New York’s fashion industry fears another shift by Emma Kazaryan

Sunrise Studio, a sample making company, which produced a dress designed by Derek Lam for Michelle Obama on her visit to China in 2014, has one more year left on its lease. Photo by Emma Kazaryan.

Sunrise Studio, a sample making company, which produced a dress designed by Derek Lam for Michelle Obama on her visit to China in 2014, has one more year left on its lease. Photo by Emma Kazaryan.

By Emma Kazaryan

After decades of production decline, New York City’s garment industry is undergoing another challenge to stay in business. As non-fashion startups move into the neighborhood because of its prime location and suitable infrastructure, fashion companies are being excluded from the district.

The Garment District, which stretches roughly from West 35th to 42nd Streets between Fifth and Ninth Avenues, is home to over 2,500 fashion companies that employ 21,000 people. The neighborhood, which for almost a century has been the epicenter of fashion for designers, manufacturers and suppliers is now under threat of being scattered around the five boroughs due to increasing rents and the transformation of the area.

“There is a chance that in five to seven years the industry is going to shrink,” said Tina Schenk, the owner of the pattern-making company Werkstatt on West 36th Street. “Some factories whose lease is over, the landlords are renewing it at higher rates and this is becoming a very big concern.”

Schenk, whose rent has doubled since 2008, has four years remaining on a new lease she signed in 2014. Besides paying for her company’s square footage, she has to pay for the common hallways, stairways, bathrooms and elevators, which constitute one third of her monthly rent. She is also responsible for annual real estate taxes and electricity bills.

Schenk fears the growing uncertainty as companies are pushed to move to Brooklyn. “Designers and their teams don’t want to commute to Brooklyn,” said Schenk, who has 95 percent of her clientele, including Jason Wu, Coach and Maiyet, located in Manhattan.

“We are here because it is convenient,” said Peter Chan, the managing partner at Sunrise Studio, a sample making company, whose main client, Calvin Klein, is a block away. Chan and his partner Terri Huang established the company in 2008 and since had their rent increased by 30 percent. Although their lease expires next year, they are optimistic about staying in the Garment District. “If that will not happen, we will look for another space in the neighborhood,” said Chan.

Although Brooklyn offers affordable rent and spacious workplaces in Sunset Park, Industry City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, many companies do not find it an attractive option, because of the lack of sustainable infrastructure to support the industry.

“We moved to Manhattan in 2014, because we needed a showroom and studio that was easily accessible to editors and stylists,” said Brad Schmidt, a co-owner of Cadet, a menswear design company. “From the resource perspective, Brooklyn doesn’t have enough suppliers.”

Schmidt and Raul Arevalo established Cadet in 2011 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where they ran the whole manufacturing process, from design to production. Three years after owning the factory, they sold their production facility and moved to West 38th Street, sacrificing space for location. “We reduced our rent by reducing space by half,” said Schmidt.

“There is not enough ecosystem in [Brooklyn],” said Amy Fong, the founder of Design Incubator on West 38th Street, who has been in the garment district over 30 years. She admits that the neighborhood has changed a lot during that time: Her rent has gone up 150 percent,  from $12 to $30 per square foot. “When we moved to our building we used to have windows facing west, now we have a brick wall from the newly constructed condominium building.”

According to the New York Department of City Planning, the Special Garment Center District was created in 1987 to preserve apparel production and wholesale east of Eighth Avenue, where hotels are not permitted.

The Garment District Alliance, a non-profit organization created to improve the quality of life and economic development in the neighborhood, released an annual report that showed there was only one hotel in the district in 1996 compared to 30 fully operating ones by 2013. “There used to be only factories in the garment district, now there are more hotel rooms than factories,” said Fong.

In the 1960s, New York City’s Garment District was producing 95 percent of the clothing sold in the United States. Since then,  production has declined to 3 percent. However, New York City is still the country’s largest fashion retail market and considered the world’s fashion capital, generating $10.9 billion in total wages and $2 billion in tax revenue, according to New York City Economic Development Corporation.

“The companies are going to migrate; it’s not going to be a [economic] loss, but a shift per se,” said Michael Londrigan, the dean of academic affairs at Laboratory Institute of Merchandising College, near Bryant Park. “The fashion industry has major impact on job creation. However, the industry is shrinking—it might have an affect in a short term.”

Historically immigrants have been the major labor force in the garment industry, coming to jobs with the required skills. But now the industry is experiencing a lack of skilled workers in manufacturing. “There are no vocational schools that are set up to train people—it becomes the responsibility of the employer,” said Londrigan.

In recent years NYCEDC and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a non-profit, implemented several initiatives to support and help the fashion industry by offering grant programs to improve machinery, workforce and software. “This year we added the relocation cost to our grant,” said Erin Kent, a program manager at CFDA. “The overall goal is to move the production to Brooklyn and city is very committed by making rents very affordable.”

