Today, I am visiting the Garment District. I found the suit in a box in my attic. Walking the streets of Manhattan wearing it . . . I am reminiscing . . . my thoughts are drifting back to the ’80s . . . this suit was part of the Susan Apple ’86 spring collection.
In 1983, my senior year of college, I founded an apparel company, Susan Apple, Inc. After designing a dress for a project in my pattern-drafting class, my friends wanted one of my designs. Over the summer, I took orders and sewed. Little did I know this was the beginning of an apparel company. One day it would become a thriving business with annual sales of one million..
Today it would be difficult to do what I did 25 years ago. Back in the day, American consumers shopped at small boutiques and a few department stores. Small American manufacturers supplied 50% of our domestic clothing.
Slowly, things began to change. . .
Today, around 1% of the USA clothes are made domestically.
Although the price is right, I find little satisfaction in the ready-to-wear clothing. Since the ’90s, I have noticed a steady decline in the quality of fabric, design, construction, and fit of ready-to-wear apparel.
Building my business in the ’80s, with $5 in my pocket, I traveled to the Garment District in search of fabrics and trim. Business was booming, the textile salesman said “The minimums are 2,000 yards per color”. My heart sank, how could I afford to purchase these minimums? Visiting more showrooms, salesmen repeated similar minimums.
One thing was for sure the big textile mills would be in business forever.
It’s hard to imagine the world without the Internet.
Back in the day, the Garment district’s designers often relied on word-of-mouth to find fabrics, trims, and factories. The fashion industry was notoriously competitive and acquaintances weren’t so willing to share trade secrets with an aspiring young designer.
Lucky for me, one of my dear Louisiana friends, Molly Kelly, a designer of children’s clothing, took me under her wing and became one of my first mentors. . .
Molly saved the day! She shared the names of a couple of Garment Industry salesmen. Their companies, Hamilton Adams Linen and Spechler Vogel companies sold beautiful imported fabrics and the minimums were reasonable.
Many of the Garment District’s textile mills are out-of-business.
After a rare cancer diagnosis, I am having medical treatment at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center. Radiation treatments in the morning, following my heart, I am visiting the Garment District in the afternoon. . .
Arriving in the Garment District, I am anxious to see those textile salesmen with the high minimums. One after another, the textile showrooms have closed. In their place stands hotels, restaurants, and advertising agencies. I am devastated for the impact on the people who made their livelihoods here.
Walking on 39th Street, I see Spechler Vogel. Stepping inside, I am happy to see Jeff, the owner. His showroom looks great and hasn’t changed a bit. The same tables and paint colors. Bolts of fabrics line the walls. In the Garment District, Spechler Vogel is an institution. It has occupied this showroom for 50 years. Perhaps Jeff’s way of doing business, very unique with reasonable minimums is part of his secret of success.
My hunt continues . . .
Sort of like finding a needle in a haystack, I am delighted to discover a small workshop on 39th. Inside, the walls are lined with patterns, samples, and small bolts of fabrics, sewing machines hum as women sew small batches of clothing. My thoughts drift back to 1983. . .
During my college spring break, I loaded the trunk of my car with samples and set out on a Texas road trip. I talked the owners of a few boutiques into buying a handful of dresses. Susan Apple was off and running. In Fort Worth, a small western apparel factory agreed to cut and sew the dresses. I was on cloud 9! The factory closed down the following week.
Luckily, I found another small factory, down in Bunkie, Louisiana, Bon Cherie. I remember watching Tom make patterns and cut stacks of fabric into various shapes for clothing. Rows of sewing machines with ladies sewing filled the small windowless factory. But the new business that Susan Apple brought to Bon Cherie wasn’t enough to save the factory. It closed in 1986. I was devastated.
The heartbreak of watching these small factories and American jobs vanish was disappointing.
The Garment District is on the verge of extinction.
Since the early 20th century, the Garment District has been the home for many fashion showrooms, fashion labels, and caters to all aspects of fashion design and production. Less than 1 square mile, is generally considered to lie between 5th Avenue and 9th Avenue, from 34th to 42nd Streets.
The Garment Districts Fashion Walk of Fame
I notice the stones embedded into 7th Avenue’s sidewalk. They feature well-known designers. They changed the face of America! Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Clavin Klein, Anne Klein, Betsy Johnson and many more designers are on the Fashion Walk of Fame. I wonder if young designers have the same opportunities in today’s fast-fashion industry.
For many reasons, it saddens me to see the Garment District slip away without notice.
- This is a big loss for Manhattan and the USA because the Garment District is a significant part of American history.
- The Garment District is the icon of American designers.
- The fast-fashion industry is devastating to our environment and the human rights of the garment industry.
- Loss of thousands of jobs.
- Attractive quality clothing seems impossible to come by for consumers.
I am not so sure the American consumers know the true cost of fashion. The single fact that the fashion industry is the 2nd most polluting industry, consuming 145 million tons of coal and 2 trillion gallons of water to produce fiber is shocking. In addition, with the consolidation of the fashion industry, 7 to 8 companies buy 70% of the clothing.
I have faith in the American people. Learning the truth of the fast-fashion, things will begin to change . . .
Zady and similar businesses are emerging with a new standards for the fashion industry.
If I ran the Department of Clothing and Textiles, this would be my proposal.
Actually, I don’t even know that there is a US Department of Clothing and Textiles.
But if there were, these would be my recommendations!
- Worldwide, every worker should be treated with dignity.—Safe working conditions and fair wages.
- Independent third-party auditing for safe buildings, fire codes, and child labor.
- Reduce fashion waste—Preserve our natural resources, water & coal.
- The Fashionable School—Revitalize Home-Economics high school classes with an emphasis on design and sewing. Encourage budding designers with scholarships.
- Promote Clothing and Textile Study in our Universities—Focus on ethical production of apparel worldwide, supply chain management, cost of fashion to the environment, balancing the supply and demand of merchandise.
- Supporting creative and upcoming designers!