Back in February, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a plan meant to help save the city’s struggling Garment District, an area that roughly occupies the area stretching from 34th to 42nd Streets and Fifth Avenue to Ninth Avenue and is occupied by the majority of New York’s fashion designers, manufacturers, fabric shops, and other fashion-related businesses. This plan, however, which is backed by both the Garment District Alliance and the CFDA, is looking to not only lift special zoning regulations that have served to protect the industrial spaces in the area from being converted into residences, offices, and hotels since 1987, but also to completely relocate the district itself, by slowly moving these businesses to a new manufacturing campus in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A 10-year support package, presented by the New York City Economic Development Corporation in collaboration with the Garment District Alliance and the CFDA, will provide more than $51 million of investments in technology, business, relocation, and expansion support and assistance for moving.
This proposal left tons of businesses that call the Garment District home, some which have been in the area for decades, in an uproar. Those unwilling to be uprooted and move to a new borough are not only worried about ultimately being squeezed out one way or another, should the plan be set into motion, but also fear the consequences of losing the surrounding businesses they rely on day-to-day.
Considering this plan is causing so much unrest, why attempt to relocate an entire working district, one rich in history, to a whole new borough, anyway? According to The New York Times, one argument brought up in a meeting, organized by Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, was that the district has been on the decline for decades. This new, modern district in Brooklyn is being seen as a “lifeline” of sorts for the industry, providing affordable rent for businesses struggling to survive in Manhattan. While the number of apparel jobs in the area is on the downswing, those in favor of saving the district argue that this is due to improper zoning enforcement, rising rent, and shorter leases, all problems that have potential solutions which wouldn’t require the massive relocation.
For many of those who call the Garment District home (or at least home to their businesses) this move is simply not on their agenda. Designers, manufacturers, and family-owned businesses who have been longtime residents of the area, not to mention longtime supporters of the industry, strongly disagree with de Blasio’s plan.
Leanne Marshall, fashion designer and winner of Project Runway season five, is one of them. After working hard to leave her old studio in Brooklyn to relocate to Manhattan five years ago, she has a number of reasons why this move would not only be a major inconvenience but would skyrocket the expenses of running her business, from the need to still have a Manhattan-located showroom for clients to raised costs for shipping and vehicle transportation. “Now that we’re here, I can’t see being anywhere else,” she says. “It’s disheartening to see the Garment District shrinking. On our street alone, another luxury boutique hotel springs up each year, displacing dozens of Garment District businesses. This area is a huge part of New York’s history, and [the fashion industry is what] makes this neighborhood unique, as well as contributing to the local economy in the city. New York is a fashion city, so why remove the makers of the fashion from it?”
For Eric Sauma, owner of Mood Fabrics, an iconic fabric store of the district that’s been a staple for prominent designers and design students alike for 25 years, this move can be the “final blow.” He fears that a relocation would likely spread the district out over the five boroughs and New Jersey, rather than resulting in everyone being in one concentrated area. “Being that the Garment Center is in close proximity to fashion designers, Broadway costume designers, and fashion schools, we would lose many of the customers who wouldn’t travel to Brooklyn to go fabric shopping,” he says. “The beauty of our industry, which reinvents itself every three months, is that everything you need is close by. It’s been this way for a long time, and needs to remain this way.” He is “perplexed” by the fact that the city is trying to relocate the district to a remote part of the city, rather than protect it and help it grow.
Fashion designer Nikki Chasin, also located in the Garment District, points to the importance of being hands-on with production and the sampling process, a luxury that comes with being in close proximity to manufacturers. While she thinks that having more space for less money is an advantage (which would be the case in Sunset Park), she believes that the additional commute and change in proximity of vendors and factories she works with would have a negative impact on her and her business’s day-to-day.
While she doesn’t plan to move anytime soon, if the businesses that she works with do relocate, she feels it would make sense for her to go along with them—though it’s not what she wants. “I think that a sense of history and community would be lost [should the district move],” she says. “So many of the businesses that designers rely on are family owned and have been here for decades. Since opening my business, I’ve already seen so many businesses close. I worry that many of the businesses will close altogether instead of moving.”
Not everyone is against the potential relocation, though, especially New York designers already based outside of Manhattan. Jaclyn Jordan, a bridal designer based in Sunset Park, is thrilled about this potential change. After briefly working in a co-working space in Sunset Park, she moved her design studio to the Garment District in hopes of making the location work to her advantage. She was soon priced out and found that the financial stress didn’t allow her business to grow or become more profitable. “Moving back has allowed me to get greater business exposure,” says Jordan. “There are many events and opportunities to participate in—like networking and seminars—geared toward business owners that are aiding in the growth of my company, but without a big financial investment.”
For this reason, she’s in support of the relocation. “I see other designers, like myself, who are already in Sunset Park benefitting from additional services coming to the area. Currently, if I run out of materials mid-project, I have to take about an hour and a half to two hours out of my day to run back into the city to purchase things. As the neighborhood grows with more designers and manufacturers, I hope that complementary business, such as trims and notions stores or fabric suppliers, will move into the neighborhood.”
Whether this move is necessary for the survival of the Garment District or not, it’s still unclear—but regardless of the outcome, some industry people remain hopeful. “We will all have to adjust to the changes and figure out what is best of us, individually and collectively,” says Jordan. “The future for garment design and production is bright in New York. Business owners need to be flexible and ready to adapt as changes to our industry present themselves.”
According to The New York Times, the plan is currently stalled, however, the seven-month approval process is supposed to start sometime this month. Regardless of whether businesses are for it or against it, if the plan is approved, the long process of district relocation will then be inevitable. Much like how style and trends change and adapt with the times, the industry itself and all of its many components will have to this time, too.