As recently as 1960, 95% of clothing that was sold in the United States was made in New York City’s historic Garment District, a once sprawling microcosm and beating heart of the American fashion industry on the West Side of middle Manhattan, boasting 7.7 million square feet of manufacturing space and home to over 100,000 jobs. Now all those numbers are much more dire.
That 7.7 million square feet is now 1.1 million, and the jobs have dropped to a little more than 7,000. And the amount of clothing made in America that’s still sold in America? A paltry 3%. Those staggering numbers inspired five factory owners to start Save the Garment Center in 2007, a nonprofit organization fighting to preserve the last vestiges of New York City’s fashion manufacturing history. While the “Made in USA” label has gained more awareness and a unique cachet during the rise of the Americana trend and a new customer base that began to care about sustainable manufacturing and the provenance of their goods, “Made in New York” carries its own kind of sentimentality.
Stefan Siegel, a former model turned investment banker based in London, founded Not Just A Label (NJAL) in 2008 as a global platform geared towards raising awareness of locally-produced wares and providing emerging designers a means to sell their clothes through a mixture of community building and providing a point of sale. Earlier this year, NJAL set up pop-up shops in Berlin, Dubai, and Venice that brought their concept from digital to physical, and the model proved successful, so they brought it to New York earlier this month.
“New York is the only one of the four fashion capitals that still has a manufacturing community within the city,” says Siegel. “That is something that needs to be preserved, and not just in a romantic way, but in an ambitious way.”
Part of what’s special about New York City is the proximity of the Garment District to many design offices, ranging from lauded labels like Public School to cult ones like Engineered Garments and Aimé Leon Doré - all of which are still manufactured in NYC.
“Here in New York, the fact that you can study at FIT but you can also get your samples made within five blocks of the university is a unique ecosystem that needs to be promoted, and the customer needs to understand this is still happening in the city,” continues Siegel.
For designers like Greg Rosborough, who splits his time between Bespoken, a label that won GQ’s Best New Menswear Designer in America award in 2014, and Abasi Rosborough, his own line of forward-thinking futuristic clothes designed with his partner Abdul Abasi, the whole “Made in New York” label carries a different cachet than simply “Made in USA.” He likens it to something being made in Paris versus France, and while being made in a certain country can have the connotation of quality or durability, having your manufacturing associated with a cultural capital imbues it with a certain level of credibility.
“Just to say ‘Made in New York,” it has an incredible gravitas to what that means, especially when you go to other places,” he says. Given that Abasi Rosborough found itself on the shelves at renowned international retailers like Japan’s Isetan before any store in New York picked it up, he may be onto something.
Of course there’s a certain tradeoff when it comes to making your collection in the first world. Most obvious is the fact that it makes the garments more expensive. But that hasn’t stopped up-and-coming designers like Dominic Sondag, who is about to release his first collection for his label s.k. manor hill, recently named one of Highsnobiety’s upcoming brands to watch.
“Making things in New York is not the easiest because of rent and things like that - it’s definitely the most expensive place to make your clothes, but it’s home for me,” says Sondag. He’s worked at the factory he makes his collection in for three years, so he’s at an advantage since both of his hustles are under one roof. He’s able to oversee everything and if a sample isn’t quite right, he can quickly amend it.
“The price [of the clothes] has to be higher, but at the same time, you’re supporting the local economy,” adds Siegel.
Besides the convenience, Rosborough likes that making things where he lives gives him a stronger sense of community. While Abasi Rosborough’s clothes retail anywhere from $325 to over $1,800, the price reflects a manufacturing process that is mindful of everyone in the supply line, which means fair wages and often unionized workers.
“We need to be able to create something that we feel good about. At the end of the day, we can feel good about the Garment District. People are paid American wages, people are living in New York like the rest of us,” he says. “It’s not a nameless, faceless person in a factory far away, it’s the people that we see three times a week. We know their names; we talk; there’s a rapport. It’s a real, functional relationship.”
The premium cost of manufacturing in NYC is worth it to Siegel and young designers not just because of the allure that comes with the city, but the centuries of experience many of the Garment District’s truly skilled artisans possess. Skill sets vary from exceptional conceptual pattern-makers, people whose draping skills are honed for decades, and well-trained tailors who have all but perfected their craft.
“There are true artisans here, and that comes from the power of the Garment District,” says Rosborough. “That what I discovered when I was working at Ralph Lauren, you think it has to be ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in France’ to be high-quality, but then you venture into the Garment District and you’re like, ‘Jesus, this stuff is incredible!’”
But perhaps New York City’s best advantage is the cultural melting pot it’s become. From super stylish tourists to longtime denizens with no idea how cool they look, traversing the average NYC city block can be a veritable feast for the eyes for rabid fans of street style, or young creatives looking for style inspiration.
“You get to see a lot of different influences, and a lot of the world just being in one city,” says Sondag.