Monday, April 22, 2013

My Norma Rae moment... Save/Shop the Garment District/Center

I reread this post I wrote a few months ago, thinking my recent conversation with Leonard Bernstein might have changed my mind about many of the points I make here.  Actually, I still stand by just about everything I said here, but I have been enlightened and broadened by the information he shared with me... and now I can share it with you.  Stay tuned for my next post!

And read this one, if you didn't read it in February.

Well, I'm no Norma Rae.  I'm not even sure where I stand on Unions. I may not mount workroom tables, holding a bold cardboard sign over my head, but I do have a passionate drive to keep the garment district going strong, as it matures into whatever the future has in store for this magical place. To make this happen, people have to earn paychecks.  The kind that keep them fed, clothed, and sheltered. We ALL benefit from exchanges that honor the people contributing to the effort of manufacturing at every level. We all have a human obligation to respect, encourage and protect each other. That is a fundamental fact of life, not just in the garment industry, but everywhere.

Running this blog, visiting stores and businesses, being a dressmaker, and having so many contacts within the industry, I sometimes feel the pull of the soapbox.  "Who will listen to me?" I think.  It is very easy for others to give me an encouraging pat on the back, while doing nothing about the decline of the garment district themselves. "What do I know about all of this, anyway?" I often console myself by claiming not to know enough, by claiming to be "just" the tiniest of tiny voices in a huge, competitive industry.  But, actually, I know the truth.  Who isn't "just" a tiny voice?  Someone has to pull out the soapbox, raise a sign, and put a voice to the problem I think we seem to be collectively ignoring.  This post may be controversial, but I do hope it stirs up some great conversation. And action. There must be action.

*Clearing my throat*

In advertising circles, I know that they talk about getting people to see information by appealing to them in different ways.  Some like to look at pictures, some are drawn in by the words, some are lured in by emotional stuff, and some just want the data.  I'm going to give you all of those elements here.  Whichever type of person you are, I encourage you to open up all of your senses to really take this post in. At the end, I am going to require something of you.  I'm not actually asking.  Your help really is needed here.

Step 1: Go to the mall, or wherever you actually shop for clothing.  Look at the clothes, look at the fiber content, the construction, the countries of origin, the fit  (try something on) and the price. Imagine who might have made it.  What his/her life might be like. Good or bad, they live that way because WE buy the goods they make. Does that hurt to hear? Whether high end or low end, environmentally conscious, or generically anonymous clothing sold at a huge discount retailer, you have a mental picture, correct?

What you can do: Buy the things you feel good about buying, considering all aspects of how/where/by whom it was made available to you, and don't buy the ones you don't.
What I can do: Tell you about companies who are making things in a socially responsible way, no matter where they are actually made.  Let's start... click through for a great list of businesses who make their goods in the USA, where we have labor and wage laws. I know my audience is broader than just the USA, so I encourage any of you to think about your own political views, values and loyalties as well.

Tearjerker alert... Watch this old commercial.

"Our wages going... to feed the kids..."

Step 2: Go to the Garment District in New York City, if only to take a walk.  Look at the stores you see there.  In your opinion, can it still be called the garment district?  Who occupies most of the real estate? Step into the fabric and notions stores.  How much transacting are you seeing taking place? Are you buying?  If so, great.  If not, why not? Is there anything you are looking for that you can't find?  Step into the Fashion Kiosk (at the big button) and ask your question.  Be advised, they are there to give you information, not guarantees or recommendations.  Meet and greet to get your own feel for the suitability of the business(es) they direct you to, and follow the path where that inquiry leads. If you go anywhere that I've sent you, tell the proprietor that you learned about them on my blog.

Don't live in NYC?  Watch the video below (sound quality is poor, but you can still get it), wipe your tears, and then, then be sure to visit the websites of the garment district stores you like.  Make, embellish, upcycle, or dress up your own stuff, if you want to.  If making a statement by doing so, tell people who ask about it, why you make your own. Or, take a hybrid approach.  Make some things, and shop responsibly for the rest. For what you buy ready-made, consider this...

