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Garment District Panel Warns of a City of Only Bankers and Brokers

From Left: Tim Gunn, Michael Meola, Yeohlee Teng, Madelyn Wils; Image by Giles Ashford, courtesy of The Municipal Art Society of New York
From Left: Tim Gunn, Michael Meola, Yeohlee Teng, Madelyn Wils; Image by Giles Ashford, courtesy of The Municipal Art Society of New York

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Last night the Municipal Art Society of New York held the first of an ongoing series of panels discussing the future of New York's Garment District at the School of Visual Arts Theater. Moderated by the always charming Tim Gunn, the discussion featured a panel of six experts in fields such as real estate, industrial retention, zoning, and of course the fashion industry—as represented by womenswear designer Yeohlee Teng. Deborah Marton, the executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, sat on the panel and opened the evening with an in-depth introduction to the Design Trust's newly released study Made in Midtown.

The early findings of the Made in Midtown study dispel myths that Garment District exists only in name. The area remains a "hub for research and development;" and central to smaller-batch and higher end production. It also provides the opportunity for a young label (e.g. Jason Wu) to go from sketches to showroom wholesaling without the massive investment or high volume production required to bring talent in-house or inexpensively produce overseas. The process, next to impossible in cities like Paris or Milan, makes New York "the fashion start-up capital of the world."

Collectively, the team agreed that zoning mandates created in 1987 were not working, and that part of keeping the Garment District vital means improving life on the streets with interactive events, beautification, pedestrian friendly features, and increased retail opportunity—improvements aiming to attract designers as well as tourists and residents who don't necessarily have ties to the industry. Sarah Crean, the deputy director of the New York Industrial Retention Network (and artisanal baking industry expert!), suggested a system calling for retail and other higher-margin tenants subsidizing the rents of artisan and production tenants upstairs. Eric Gural, executive managing director of Newmark Knight Frank (aka "evil" property owner representative), suggested a strange Colonial Williamsburg version of the Garment District in which tourists could watch newly-ordered clothing being made. Crean's ideas were better received than Gural's.

Yeohlee Teng provided several of the evening's highlights including a warning that without action New York will become a city of "bankers and brokers," and that no-one should want that. More practically, she warned that a dearth of skilled craftspeople—pattern-makers, pleating experts, textile producers, cutters (not eye-linered Floridian emos—there are plenty of those)—could cripple the industry. Above all, designers (and the under-employed) need training and apprentice programs to insure that vital skill sets and an entire industrial sector don't die with so many aging immigrant artisans.

Predictably, the audience was as colorful as the panel and ranged from students, educators and historians to those who already work in the area. A representative from The Fashion Center—exasperated by Teng and several audience members being entirely ignorant the organization's exhaustive database (on-line or in-person in the office under the giant button at 39th and Seventh!) stood up and made herself known. Another audience member, a teacher at New York's High School of Fashion Industries was equally exasperated by suggestions for a neighborhood museum and historical center, since one already exists within the school (and could, apparently, use more funding).

Our favorite attendee, however, was one Mr. Feinberg. A long-time Garment District dealer of fabric with very fond memories of Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg, Feinberg declared that "business stinks!" His idea: Use newspapers to "get the word out!" Mr. Feinberg: We'll let you know when we start our print edition, but this will have to do for now.
· Made in Midtown [Official Site]

School of Visual Arts Theater

333 W. 23rd St., New York, NY