Garment District, Manhattan (History)

neighborhoods_manhttan_garment_district_300x300The Garment District, also known as the Garment Center, the Fashion District, or the Fashion Center, is aneighborhood located in the Manhattan borough of New York City. The dense concentration of fashion-related uses give the neighborhood its name. The neighborhood, less than 1 square mile (2.6 km2), is generally considered to lie betweenFifth Avenue and Ninth Avenue, from 34th to 42nd Street. The neighborhood is home to the majority of New York’s showrooms and to numerous major fashion labels, and caters to all aspects of the fashion process from design and production to wholesale selling. The Garment District has been known since the early 20th century as the center forfashion manufacturing and fashion design in the United States, and even the world; no other city has a comparable concentration of fashion businesses and talent in a single district.

 

HISTORY

Early History

New York first assumed its role as the center of the nation’s garment industry by producing clothes for slaves working on Southernplantations. It was more efficient for their masters to buy clothes from producers in New York than to have the slaves spend time and labor making the clothing themselves. In addition to supplying clothing for slaves, tailors produced other ready-made garments for sailors and western prospectors during slack periods in their regular business.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the majority of Americans either made their own clothing, or if they were wealthy, purchased “tailor-made” customized clothing. By the 1820s, however, an increasing number of ready-made garments of a higher quality were being produced for a broader market. The production of ready-made clothing, which continued to grow, completed its transformation to an “industrialized” profession with the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850s. The need for thousands of ready-made soldiers’ uniforms during the American Civil War helped the garment industry to expand further. By the end of the 1860s, Americans bought most of their clothing rather than making it themselves.

neighborhoods_manhttan_garment_district2_300x300German and Central European immigrants to America around the mid-19th century arrived on the scene with relevant business experience and skills just as garment production was passing from a proto-industrial phase to a more advanced stage of manufacture. In the early twentieth-century a largely Eastern European immigrant workforce powered the garment trades. Writing in 1917, Abraham Cahan credited these immigrants with the creation of American style:

Foreigners ourselves, and mostly unable to speak English, we had Americanized the system of providing clothes for the American woman of moderate or humble means. The average American woman is the best-dressed woman in the world, and the Russian Jew has had a good deal to do with making her one.

With an ample supply of cheap labor and a well-established distribution network, New York was prepared to meet the demand. During the 1870s the value of garments produced in New York increased sixfold. By 1880 New York produced more garments than its four closest urban competitors combined, and in 1900 the value and output of the clothing trade was three times that of the city’s second largest industry, sugar refining. New York’s function as America’s culture and fashion center also helped the garment industry by providing constantly changing styles and new demand; in 1910, 70% of the nation’s women’s clothing and 40% of the men’s was produced in the City.

Decline of the industry

Cheaper overseas labor and production has dramatically affected the New York industry for decades. This change has forced many designers who once manufactured their lines in the city to shift production overseas, which has in turn affected small cutting and sewing rooms as well as zipper, button and supply stores in the Garment District. As Charles Bagli of The New York Times wrote:

Some city officials and industry leaders worry that if manufacturing is wiped out, many of the designers who bring so much luster to New York will leave, along with the city’s claim to be a fashion capital rivaling Paris and Milan. The damage would be undeniable, given that the industry’s two big annual events—Fashion Week in September and February—attract enormous numbers of visitors and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.

—Charles Bagli, for the New York Times

Although the Garment District as well as other fashion districts have been in decline, there are many organizations working hard to keep this district vital. One such organization is the Garment District Alliance, a nonprofit business improvement district that promotes the area as a strategic business location for fashion and non-fashion related-businesses in order to bring profit into the area. For example, the Garment District Alliance organized a Fashion Walk of Fame on 7th Avenue, Arts Festivals, and a Garment District Information Kiosk located on 7th Avenue that provides sourcing information and industry-related services to fashion professionals, students, hobbyists, visitors, and shoppers.

Save the Garment Center is a campaign that was created by several members of the fashion industry in an effort to preserve the concentration of fashion industry-related uses in the district. However, as fashion manufacturing declines, many buildings that once housed these large facilities have been converted to office space. Businesses such as accountants, lawyers, public relations and many high-tech companies have moved into the area, and the area is now divided equally between fashion and non-fashion companies.