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Designers Abandon Garment District as Groups Fight to Save It

By Della Hasselle | August 31, 2011 6:46am | Updated on September 6, 2011 10:20am
Vera Wang is the latest high-end designer to announce that she's leaving the Garment District.
Vera Wang is the latest high-end designer to announce that she's leaving the Garment District.
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Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

GARMENT DISTRICT — Top designers are leaving the Garment District as fast as they ditch last season's fashion — even as preservation groups campaign to save it.

Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta, Erin Fetherson and Alice and Olivia's Stacy Bendet have all decided to leave the district, with some saying the uncertainty of the area's real estate future is one of the biggest causes of their departure.

"The nucleus of the Garment Center already broke up a long time ago," designer Oscar de la Renta told fashion blog WWD. "Whether we have designers still on Seventh Avenue or somewhere else, we are all New York designers, and that’s what matters."

Vera Wang announced in early August that she would be leaving her space for a new one overlooking Madison Square Park. Alice + Olivia's founder Stacey Bendet is leaving West 40th Street for a larger space in the Meatpacking District this fall.

Oscar de la Renta is moving from Seventh Avenue to relocate to a spot on West 42nd Street.

Other designers are reportedly thinking about switching locations, including Coach. Some say it's because the neighborhood is under threat from the possiblity of changes in zoning restrictions, a debate that has come up frequently the past several years.

Currently, the zoning places restrictions on large parts of the Garment District in order to keep rents affordable for tenants involved in the manufacturing industry, as part of an effort to preserve the area's fashion industry.

But some argue the zoning restrictions, implemented in 1987, are letting the area stagnate.

As an initiative to boost the area's cultural appeal, the Fashion District BID proposes a change in storefront space and hotel and retail development in the area, and has contemplated how to change zoning restrictions in order to maximize growth.

"In general, the retail mix within the Fashion District has continued to change over the years with storefronts occupied by more retail and service-oriented stores, and fewer wholesale fashion businesses," a spokesperson for the Fashion Center Business Improvement District said in a statement, also citing a decrease in Fashion Industry employees over the years.

But not all designers are leaving - nor do they think they should. Several designers are involved in phase two of "Made in Midtown," an initiative started in 2009 to preserve the Garment District by studying how the industry and the neighborhood are an integral part of New York City's economy and identity.

“All my resources are here," designer Jason Wu says in an interview on Made in Midtown's website. "It would only make sense for a designer who’s very hands-on to be in the midst of where it all takes place. This is where the magic happens.” 

Other organizers involved with trying to save the Fashion District don't think it's significant when established designers switch locations, because they believe it is new designers that benefit most from the district.

"At a certain capacity, it makes sense for them, it's a kind of natural evolution for them," the Design Trust for Public Space Director of Programs, Jerome Chou, said about established designers looking for bigger retail spaces.

"But for every designer that leaves there's many more emerging that need the Garment District space. There's a constant cycle of new designers coming in," he added.

"That's what makes New York City the fashion capital of the world — new talent."

Regardless, those involved agree that the Garment District must be preserved for New York's Fashion Week to continue as it does. It acts like a hothouse for new designers who eventually develop into the high-end names that New York is famous for.

"It’s very clear from data that the city has collected that the garment districit is especially important to designers producing samples for Fashion Week," Chou said.

"That’s the heart of what Fashion Week does right now. It’s a research and development hub. It's prototypes, and new lines and new styles."

Joe Ferrara, a member of Community Board 5 and a garment factory owner, agreed adding that in order to sustain the Garment District in Midtown, manufacturers must be able to invest in their own technological advances.

"Fashion week is built on where is the new. And right now New York City is about what is the new. If we get rid of the new then you tell me?" Ferrara said, adding that moving the district would be "tantamount to blowing it up."

"Right now we know the new, let's invest in making that stronger," he added.