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New York City: World leader for innovative, high-tech fashion manufacturing.

This story first appeared in the September 3, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Judging by the many rickety apparel factories scattered throughout the city, the notion might seem like far-flung fashion fantasy.

A new program hopes to challenge that idea.

Andrew Rosen and the Council of Fashion Designers of America in partnership with the New York City Economic Development Corporation this month will launch Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, a multifaceted effort to raise funds for existing factories here. The objective is to acquire innovative equipment and advanced technology, and implement top-quality worker training.

Not just targeting Manhattan’s Garment District, the five-borough project’s aim is to raise standards of factories, redevelop the overall manufacturing infrastructure in the city, and inspire emerging and established designers to choose Gotham over foreign hubs like Italy, China and other regions in the Far East.

To Rosen, who is the chief executive officer of Theory and, in recent years, emerged as a major supporter of young talent in New York, the origins of the project trace back to conversations with Yeohlee Teng, Nanette Lepore and the Design Trust for Public Space, mainly about saving the Garment Center.

“The Garment Center has been a big part of my life, my father’s life and I was very motivated to help,” he said. “There are a whole lot of issues around rezoning the Garment Center, and all of that is probably relevant at some point, but I was more interested in the need to do something that, instead of just saving the Garment Center, invested in the Garment Center.”

Initially, he had envisioned a building that could become “a manufacturing center of excellence, where all of the components of manufacturing were brought together under one roof, the way that it’s done in Asia,” but he found that the planning and development of such a project would prove too intricate to make it viable in the immediate future. “I thought the best thing we could do would be to put together a not-for-profit, and invest in existing manufacturing facilities,” he said. “If these factories develop the technology, designers will come back in droves.”

So the seed for the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative was planted. CFDA ceo Steven Kolb described the New York City-wide program as four-pronged, with issues ranging from machinery to work force, real estate and resource information.

“Primarily, it’s an investment in equipment, new technology and innovations that currently don’t exist in New York,” he noted. “Two is capital improvement on space, because if you have ever been in a factory in New York City, you see how dismal the conditions can be, and this is an opportunity for factories to improve working conditions. Then there is the recruitment and retention of labor for the factories. The last part is information. There is a lot of information of where you can make things in New York, and several databases, but none of it is really prominent, so we will take all that information and make it available at”

Rosen — already a cochair of Fashion.NYC.2020, the initiative led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the NYCEDC — secured the city’s involvement. The NYCEDC is giving $1 million to the initiative, and Rosen committed $500,000: $250,000 from Theory, and $250,000 himself. The program seeks support from designers and fashion industry associates for funds, and the start-up goal is between $3 million and $5 million.

Much like the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative has a rigorous application process with several stages.

On Sept. 16, factories that have operated in the fashion industry for at least two years can start applying for these funds. They must prove existing businesses with key designers, and have professional staffing in place to realize its stated goals and long-term objectives to update the facilities. The deadline for applications is Nov. 1. The finalists will be selected that month, and the selection committee — Rosen; Kolb; designer Prabal Gurung; Nanette Lepore ceo Bob Savage, and Rag & Bone designer Marcus Wainwright — will visit the facilities and interview the finalists.

The award recipients will be revealed in conjunction with Mayor Bloomberg in December, and the funds will go out next February. By March, the first of four quarterly workshops for factories and designers is expected to be held. NYCEDC president Kyle Kimball said the overhaul of machinery in many of the factories in New York was “quite needed…We are trying to take a holistic approach to the fashion industry in New York City.

“It’s really born out of making sure that the fashion industry in New York City is able to modernize and stay with and ahead of global trends in design, manufacturing and production,” Kimball noted. “This particular fund is focused on the second prong, manufacturing. We think there has been a real lack of investment in manufacturing infrastructure, and wanted a fund in place to introduce new and modern investment into manufacturing here.”

Eric Johnson, NYCEDC’s director of fashion/retail initiatives, added: “We benchmark ourselves against the London, Milan, and Parises of the world. We have done much in the design and wholesale area. A lot of people in industry forget that we still have hundreds of really great factories, and it’s a big differentiating point for New York City on a worldwide basis.”

Garment manufacturing in the city once employed 400,000 people at its peak in 1973 before the onset of the import era. According to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, the actual Garment District is currently home to 21,500 fashion-related jobs, compared with 200,000 in the Sixties. Today, apparel manufacturing continues to be New York City’s largest manufacturing sector, and across the five boroughs, provides 24,000 working and middle-class jobs, contributing $2 billion of economic output a year.

