With the invention of the sewing machine, and therefore the garment factory, a need was created for a district dedicated to the fashion industry in New York City. As the industry convened around Fifth Avenue, it was told by high society that it wasn’t wanted. The Fifth Avenue Association, among others, worked to “prevent invasion by objectionable trades” and “Save New York” (“Big employers act ‘to save new york’, 1916). Today, the city is the home to the $98 billion American fashion industry with over 900 industry companies headquartered in New York City employing 180,000 people, approximately six percent of the city workforce (“Fashion Industry Infographic”, 2014). New York City’s position as the fashion capital of the world is being threatened by easing zoning regulations and new building development. While its growth was supported by zoning laws under several mayoral administrations along with private investment, a shift in recent years towards converting buildings to office towers combined with missed development opportunities threatens the garment industry and is allowing the city to fall behind other US and international counterparts. The current situation, however, presents an opportunity.
The Start of an Industry
Garment manufacturers setup shop around the turn of the century in loft buildings between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue from 23rd street and 34th street, an area that was experiencing “steady and consistent growth” in real estate property values (“Fifth avenue’s region of steadiest growth”, 1904). As property values grew, affluent society families, high end hotels and retail shops began to move into the neighborhood. By 1916, the $2 billion garment manufacturing industry and their, primarily, immigrant workers were considered an “annoyance” and “real menace to business”. A New York Times article from 1916 explains, “While many of the Madison Avenue loft buildings are partially restricted as to tenants, other have shown little discrimination, and the addition of many garment-making industries on that avenue with their large number of employees has enhanced the congested condition of Fifth Avenue.” In the same article, businessman and real estate investor, Albert B. Ashforth suggests, “To my view the only thing that will mitigate this evil and prevent its repetition in other localities will be proper ordinances regulating the heights of buildings and establishing reasonable trade zones.” (“Crowds increase on fifth avenue”, 1916; Benjamin, 1957) Due to its huge number of workers combined with poor labor practices, a series of strikes and huge traffic tie-ups, high society made it apparent that they would not accept the garment industry in their neighborhood.
Fueled by special interest groups and the real estate industry, the city’s Board of Estimate adopted an ordinance in 1916 that restricted skyscrapers and, more importantly to the fashion industry, “protected” Fifth Avenue. “One of the greatest immediate reforms worked by the law is the protection of the Fifth Avenue retail district from further encroachment by loft building factories, which have threated to concentrate such a large working population along the avenue as to interfere seriously with shopping,” a New York Times article read (“City fixes limit on tall buildings”, 1916). By the 1940’s, zoning regulations had pushed the garment industry away from Fifth Avenue. The majority of the manufacturers had relocated to where it now stands in an area that was once known as “the Tenderloin,” a section of Manhattan from 23rd Street to 42nd Street between Sixth and Ninth Avenues, that was known for its “brothels, saloons, gambling parlors, sex shows, dance halls and clip joints” (Shockley, 1998). Maybe this was a way to say to the immigrant garment workers that they were no better than those that walked the streets of “the Tenderloin”, or just a way to push out the undesirables out of the area.
Hotels and high end retail continued to grow as a result of continued efforts to make New York City a destination, however the fashion industry seemed to have been left behind. Specialty segments of the garment manufacturing industry began to form cooperatives. By purchasing land and erecting buildings together, they were able to push the industry forward without going it alone (“Co-Operation buildings…”, 1919), but by the middle of World War II the fashion industry was suffering due to the disjointed nature of the industry as a whole, a “dwindling number of qualified people” to operate fashion businesses, and a poor economy in the United States. New York City’s share of the apparel business in the United States had dropped thirty-four percent from 1927 to 1939. In 1944, Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration Professor Anton De Haas suggested that to overcome these issues:
“All branches of American fashion industries, including retailers and manufacturers, should prepare themselves to cooperate in leadership in their fields. They should take steps to shape and guide their activities through a master association which would serve as a clearing house for information and as a sponsor of an academy of fashion and a code of ethics.”
