The New York Garment District

Ever wondered how the New York Garment District got its start? What happened to it and where it is heading?

In the Mid 19th century, New York City’s Garment District was built on ready to wear clothing that was mass produced and mass-marketed. The industry relied on the workings of a cheap yet skilled labor force—primarily immigrants of European Jewish and Italian descent who arrived in the United States trained in traditional tailoring.

During this time the garment industry was New York City’s largest employer, employing one hundred thousand people each year. Rapid growth was seen in twenty years when the amount of manufacturing firms increased from 562 in 1880 to over 1,800 in the 1900s.

In an effort to increase New York City’s shopping culture Fashion Row and Ladies Mile were cultivated, where large department stores such as Lord & Taylor and R.H Macy’s were built along Sixth Avenue and Broadway between 14th Street and 23rd Street. These stores enticed the middle class to buy, buy, buy now more than ever. To meet the demands of the growing culture, sweatshops were established. Here young immigrant workers were paid even lower wages to work longer hours in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. 

 Cutting Room in New York Garment District

Cutting Room in New York Garment District

The triangle shirtwaist factory fire

On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out at 4:40 on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. To prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, the owners had locked the doors to the stairwell and exits of the factory. This poor, unjust treatment of workers caused the death of 146 garment workers—123 women and 23 men—who died from smoke inhalation or jumping to their own deaths.The Factory was located in the Asch building, 23-29 Washington place in Greenwich Village now part of NYU and a national historic landmark.

One hundred thousand people marched in the funeral procession and four hundred thousand people lined the streets during the procession. The upper middle class came together to fight for women’s rights and started to strengthen the social reform movement. Their motto became “who is going to protect the working girl.” The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the largest industrial disaster in New York City History. 

By the Mid 20th century, designers started coming out of background gaining media attention and status. When the CFDA, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was established in 1962 designers like Bill Blass, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Ralph Lauren became celebrity figures promoting their lifestyle brands. This shifted the focus of the garment industry from a rag trade reputation into a true fashion industry.  Luxury and the allure of excess helped New York City become an international fashion capital.

By the end of the 1950s however, the power of New York manufacturing was in decline. Looking to cheapen production and increase profit margins, productions began to send their work overseas. Staggering statistics show 95% of clothes worn in the US were manufactured in the United States plunging to a dramatic low of only 5% being manufactured in the US by 2009. 

 Sewing Factory in New York Garment District

Sewing Factory in New York Garment District

What is next is the next chapter?

Sustainability and eco-friendly products are the key driver of innovation. The Harvard Business Review predicts companies that invest in sustainable practices—even if to merely improve their public image--end up reducing costs and create new business.

Following suit of slow foods, the new trend in New York fashion is slow fashion.

By bringing manufacturing back to the USA, designers can focus on better quality garments that last longer than cheaply produced trend items manufactured overseas. Collectively making conscious manufacturing choices we can promote a change for fair labor standards! As a sign In February 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio increased the city’s financial support of the fashion district from 5 million to 15 million dollars given to the Made in NY initiative.

It’s hard to walk by a 50% discount sign on a 10$ pair of jeans, but it’s about time we consumers wake up to the realities of the garment industry. Knowing the history of the struggle for fair worker’s rights we should fight to uphold the standards we once had instead of turning a blind eye to the harsh conditions workers in the garment industry face overseas.