on Sixth.
WWD broke the story with a spread headlined, “New York’s Fashion Village,” which detailed how the CFDA would erect tents in Bryant Park, on Sixth Avenue between West 40th and West 42nd Streets, behind the main branch of the New York Public Library. By centralizing the shows in a safe and comfortable environment, the CFDA helped alleviate the chaotic, overcrowded conditions that buyers and press had to endure at the twice-a-year fashion shows in individual showrooms.
But the consolidation of the industry into the hands of fewer vendors, paralleling the shrinking of the department store base into even fewer entities, has seen the traditional garment center, now also known as “the Fashion Center” after the establishment of the FCBID, lose some of its identity.
“Here come the techies, and with them, the metamorphosis of the fashion center,” was the lead of a WWD story in April 2000 trumpeting the news that the neighborhood was being overtaken by outsiders from such industries as advertising, computer technology and, most significantly, the health, legal and educational service sectors.