Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Yes, We Still Have a Garment District—and a Garment Industry

Tom Vanderbilt introduced us to the new industrial city in his article in the Wilson Quarterly: Long Live the Industrial City. He chose the continuing saga of the garment district in New York City as an example of how a large city can provide an environment where creativity is encouraged and nurtured. We will learn what he has to say about the state of the district, and we will also refer to an article from Businessweek, Suddenly, Made in USA Looks Like a Strategy, that reminds us that we still have a garment industry in the US—and it seems to be doing quite well right now.

It is amazing to consider how much production actually took place in a relatively small area, and it is almost as amazing to consider that it is still a hub of activity in the fashion industry.
“Even as New York City was gaining in stature as a fashion capital in the latter half of the 20th century, its share of U.S. garment production underwent a full-tilt inversion, from a commanding 90 percent to less than 10 percent.”
It is fashion design that seems to be keeping the district going rather than mass production. This type of fabrication has a greater need for skilled and creative crafts people who can respond quickly to design iterations. This is exactly the type of situation where local production brings advantages over off-shore options.
“Even in an age of e-mail and overnight deliveries, fashion has particular reasons for desiring proximity. The industry requires a wide range of suppliers, specialized services, and skilled producers. Bringing a garment from sketch to rack requires the careful coordination of an entire just-in-time chain of production, involving any number of intermediate steps (that often involve working face to face), on a ruthlessly tight schedule. ‘It takes a lot of people to get something made,’ says designer Shelley Steffee. ‘Even if it’s 12 garments. There are so many hands that touch that garment’.”

“’Hand’ is one of the garment district’s enduring metaphors. It begins with the ‘hand of the designer,’ of course—the sketch that animates the idea. But this design does not develop in a vacuum. ‘There’s a naiveté to believing that a designer can do it alone,’ declares Nanette Lepore, designer of a brand that bears her name and has 11 boutique shops around the world. Clothes require skilled hands. Hands to trace the patterns, hands to cut the fabric, hands to do the draping, hands to sew, hands to embroider, hands to fashion the intricate geometry of pleat patterns, hands to do specialized work such as grading and marking, hands to carry all this back and forth. The work has an elegant tactility. In one shop, a worker puts polished stones on a fabric to smooth it out before cutting. In another, a worker uses sticks as weights as he rolls up a pleat pattern on a cardboard tube that will “bake” in a hulking steam oven. In still another, a seamstress deftly manipulates a complicated smocking machine, like a conductor working in colored thread rather than music.”
Interestingly, the cost of production is, in many cases, competitive with what could be done by shipping the work overseas.
“But judging from what’s said by midrange designers who work in the garment district, selling clothes not for several thousand dollars but several hundred, the assertion that it’s too expensive to make things in New York City isn’t so iron clad. Prairie New York proprietor Shriber says that while quality is her main reason for working locally, overseas production prices aren’t much cheaper. ‘By the time you pay your customs duties, air freight, you’re pretty much at the same dollar amount.’”
Vanderbilt also provides us with a glimpse of an operation—and a career— that sounds like it could have stepped out of the early twentieth century.
“Against a wall in R&C Apparel’s crowded factory, in an unremarkable building on 38th Street on the far western edge of New York City’s garment district, is a vast collection of sewing machines shelved with curatorial precision. The collection could be in a museum—many of the machines were built far back in the previous century, and are technically antiques.”

“For Ramdat Harihar, the factory’s Guyana-born owner, who began his career sweeping garment factory floors, the machines are not obsolete, but tools for innovation. With a little tinkering—and an arsenal of cannibalized parts—they can be used to create entirely novel stitching effects, which find their way into the work of leading American fashion designers such as Anna Sui and Zac Posen. Sometimes, innovation demands using machines for new purposes; in one instance, a microwave oven—and a dash of vinegar—helped create a new pleat for Donna Karan.”

“R&C Apparel is in one sense an archetypal, almost metaphorical, New York garment district business: Immigrant laborers work on outdated machines in an old building in a well-worn neighborhood, doing the sort of work one imagines was long ago outsourced to cheaper locations.”
It was the realization that the labor intensive fashion industry is price competitive that makes the Businessweek article so intriguing.
“In the U.S. apparel market, domestic production fell from 41 percent in the late 1990s to just 3 percent in 2008, according to the most recent government data. Still, hundreds of small companies, most with just a few dozen employees, manufacture in the U.S.”
Those companies who stayed the course in the US are now benefiting from the increase in wages in Asia and the increased transportation costs.
“For some buyers, the price gap between U.S. and Asian factories is no longer the primary concern. Boathouse President and Chief Executive Officer Doug Tibbetts acknowledges that his prices often are about 10 percent to 15 percent higher than those of rivals that manufacture overseas. That's down from 25 percent two years ago, and the change is enough to win buyers....who don't want to wait months for their orders.”
In addition, there is another factor that works to their advantage.
“The recession winnowed out many factories in Asia, so those that survived—primarily large operations—have started turning down or postponing smaller jobs....”
And then there is the experience of the company Contract Sew & Repair:
“Cheryl Evans, who runs the 15-employee company from a vast warehouse near Seattle, says established companies are coming to her with sizable orders—as many as 20,000 shirts or pairs of pants—that were spurned by factories in Asia. ‘This is a reverse,’ Evans says. ‘Usually companies come to us when they're first starting out in business because they can't make [big enough orders] for offshore.’"
Nate Herman, vice-president for international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Assn. contributes this comment.
"There haven't been any new manufacturers popping up, but the ones that are around are pretty much at maximum production."
It is always pleasant to learn that a domestic industry is making a comeback.

Most processes are eventually self-limiting. There is no reason to expect that globalization would be any different. An end point where there is a slight cost premium for locally produced goods—rather than a massive one—just might produce a desirable and stable situation. This story also suggests that the wise country tries to maintain its manufacturing capabilities—even at a low level. One never knows when they might be needed again.

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