Read through the list of seminars at this year’s New York Fashion and Design Conference and one session sticks out: “Creating Fashion and Manufacturing in the Garment District,” with Nanette Lepore and Robert Savage. After all, for a conference revolving around the concept of heirlooms, talk about the zoning issues in Midtown doesn’t exactly gel with discussions concerning more traditional hand-me-downs such as fine jewelry, vintage clothing and collectible timepieces.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Or does it? “The idea here is that the Garment Center is something to be passed down,” said Lepore, who was presenting with husband and company president Savage. “That’s how it’s like an heirloom.” And it is one, she added, that’s at risk of becoming extinct.

Lepore’s personal assistant, Erica Wolf, was on hand to run guests through the stats. In 1965, for instance, 95 percent of apparel in the U.S. was made in the country. Last year, that figure clocked in at a mere 5 percent. What’s at stake is the zoning laws Mayor Ed Koch implemented in the Eighties to protect factories in the area. “If you were going to have one square foot of office space,” explained Wolf, “you’d better have one square foot of a factory. But those laws were never enforced. Now, the city wants to lift the zoning laws and just give us a building.”

And that, Lepore noted, would prove devastating to the industry. She recalled how integral the Garment Center was in helping her build the company 22 years ago, when she started with little more than $5,000 and a 400-square-foot storefront in the East Village. “Because the Garment Center existed,” she said, “I was able to build a company in a very grassroots way. I could take five things to the factory and get them cut and sewn. Newness would be stifled [today] without the ability for [young designers] to work in a small way.” Or as Savage bluntly put it, “The future of American design will disappear.”

Lepore was also quick to note that “there’s a misconception that you can’t make a profit manufacturing in New York.” She referenced herself as a perfect case in point: Lepore has managed to grow her company into a 140-person firm, while keeping 85 percent of production here. Get rid of the Garment District and, essentially, “Los Angeles would become the center of fashion for our country,” she remarked.

All of which is why, in 2006, she joined the Save the Garment Center campaign. As part of her session, Lepore also presented a video of the group’s October rally, featuring City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Comptroller Bill Thompson, as well as a clip from HBO’s “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” documentary.

When asked if the group had taken their concerns to Mayor Michael Bloomberg directly, Savage responded “yes” — but to no avail. “We tried on more than one occasion,” he said. “We even sent a messenger down with an invitation to meet with us. No response.” And that’s more surprising, added Lepore, when one considers the jobs at risk.

One audience member piped up that with all the celebrity muscle in the fashion industry, someone should be able to help score them a meeting with the mayor. Her suggestions? Ivanka Trump, because she has one foot in jewelry design and the other in real estate, and Bloomberg girlfriend Diana Taylor.

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