While many manufacturers feel skeptical about the shift in the industry, city officials and initiative organizers believe that with the advancement and implementation of new technologies in digital manufacturing, distance will not be an obstacle in fashion production.

“It will be a different garment district,” said Debera Johnson, the executive director of Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, an initiative with over $2 million in funding, created by Pratt Institute to bring designers, manufacturers and technologists to Brooklyn. The initiative works on developing new technologies in digital manufacturing. “It will be the whole new world with fully digital process that can be developed in Brooklyn,” said Johnson.

Chan admits that after receiving a grant from the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative they could renew their machinery, which made work faster and sufficient, but he still sees an advantage to being in the heart of New York’s fashion district. “Whoever is stronger will survive,” said Chan.

STD clinic’s closure leaves Chelsea in crisis by Emma Kazaryan

The busiest STD Clinic in New York undergoes a major gut renovation. Photo by Emma Kazaryan.

The busiest STD Clinic in New York undergoes a major gut renovation. Photo by Emma Kazaryan.

By Emma Kazaryan

Two advocacy groups, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and the Treatment Action Group, held a town hall meeting on Sept. 1 at the LGBT Community Center on West 14th Street to discuss the abrupt closure of the Chelsea Clinic. The medical facility has provided free HIV and STD since the 1980s.

In March, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shut down the Chelsea Clinic, located at 303 Ninth Avenue, for a major, long-term building renovation, leaving the neighborhood with the highest rates of sexually-transmitted diseases in New York City with fewer testing services.

The Chelsea Clinic was the busiest of nine free STD Clinics in New York that provided testing for local residents as well as for people from other neighborhoods and boroughs.

‘This [clinic] was a vital link. It was especially important to have it in Chelsea, because Chelsea is still the heart of the HIV epidemic,” said Jeremiah Johnson, the HIV Prevention Research and Policy Coordinator at TAG. “People were traveling to Chelsea because they don’t want to receive the stigmatized services in their own community.”

While the clinic is under construction, which includes a gut renovation of the basement, first and second floors, DOHMH installed a mobile testing van outside of the building, which they said provides the most advanced and rapid HIV and syphilis testing. But Johnson doesn’t agree.

“A testing van is not a replacement for a clinic and it is not necessarily private or dignified,” he said.

Built in 1937, the Chelsea Clinic originally offered diagnosis and treatment of syphilis, gonorrhea and vaginitis for people who were unable to pay for private physicians. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the clinic started providing free and confidential counseling and testing for HIV. But the facility has not been renovated in 35 years, and many Chelsea residents who came to the town hall meeting admitted that the clinic was not in proper condition to provide medical services.

“For many years, the Chelsea Clinic has been in dire need of renovation and additional space for its growing patient needs,” said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the commissioner of the Department of Health, in a press release from June 2015.  “This plan will help make sure that New Yorkers who have come to rely on the Chelsea Clinic can get the services they need while we transform the Chelsea Clinic into a world-class facility.”

James Krellenstein, a founding member of ACT UP, said the number of people who have visited STD clinics has decreased by 40,000 since 2010, while the number of STDs has gone up. From 2010 to 2014 syphilis diagnoses in men increased by 33 percent, gonorrhea by 43 percent and chlamydia by 17 percent.

“Chelsea Clinic visits represented 23 percent of the total visits in all the STD clinics in New York,” said Krellenstein, who added that the clinic used to see hundreds of patients per week. “The testing van has only 14 to 20 visits a week.”

The mobile clinic staff redirects patients who need further medical assistance to the Riverside STD Clinic on the Upper West Side, which reopened in April after a five-year renovation. Employees of the Chelsea Clinic have been temporarily relocated there, according to DOHMH.

The change of facility has not been seamless for Chelsea Clinic patients. “The city’s strategy of redirecting patients to other STD clinics does not appear to be working,” said Krellenstein. “Since the closure, we have seen 18 percent decline in number of visits, which is 4,000 patients.” This decline could affect the increasing numbers of STDs, he said.

While activists together with city councilman Corey Johnson try to push DOHMH to render better alternatives for testing, city officials remain reticent.

“I got a commitment from City Hall to get a prefabricated unit to replace all clinical services that took place at the Chelsea Clinic. The Department of Health said that it wasn’t doable,” said Councilman Johnson.

In 2008 the Disease Control Division of DOHMH, which oversees HIV and STD rates, had its budget cut from $85.5 million in 2008 to $42.4 million in 2011.

“The budget for STD clinics has been cut and has never been restored,” said Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, who came to the town hall meeting.  “AIDS has not been cured. STDs have not been cured. And, yet, silence equals death and a lack of planning equals death. Closing clinics equals death.”