“For a time, it really was less expensive to manufacture in China, but that’s now changed,” Rosen said. “Between the rising prices in China, the freight and the duty rates, there is no advantage price-wise in manufacturing in China. The only advantage is that we don’t have the updated technology. In America, it’s only more complicated to manufacture because you have the pattern making over here, the marking and grading over there, the cutting, sewing elsewhere. It’s all decentralized so someone really has to know their way across the city to get it done. But China is 12,000 miles away, and you just don’t have the intimacy. For mass production, China and others throughout Southeast Asia may be fine, but when you want to make clothing at the highest level to compete around the world, there needs to be more intimacy.”

A recent NYCEDC survey established that nearly 80 percent of emerging designers and 70 percent of established ones say the Garment District is important to them, highlighting just how crucial it is to install the equipment and machines to bring domestic manufacturing into this century. Specifically, for newer designers who lack the resources to travel abroad, or the clout with factories in Italy, New York is crucial as they launch and build their businesses. Case in point: Gurung, who manufactures 98 percent of his collection here, said that he is forced to look elsewhere for certain categories like knits and some tailoring. As an example, he pointed to changing weather patterns increasingly requiring transitional, lighter-weight fabrics, but much equipment here is still from an era when heavier wools were commonplace.

“When I was at Bill Blass, we worked at all levels of factories,” he said. “Now, there seems to be a lack of machinery, especially in tailoring…the kind of manufacturing you see in Italian-made tailored jackets, coats and outerwear. It’s very difficult to find that kind of finish here. The factories that are here and have been around for the longest period of time haven’t had a refresher course.”

Gurung stressed he wants to maintain his local production, and welcomed the new initiative for reasons beyond equipment. “You need to be aware of the global footprint that we leave with shipping and traveling. Without a doubt, the manufacturing needs to come back to America.”

Wainwright agreed, citing the California denim market as a strong example. “L.A. is a massive denim-producing area with a lot of new technology at very high quality,” he said. “What New York needs is the same infusion of confidence, and I think it takes bigger players and companies with a certain amount of volume to show confidence in it.

“It’s so convenient to go uptown,” he added, referring to the midtown Garment District. “You can keep control of the quality and you can react so much faster to the market, all while keeping jobs in New York.”

For Wainwright, New York boasts several strengths — “pleating for example” — but, “you could argue that you can’t do the modern laser-cut production here. You can’t really make sweaters in the Garment Center. It requires a lot of space and landlords don’t want to give space to manufacturing.”

While the initiative is across the five boroughs, the Garment District is likely to benefit the most in the beginning as there is an ecosystem in place, from bottoms makers to thread suppliers. One area less likely to get an instant boost is the U.S. textile industry.

“One of the reasons that Italy is what it is today in terms of garment production is because they have this huge textile industry behind them, and we see the same in France and Spain and other Europeans countries, but we have been a little more remiss about letting our textile capabilities go, and that will be a bit harder to bring back,” said Andy Ward, acting executive director of the Garment Industry Development Corp. and the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative’s project manager. That said, he expects a strengthened local manufacturing base will eventually have a ripple effect on the textile trade. “A great Italian woolen mill might then be enticed to come here and say, ‘There is a thriving garment business, and it would be cheaper for us to manufacture in the U.S.’ It would save a lot of duty and freight, especially with the environmental concerns about transporting merchandise for thousands of miles. I hope our effort will inspire the textile side of the business as well.”

The program has many other dimensions, including real estate, and Rosen said he is seeking support from owners of buildings that house factories in the five boroughs. “They need to provide longer-term leases for these factories and some stability for them and we need their support,” he said.

Ward added, “Rent is always an issue in New York, and the more efficient they can make these shops and the faster they can produce garments with less labor requirements, the more productive they are going to be and it will definitely increase their longevity,” he said.

High-efficiency machinery doesn’t automatically mean fewer jobs — more business as a result of the initiative could in turn stimulate employment. Joseph Ferreira, president of the Garment Center Supplier Association, welcomed the move of “putting the spotlight on the maker’s side. At the high level, focusing on this specific issue in the ecosystem is something that hasn’t really happened to date so everyone is really excited. In the machinery and technology side, not as much has happened in this country as in others — specifically in areas like thermal bonding and advanced CAD. Those really become a creative tool for designers and emerging designers, because these can execute their ideas in ways that they couldn’t have imagined before.”

As Rosen put it, “If we can get laser-cutting and bonding and some of the new German machines here, and designers have the opportunity to experiment and play with them, I think you will see a whole different ball game for New York fashion. Everyone has talked about manufacturing in the USA. My feeling is that once we get the initiative going, the inertia will take it to a new place, and a lot of people will be motivated to support and be a part of this.”

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