New York City. Perhaps the fashion hub of America, it has always been the epicenter of culture and reform. However, in a world of fashion dominated by social media and Vetements, it’s important to remember its roots. It’s kinda funny actually. New York City has been a place of opportunity for so many young people, especially when it comes to fashion. There are cool teens and social media superstars. Thus, we only look to the last few years when we think about fashion. The social media “boom” that occurred around 2010 brought us amazing platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, creating a landscape where fashions nerds could congregate and indulge in their interests. However, social media and the internet have both aided in creating a myopic perspective into fashion.
It’s important that we remember our roots; that we don’t simply look at fashion through one scope. What do I mean by that? Behind all of the glitz and glamor, there is the gritty work of the garmento. Behind every photo shoot, there is the tireless work of the seamstress. The Garment District is a roughly rectangular swatch of Manhattan between West 35th and 42nd Streets and Seventh and Ninth Avenues. What was once the bustling epicenter of America’s clothing design and manufacturing industry is on its way to become a relic. While its boundaries fluctuated over the decades, the garment district, as a culture and as an idea, had resonance in areas much larger than its physical size: its hundreds of thousands of workers — including my grandfather, a garmento, and my grandmother, a personal shopper — were the living embodiment of New York’s working-class economy, whose sweat and long hours draped the shoulders of the rest of the country.
A simple stroll across The Garment District will impose the question, “This is where my clothing was made?” Full of tourists, hot garbage, and loud noises, a bustling neighborhood of industry is hanging on by a thread. These days, there aren’t enough garment workers remaining in the district to justify a whistle-stop, and it’s rare to see men pulling racks of samples down 38th Street. City Hall would like to see other, more lucrative industries move in, while the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, the neighborhood business association, is soliciting suggestions for a new name for the area and has suggested calling it the “fashion district.”
Doing so, would be a disgrace to not only the fashion industry, but the history of New York City. It would pretend that the district was only ever about the final product, about the retail shops along Madison Avenue. Today “fashion” is the red carpet, Condé Nast, it is Schiaparelli and Prada at the Metropolitan Museum. It is Vetements, a self-proclaimed parody of fashion. The phrase “garment district,” by contrast, evolved from the blood and muscle of labor’s bodies.
Luckily, we have many efforts to preserve this dying industry. With the likes of brands like Engineered Garments and Battenwear not only producing their goods in The Garment District, but also situated just blocks away from those factories. More upscale brands such as Nanette Lepore and Anna Sui have also situated themselves in The Garment District. Additionally, these brands have campaigned with Save The Garment District in an attempt to bring more attention to the struggling district.
I myself work in an incubator located in The Garment District. The program is sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which promotes young and promising brands and houses them in the most resourceful district in New York City. Within the building itself, dozens of brands such as Public School and Thaddeus O’Neil are situated. The building resembles just one effort to preserve The Garment District, demonstrating the overwhelming efforts of young and tenacious designers. In fact, many new up-and-coming brands are finding it very profitable to house their studios there, finding it easy to also manufacture their products a few blocks away from their studios.
While The Garment District may be forgotten by many, and may appear to be a tourist destination, it remains a fashion hub. Housing brands, factories, and even higher learning establishments like FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), The small stitch of Manhattan proves to be a titan of industry. While exports from The Garment District today pale in comparison to that of the early 20th century, it continues to produce income and has immense support from other notable figures in the fashion industry. It may not be a fun place to visit during the summer, but it’s still important to recognize the role that The Garment District continues to have in fashion.