Nanette Lepore is in a league of designers and and industry insiders working to protect the future of New York fashion – the Garment Center of New York City is at scary risk of extinction. Factories are being driven out by building renovations and high cost rent, not to mention outsourcing to Asia. When the GIDC (an organization that helps designers find local resources) brought this fact to Nanette’s attention 6 years ago, she was horrified and began to get involved. She joined Save The Garment Center, the resistance that was started by four factory owners in 2007, and she has been a staunch advocate and example of using the Garment Center both before and since. Through a tour of her facilities and factories, we can get a better idea of how a major global brand can thrive and support New York City. So that young designers can continue to get their start in the fashion capital of the world.
If Nanette Lepore were in an elevator with a young designer about to send production overseas, this is what she'd say:
"I would tell them that they’re out of their mind. That there’s so much opportunity here in New York. Actually there’s one [young designer] I shared a train ride with who was working in China. I was like, ‘You’re so making a mistake. You have to work here in America.’ She didn’t understand how to do it. And she’s gone, out of business. You can be so hands on, and so much in control of your fate if you’re right there. These factories want you to succeed! They’re there to nurture you. They’re not going to cut you off after one season if you haven’t brought your minimums to where they’re supposed to be. They will work with you. So I would do everything in my power to stop them from [going overseas]."
Nanette has been working out of the same office building on 35th Street since the 90s, only now she owns 8 whole floors of it. Her office moves fast as she keeps production as local as can be.
The design process starts on the fifth floor, where Nanette sketches, pattern makes and drapes. The designs wind through the sixth floor production offices and out into the Garment Center. When a design goes out into the district, a size-eight pattern first goes to a marker and grader on 35th St., where they adapt the pattern for all sizes and efficiently lay out the pieces on the fabric. Next, those patterns and production fabric go to a cutting room on 38th St, where they skillfully use motorized hand saws to slice through many layers of fabric. Once they cut the production fabric, if there’s pleating that has to happen, they’ll send it to the pleater on 37th st. Once the embellishments are done, they send that to meet up with the other fabric, and the sewing factory on 35th St. sews it together. When completed they are delivered, they return to the fourth floor of Nanette Lepore, ready to ship out to stores.
Producing everything within a few square blocks means fewer carbon emissions, lower shipping costs and faster turnaround; the garments are delivered via handcart the moment it is finished. Walking-distant production also means sharp quality control and more open collaboration between production and design. At any moment, Nanette can drop into one of her factories to check on a garment. If something is wrong, she can work to fix it immediately without wasting weeks, fabrics and money shipping to and from Asia. This is one reason Nanette is known for impeccable fit. And why it is so ideal for new designers.
Producing in the Garment Center also keeps businesses like the one we visited, M&S Schmallberg, Custom Fabric Flowers, operating. For 90 years, this family business has been making high fashion flowers by starching, stretching, cutting, molding and gluing fabrics by hand, by fairly paid workers. Though their flowers grace many NY runways, they reach far fewer shelves. While Nanette Lepore, samples and buys these flowers for production, many top designers will sample with Schmallberg and produce in India. Outsourcing affects this custom flower business far more than the trend.
Though many design companies keep their production resources shrouded in mystery, information outlets are opening up if you know where to look:
Susan Power compiled a directory of sourcers and manufacturers that accept low minimums, ideal for young designers.
Parsons students made an illustrated online book of resources.
The NYCEDC is planning production funding for young designers.
And the CFDA continues to support young designers in the district with Fashion Funds and the Incubator program.
The Made in Midtown intitative has a highly educational website, and are taking steps alongside government officials to determine how the district is currently being used, and how it can be put to more efficient work for the future.
With apparel production making up 28% of all manufacturing jobs in NYC, the Garment Center is not dead! It has 40 production firms per square block! It is alive, and ready to help young designers succeed.
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