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Can New York Learn from Milan, London and Paris?

MAS and the Design Trust for Public Space hosted two panels in June focused on the Garment District and the findings of the Design Trust’s study, Made in Midtown,, done in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). MAS contributed research to the study on three international fashion capitals—Paris, Milan and London—in an effort to determine what lessons New York could learn from its competitors. MAS focused on the proximities of fashion companies in these three cities and analyzed the effects of industry clustering, and the official policies and informal mechanisms that nurture and develop opportunities for entrepreneurship. Reflecting on the importance of the district, MAS President Vin Cipolla said, “the Garment District is and has been the story of New York for more than 100 years. It is where planning, preservation, entrepreneurship, urban design, livability, economic development and aesthetic issues converge. The Garment District is where New York meets the world.”

Indeed, historically, the Garment District permeated the fabric of New York and offered immigrants a path for entrance to the middle class. There are many suggestions that the garment industry is in decline but according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the New York City fashion industry today contributes $10 billion in payroll wages, making it a major contributor to the New York City economy still. See research finding maps at bottom of the page.

What Made in Midtown found is that the Garment District is still very much alive and very much necessary to sustain the fashion industry. As manufacturing has declined since its midcentury heyday, the district has evolved from a concentrated production hub to a research and development center. Deborah Marton, Executive Director of the Design Trust for Public Space summarized the findings by saying, “to realize ideas designers need the support they find in the Garment District with its hundreds of small businesses—everything from patternmakers, pleaters, finishers, button and fabric suppliers. Because these resources can be found within a few blocks of each other, designers can work quickly with more control over quality.” Mass production has mostly moved overseas where costs are much lower but the Garment District is still a vital resource during the design phase when designers need quick turnaround of their prototypes and the input from the manufacturers regarding innovative production techniques. In this way, IDEO’s Fred Dust explained that design and manufacturing are inextricably linked through a highly iterative design process.

New York City is known as fertile ground for young entrepreneurs and the fashion industry has long been one of the pillars of the city’s manufacturing base. Young designers with small runs cannot afford to start production overseas and depend on the Garment District for finding manufacturers that can cost-effectively produce limited quantities. Former chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons, Tim Gunn, who moderated the first discussion, reflected on the importance of the district saying, “the Garment District is for designers at all levels, not just those at the top like Yeohlee Teng; it’s for the young entrepreneurial designers, those at the midpoint in their careers, it provides incredible resources for everyone.” MAS international research reinforced the importance of those resources provided to New York’s young and emerging designers which are necessary to sustain a vibrant fashion industry.


MAS found that the Milanese industry is largely comprised of small, family-owned operations—many of them with only 5-10 employees. State fiscal policies promote this tradition of small-sized companies through certain tax benefits. In addition, the network of small, clustered companies exploits economies of scale and permits firms to stay lean and tap into a market of subcontractors. These companies excel in employing proven methods of craftsmanship and maintaining a tradition of high-quality artisan work such that in 2001 the Italian textile and clothing sector total output (wages and profits) was more than three times larger than the British industry.

One reason Italy’s manufacturing sector is successful is because the costs of production are much lower than in many other European countries. In addition, the Italian government offers more state aid to its manufacturing sector than other European governments and provides and encourages vocational training. New York Industrial Retention Network’s Sarah Crean indicated the need for New York City to actively encourage industry and focus on strengthening the businesses that are struggling to remain. The vocational support network in New York is drying up, as fashion designer Yeohlee Teng asked in MAS’s first panel discussion: “I think that besides it being a real estate and a zoning issue, there’s a human issue we need to contend with… If you build an incubator for supporting young designers, what are you doing to replace the [manufacturing] skills that support them?” There is no shortage of designers entering the industry from schools such as Parsons, FIT, and Pratt. But, as Teng pointed out, something needs to be done, like improving access to vocational training, to replace those in supporting industries that are exiting. For many manufacturers, unpredictability of future orders and highly variable production schedules are forcing them to close their businesses, to the detriment of the health of the district.

Even though the Italian government provided more than four times as much aid (as a percentage of manufacturing value added) than the British government in the period from 1997-1999, starting a new business in Italy as a young designer is reportedly difficult. The institutionalized, insular structure dominated by a few large brands (Armani, Prada, Valentino, Versace) means that working for one of these large corporations is frequently the only realistic option for many emerging designers. In New York, meanwhile, the Garment District serves as a neighborhood-wide incubator, providing internships and training for students. When they graduate they can draw on this network of resources and support to start their own lines, as young designers like Jason Wu, Alexander Wang, and labels such as Proenza Schouler have demonstrated.


