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Garment District Factories Hanging on by a Thread

By DNAinfo Staff on March 18, 2011 3:00pm  | Updated on March 18, 2011 2:59pm

By Jill Colvin

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MIDTOWN — Under long fluorescent lights, dozens of workers sit side-by-side at white tables piled with fabric, feeding fine thread through sewing machines and carefully stitching by hand. Others stand together, marking pockets with white chalk and ironing seams.

The clothes they’re in the process of making will hit exclusive store shelves in less than three weeks.

But Garment District factories like this are disappearing, those in the industry warn, falling victim to high rents and the faltering economy and putting the future of one of Manhattan’s last manufacturing centers at risk.

Factory owner Joe Ferrara, who also sits on Community Board 5 and serves as director of the Garment Center Supplier Association, employs about 70 people in his factory at 318 West 39th Street, in the heart of the Garment District. He also owns another a factory nearby and one more in the Caribbean.

This coming Tuesday, Ferrara will be joining fashion designers, real estate owners and union leaders for a town hall meeting organized by the board to discuss the future of Midtown's fashion industry.

The highly specialized workers here manufacture everything from structured linen jackets to airy, elaborately draped chiffon skirts and $6,000 beaded dresses by high-end designers. A single wool coat can take 12-hours of work to complete.

"Each one is hand-marked, hand-stamped, hand-trimmed so they’re perfect," said Ferrara as he showed how workers compensate for differences in fabric by marking pockets by hand.

"They're the finest clothes made in the world," he said. "This is the stuff you make in New York."

Ferrara credited the unique composition of the district for New York’s dominance in design.

Because of their proximity, designers can visit factories manufacturing their clothing any time, which means that teams are in constant conversation.

He recalled a recent dilemma where a designer had envisioned a gauzy garment that closed using snaps. But whenever the snaps were pulled, the gauze would tear. The team gathered in the factory and quickly came up with an 'Aha!' solution: They reinforced the snaps with decorative tape that would bear the force instead. The designer loved the idea.

"It was maybe 50 alterations back-and-forth," said Ferrara, who said the solution never would have come about over the phone or online.

Manufacturers are also within easy reach of everything they need, with the button guy on one corner and the zipper woman on the other.

As a result, New York remains the capital for innovative design, Ferrara said.

"We own the emerging designer," he said. But that future is in jeopardy.

Ferrara said that factory owners are facing a "double whammy." Property owners are reluctant to rent to manufacturers because of the number of workers they hire, which makes it even harder to find space and drives up rents.

That, coupled with the bad economy, has put the unique industry at risk, as companies choose to relocate overseas where workers can cost as little as $100 a month.

Today the district contains roughly 600 factories. But if that number dips below about 300, the city will no longer be able to support a fabric industry, Ferrara said. Already, specialties are eroding. There are, for instance, only two pleaters now when once there were eight.

The town hall will bring those stakeholders together to share their needs with the community and discuss new measures they hope can help them survive.

The event will be moderated by designer Stan Herman and panelists will include Ferrara, Adam Friedman, the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Workers United’s Edgar Romney and designer Yeohlee Teng.

The Garment Center Town Hall will be held Tuesday, March 22, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Parsons at 560 7th Ave. in the 2nd Floor Auditorium.