AGAINST A WALL IN R&C APPAREL'S CROWDED factory, in an unremarkable building on 38th Street on the far western edge of New York City's garment district, is a vast collection of sewing machines shelved with curatorial precision. The collection could be in a museum--many of the machines were built far back in the previous century, and are technically antiques.
For Ramdat Harihar, the factory's Guyana-born owner, who began his career sweeping garment factory floors, the machines are not obsolete, but tools for innovation. With a little tinkering--and an arsenal of cannibalized parts-they can be used to create entirely novel stitching effects, which find their way into the work of leading American fashion designers such as Anna Sui and Zac Posen. Sometimes, innovation demands using machines for new purposes; in one instance, a microwave oven--and a dash of vinegar--helped create a new pleat for Donna Karan.
R&C Apparel is in one sense an archetypal, almost metaphorical, New York garment district business: Immigrant laborers work on outdated machines in an old building in a well-worn neighborhood, doing the sort of work one imagines was long ago outsourced to cheaper locations. Indeed, most of it has been. Even as New York City was gaining in stature as a fashion capital in the latter half of the 20th century, its share of U.S. garment production underwent a full-tilt inversion, from a commanding 90 percent to less than 10 percent.
The story of this shift still haunts the district. "You couldn't walk on the sidewalk," says fabric wholesaler Bryan Kramer, recalling the jostling traffic of garment racks that once crowded the streets. Rodger Cohen, the second-generation owner of Regal Originals, keeps a tangible totem of the decline: a Pleaters, Stitchers, and Embroiderers Association wall calendar from the 1980s that lists some 400 members. "I'm the only unionized pleater left," he says. Across the street from his office, someone has hung in another office window a sign that reads "Save the Garment Center."
In the several months I spent researching the district as part of a team organized by the Design Trust for Public Space, I talked to everyone from designers to economists to one-man dress form manufacturing firms. (The team was convened in response to a proposal to alter the garment district's zoning that would have effectively killed the district off; the proposal has since been tabled.) It was not hard to imagine myself as a kind of industrial Indiana Jones, mapping the murky contours of a business hardly known for its transparency, plying dark warehouses where hulking machines sat mothballed, being handed business cards advertising long-abandoned embroidery crafts such as bonnaz, meeting workers whose average age was just south of retirement. When I asked Cohen what the learning curve was for a man who was working on complex pleating patterns--intricately geo metric, three-dimensional sculpture, really--he shot back, "There is no learning curve. The man spent his life doing it. There's nobody left who does it."
But beneath the well-chronicled narrative of garment industry decline-perhaps captured most eloquently in the elegiac homage to glove making in Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral (1997)--I began to see another set of truths: that the garment industry is still New York Cites largest manufacturing sector by employment; that the production, service, and supply businesses that remain play a vital, if underappreciated, role in the larger fashion industry of New York; and that even with the emergence of instant communications and far flung supply chains--not to mention the pressures exerted by landlords looking to convert industrial space into more profitable offices-there are still compelling reasons why this industrial network continues to cluster in midtown Manhattan.
It has become fashionable, in part due to the tireless work of urban studies theorist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) and Who's Your City? …