Mayor LaGuardia followed De Haas’ advice (though not directly) and proposed the “World Fashion Center” which would begin development upon completion of the war when materials and labor would be available. LaGuardia’s plan would take undesirable property and repurpose it by building six to ten new buildings, a municipal auditorium, an exposition center, an opera house, a bus terminal, and a museum. The plan would be financed by city issued bonds that would be liquidated through leases for the space and tenants would have an ownership interest in the property (“Pooling of fashion talent urged…”, 1943; “Details due soon on fashion center”, 1944). Special interests again won the fight and LaGuardia’s plan would never come to fruition.
By the nineteen fifties, New York City was losing garment manufacturing to other U.S. cities, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as to other countries and seeing a decline in both the number of factories and in wholesale figures. As a solution, under the leadership of Mayor Wagner, the idea of the “World Fashion Center” would be revisited. A New York Times article suggested, “Competition from other fashion-producing areas does not diminish. New York cannot afford to lose leadership, and this is a project that well deserves governmental and industry cooperation.” (“A world fashion center”, 1955) Wagner’s plan included “showrooms, sales space, administrative offices, manufacturing lofts, and restaurants.” Heeding to the call of the public it included trucking and parking decks below street level with access to an elevated expressway in an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion in midtown. A 2,000 seat auditorium, television studios, radio studios, facilities for press and photography, and a library of books and periodicals were all included in Wagner’s plan. (Benjamin, 1957; “A new york fashion center”, 1955) Unlike LaGuardia’s plan, Wagner’s proposal would be financed by the industry, yet supported by the government, but it too would never get out of committees.
Modern Day Problems
An article in the New York Times quotes real-estate broker and owner, James B. Buslik:
“The garment industry keeps growing, but the space it needs today is for back offices next door to the showrooms. That’s where the growth is. The computer has replaced the sewing machine.
Buildings in the district are mostly obsolete for today’s forms of manufacturing. They lack good loading and unloading facilities. They lack large-size floors for economy of scale.” (McCain, 1987)
In 1987, the Board of Estimate unanimously approved a plan to re-build Times Square and with it created the “Special Garment Center District” in an attempt to curtail the trend of landlords raising rents and kicking out manufacturing businesses to convert their buildings to Class A office space. The new regulations required building owners to maintain an equal amount of space for manufacturing as they convert space for office use, the rule is known as the “50/50 preservation rule.” Rents, however, still rose and by 2009, the nearly 60,000 people employed in garment manufacturing when the regulations were put into place became 14,628 by 2000, and 7,000 by 2012. (“The fashion center”, 2012; McCain, 1987) Fashion designer Nanette Lepore, speaking of Mayor Bloomberg in 2009, said, “We need the mayor’s support to enforce the existing zoning laws as they were intended. Without the garment center, young designers cannot survive. If we fail to protect this district today, New York will not be the fashion capital of the world tomorrow.”
New York City’s fashion industry is in trouble as manufacturing moves out of state and out of the country, the twice-yearly fashion weeks search for a stable place to call home, and high rents are forcing even showrooms out of the district. The loss of manufacturing in the Garment District means that designers will continue to flee. By removing the ease and proximity benefits of keeping all aspects of the industry in a single area, there is no longer a reason for the fashion industry to congregate. By missing the opportunities presented by creating a “World Fashion Center” and re-developing the garment center on a Haussmann-like scale, there’s nothing that can be done now, or maybe there can be. At its current size, wholesale redevelopment of only a couple blocks of Manhattan to build the modern day version of LaGuardia and Wagner’s “World Fashion Center” could save the fashion industry.
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Kevin Michael Reed
Kevin Michael Reed is a theatre maker from New York City living in Dublin and London. His production credits have included producer, director, playwright, dramaturg and designer. He is Artistic Director of Squire Lane Theatrical UK, a theatre production company specialising in developing new works for the stage. He holds a BFA in Photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), a MA in Playwriting from City, University of London, and a MFA in Theatre Directing from The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Trinity College Dublin.