Today the Times pens the latest romanticized tribute to the garment district. While the area once produced 90 percent of the clothing in the U.S., more and more production has been outsourced over the past decade — a decline that writer Guy Trebay leans on to evoke a dramatic coral-reef metaphor, like the fashion version of Planet Earth (“Gradually the garment district … started in another way to resemble the reefs of the planet. It began to die”). In the late nineties, buildings that traditionally housed sweatshops, like the one at 347 West 36th Street, were renovated, bumping up rents. That building now houses small independent businesses, rather than the foreign seamstresses and pattern-makers of the past.
The story contrasts the dying “ecosystem” of the garment district with its comparatively thriving pockets of small-scale fashion production. (“You’re not going to go to China to make 100 belts,” one high-end garment district manufacturer for Saks points out, rightly.) And a new study reports that 28 percent of manufacturing jobs in New York are still in the apparel industry. The district’s champions, like Diane Von Furstenberg, claim that the area’s tight-knit interconnectivity is essential to New York designers. While it’s easy to lump fashion into the locavore trend (Buy local!), we’re also a bit weirded out by blatant nostalgia for the sweatshop days. With many labels still struggling to remain afloat, it’s unlikely that the old-school days of the garment district will be revived. Still, thanks to its high-profile supporters, like the reefs (?) it’s fending off extinction.