On the other hand, start-up designers in London have some advantages over young designers in other cities because of The British Fashion Council’s (equivalent to New York’s CFDA) wealth of government policies and programs to support them. Nevertheless, once their talent is recognized, young designers tend to flee London for proximity to the more skilled craftsmen in New York, Paris and Milan (Stella McCartney, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are examples). Because designers have reported difficulty locating reliable, high-quality manufacturers, UK industrial policy has started to focus on training and building skills in an effort to bridge the gap between designers and manufacturers. The UK is historically very entrepreneurial and there is less start-up administrative bureaucracy than in France or Italy. Still proximity is an issue; the once-recognizable cluster in west London has largely dispersed and much of the industry has now relocated to cheaper real estate in East London. One new initiative, released in 2010, is an online database called “Let’s Make it Here” that contains a complete directory of manufacturers. This was a public/private venture created as a step toward simplifying the process of finding skilled manufacturing services in the UK.


In Paris, the fashion industry is historically geographically clustered in the 2nd and 3rd arrondissements. The industry grew in the eastern suburbs largely because of the immigrant labor concentrated in this part of the city. Designers tend to be more evenly distributed throughout the city and less clustered than the manufacturers, wholesalers, and suppliers. Paris is home to nearly 8,000 firms in the apparel industry but New York has more than Paris and Milan combined. Much manufacturing has fled to Asia and very little takes place in Paris. Of the manufacturing that continues in France, it is mostly found in the western and southern parts of the country. An effort is underway by French design companies to restore manufacturing capacity in an attempt to preserve the exclusivity of the Made in France label. Perhaps New York could learn from Paris about nurturing and capitalizing on a domestic branding campaign.

June Panels

The panelists shared visions of an ideal future for the district and commented on the dynamics and needs of urban creative districts. Fred Dust, a partner at design firm IDEO, suggested that New York designers might be able to create a New York brand while at the same time making the district matter. “Does it matter to New York that it’s Made in Midtown? Could you make the primary focus that this is made in the center of Manhattan? That actually could be a brand campaign,” he said. Proving his point, certain pieces by the designer Jason Wu feature a tag with the words, “This garment has been completely hand assembled in New York, using fabrics of superior craftsmanship.” Other labels like Duckie Brown and Rag and Bone, which do smaller runs than the big brands, produce primarily in traditional factories with old-time workers in the New York City area and successfully use this as a marketing tool. Even large companies like J Crew have created partnerships with small family-owned clothing and footwear companies like Red Wing in Minnesota and Quoddy in Maine as consumer interest has continued to rise in American heritage brands. Following the Apple “Designed in California” model, perhaps Designed in Midtown could encourage garment-based industry to locate in the Garment District which would help it sustain itself as a viable district within New York City.

Some panelists speculated that what the garment industry needs is a more visible presence within the district. Ideas of how to promote a more physically attractive environment varied from the concept of creating a fashion museum, to property owner Eric Gural’s idea of opening up manufacturing spaces and design showrooms to the public in order to draw tourists from Times Square. A primary question raised by Sarah Crean, deputy director of NYIRN, asked what role the city is going to play in terms of encouraging this industry the way it has encouraged other sectors such as finance and bringing sports teams into New York. Her idea involved creating fashion industry incubators that would combine different aspects of the garment making process into one building in order to allow businesses to cross-subsidize expenses. With the city reevaluating the Special Garment Center District zoning, there is also a role for the government in nurturing those industries deemed important to the city’s economic health.

Of course what the manufacturers need most is steady business. As Madelyn Wils from the NYCEDC pointed out, “you have manufacturers that are counting on the samples they’re doing, but they don’t know how to count on the business that they’re going to have from year to year.” This issue especially hit home for Simon Collins, dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons. From a practical standpoint, the only thing that will keep the Garment District alive is for designers to pay for the services of the businesses in the neighborhood. “If [Garment District workers] have orders,” he said, “they can run their business and if they run their business they’ll stay where they are…If the city rezones [the district] maybe they’ll get the orders and they’re in business anyway.” From his perspective, fashion students and designers absolutely require a centralized and accessible neighborhood where they can experiment and have things made. In his opinion, the district does not necessarily need to be more visible to function better. In fact, encouraging tourism may create foot traffic and increased rents that could hinder the productivity currently taking place there. Achieving some level of visibility for the production methods, as was suggested by some on the panel and in the audience, is truly unnecessary, according to Collins, and perhaps deleterious to the district. Similarly, improving the aesthetics of the streetscape may make the visitor experience more enjoyable but is only secondary to improving the functionality and wellbeing of the neighborhood.

Rather than looking at the Garment District as a chronic problem, MAS believes that the City should leverage its clear strengths. If the choice is providing assistance or allowing the industry to move operations overseas where the cost of business is cheaper, the answer is clear: there is no choice. As we’ve learned from European fashion capitals—the strength of New York’s industry stems from the vital, integrated physical connection of design activities with the manufacturing sector.