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Garment District: Battle for its soul


Garment Credit: Nicholas Grant

There's a rift among the city's fashionistas over the heart of their trade. A growing number of designers are leaving their Garment District digs for spaces in trendier neighborhoods, clashing with a shrinking group of established names keen on preservation and emerging brands who utilize the area's manufacturers and suppliers.

The departures are further proof of a dwindling Garment District — the historic center of the Big Apple's fashion biz, which stretches from West 35th to 41st streets between Sixth and Ninth avenues.

Within the last month or so, Fashion Week regulars including 3.1 phillip lim and Erin Fetherston have moved down to SoHo and TriBeCa; this fall, alice + olivia is heading to the Meatpacking District.

The message is that "we don't have to be on the same block for[collaboration] to happen," said alice + olivia designer Stacey Bendet.

"I think it will always be a historic home, but I think the world has moved beyond that," Bendet said. "The Garment District and districts in general were created in a different era."

Similarly, Fetherston works with neighborhood sample rooms, factories and contractors, but moved to a larger space in TriBeCa, where she also lives.

"While the Garment District provides the convenience of proximity to vital fashion resources, other areas of the city may have more to offer in the way of ambiance and inspiration," she noted.

A creative hub?

Since 2001, fashion manufacturing employment in New York has declined 61 percent, attributed to an increase in cheaper overseas manufacturing. And the numbers won't be increasing any time soon — something even those leading the Save the Garment District movement have said, though preserving factories and supplier businesses are a major concern for them.

"I think that if we could really re-invent the district as a creative hub that would be great — a hub where ideas are developed," said Yeohlee Teng, who produces her clothing in the Garment District.

The "creative hub" scenario doesn't jibe with some  designers who feel they don't need a community based in the Garment District, yet it fits into the  business plans of emerging designers who benefit financially and creatively from being able to work in a neighborhood where ideas are easily exchanged and resources are readily available.

"I wish more designers would be in the Garment Center because it would give us a stronghold, and it sends home a message that this is the Garment Center," said designer Nanette Lepore, a Save the Garment Center proponent. She also said she understands why some designers don't find it necessary to have showrooms in the district, even if they use some of the area's resources.

Supporting new talent

The city of New York, along with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, created in 2010 the CFDA Incubator: a floor in the Garment Center that offers low-rent space to emerging designers. Prabal Gurung, Bibhu Mohapatra, Gemma Redux and House of Waris are among those housed there now.

“If you’re a huge design team and all materials are in house, moving cross-town is fine. For me, having a smaller shop and wanting to have access quickly, I like to be in the Garment Center,” said Rachel Dooley, designer of Gemma Redux, a jewelry line that employs six people.

Fashion revival?

Work is also being done to create a sustainable future for the fashion industry.

The Design Trust for Public Space and the CFDA are getting ready to start Phase 2 of the Made in Midtown Study come this fall.

"You would never go back to those days when 95 percent of clothes were made in New York City," said Jerome Chou, director of programs for the Design Trust. "We're never going to make millions of garments or hats again, but what happens here now is cutting-edge design."

Retail chains eying move to hood

As more nongarment businesses move into the buildings that once solely housed fashion companies — and residents continue to populate high-rises on the West Side - a changing real estate landscape is emerging

"[Years ago], your building was either garment or it wasn't. Now some of the buildings are changing and you're seeing office tenants. People are leaving," said Eric Gural, executive managing director of Newmark Knight Frank.

Within the next three to five years, mid-range stores such as H&M, J.Crew and Old Navy will move into the Garment District to appeal to the new contingency of office workers, said Gary Alterman, executive vice president of Robert K. Futterman & Associates.

The retailers will be attracted to the desk-heavy law and accounting firms over the sparsely populated large showroom spaces.

That combined with cheaper rent than other nearby hotspots ($200-$250  per square foot in an avenue location in the Garment District versus $500 along 34th Street and $1,500 in Times Square) will make the  district a hot retail area.

And resident-wise, thepopulation from 30th to 42nd streets between Fifth and 10th avenues was 14,150 in 2010, an increase of 7.2 percent from 2009, according to stats provided by the Fashion Center BID. The majority of residents are 25 to 44 years old.

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