What you can do:  Read this post to get an idea of which garment district stores sell the kinds of things you want to buy. Then, buy something. Note: Even if the online vendors mentioned aren't in the NYC garment district, they are a "middleman" or fabric curator, since much of the fabric they sell still comes from stores in the NYC Garment District, anyway.  So, in the end, it still benefits the same vendors.

What I can do:  I can keep finding great new places, and notice improvements to old ones, and share that information here.

Step 3: Know this. A clothing designer isn't going to build a factory just to make their clothing here. This tells me that we have to take more than a few huge steps to change the aftermath of the battle we've already lost.

Yeah, I said it...  We're fighting a war that is already lost.  If you feel I am mistaken, I would love to know why you feel that way.  Convince me.  I'd love it. I have spoken to enough bigwigs to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.  I will give you direct quotes from influencers who did not give me permission to share their names, but who can feel more than welcome to claim their (paraphrased) quotes in the comments following this entry.

"Only the small designers will have their things made in the garment district.  The goal, for anyone, is to get the kind of volume they need to go offshore.  Otherwise, they just can't keep up."

"I wish the Ralph Laurens and Gap would produce their garments here, using American notions, supplies and labor.  I mean, really? Even they can't produce here, with the sales volume they have?"

Now go to the Imogene and Willie site. Again, not asking.  Telling. Sorry to be so bossy, but I must, in this case. Read the page you find after clicking the link above, so that you are understanding what you are about to see below.  Then watch the video, and whether you come back here, or stay there, do something.  If you aren't moved, I think you might be made of stone.

What you can do:  Listen to the idea given at the end of this video.  Give it serious thought. Understand what their story is symptomatic of, and open yourself up to the big picture. Go to the Save the Garment Center website. Follow any of the suggestions that move you. Kinda 1960's maybe, but real.  Hey, gotta start somewhere, right? Are you a designer? Can you be a part of making something happen?  Somewhere?

Also, read the article about designers and the garment district here.

What I can do: Listen to you.  Comments, please. I'll be going to the DG Expo today.  Will you?


  1. The Commandress blog has a category of "smart, chic and made in the USA" which is useful for women looking for career clothing made in the USA.

  2. Mimi, very sincere thanks for a detailed and thought-provoking post on a profoundly important topic. It's great fun to think about the beauty of fabrics and the joy of creativity and that's one very big reason for my love of the garment district --- everything about it keeps me fascinated; from the pleasure I get as a personal shopper/maker of things through to learning and thinking about the human and social endeavours involved in the development of the garment district over time. The shifts we are experiencing are profound and it is important for us as a society to reflect on whether the values and practices are ones we are happy to stand for. While the US has lost a lot of its manufacturing base, NAFTA hasn't exactly been a joyous reform for the production workers further down south, and it is a bit disingenuous I think for production folk to say better that they get a dollar a day than what they had before. All people who do an honest day's work deserve to get at the very least a "living wage" - a wage that allows them to house, clothe, feed and educate themselves and their children. This is a very important minimum standard for those who are trying to build their economies by being the cheap labor fodder for the US. As to the garment district itself, it'd be great to see some of the fashion people who send most of their production offshore to re-invest in the garment district. Even if the big production runs still go off-shore, samples and small collections can still be produced in the garment district. Also, there is a definite trend to constant manufacture with quick trend response and turnaround times --- new stock appearing on a weekly basis --- which is more difficult to produce offshore. The garment district might not be able to support massive volume business anymore, but it is fantastically well poised for some of the more "niche" services. There ought to be a lot of people interested in the welfare and future of the area...let's hope. Thanks Mimi, I really appreciated your thoughts and your time in writing this post.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Liz. Your insights are, as always, very well considered and expressed. I think the only way to change this trend is for someone, whether new or established, to produce in volume, right here. And do so profitably, even if their goods are sold at a higher price.

  3. Amen. We all need to revise our shopping habits, to buy more garments made in America, to refuse to spend our money on the shoddy clothing brought in from the worst factories overseas. Thank you, Mimi, for putting this out there and in our faces. I have already begun my campaign of withholding my clothing dollars as I search for the purchases that will allow me to feel good about what I'm buying. And Imogene + Willie is a great place to start - I'm putting it on my "must see" list for next October when I'm in Nashville!


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