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September 14, 2009

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New York's famous rag trade area feels pinch

NEW York's reputation as a global fashion capital is under threat, with the city's once-bustling garment district facing extinction, according to experts.

Just steps from runways of the semi-annual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in midtown Manhattan, design patterns are drawn, fabrics chosen and samples sewn for top designers such as Nanette Lepore and Anna Sui.

The district is just a shadow of its glory days in the 1950s and '60s when some 95 percent of clothing sold nationally was made in the United States.

Now just 5 percent of clothing sold is US-made.

Remaining garment district manufacturers are battling to stop more business from moving offshore during the recession as well as fighting for the historic area's survival.

New York is considering zoning changes that would allow the district's factories to become offices. A 1987 zoning amendment created the district to shield it from rising real estate prices, spurred by redevelopment of nearby Times Square.

"The district is in danger of disappearing, with its factories and workers forced out by landlords seeking higher-paying tenants," Lepore wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

"Manufacturing locally allows us to quickly increase or decrease production, depending on what customers want, and is the only affordable option for young designers with limited resources working on a small scale," said Lepore, who manufactures 85 percent of her clothes in the district.

The district has about 250 factories and sample rooms employing about 4,600 people, according to the Garment Industry Development Corp.

The city wants to drop the zoning, but the industry is lobbying for some buildings to be "designated fashion space," said Andy Ward, GIDC acting executive director.

The fashion industry is a vital part of New York's economy, generating about US$1.5 billion a year in tax revenue.

"We are working with varied garment district stakeholders to preserve the critical core that has remained and help keep New York City the fashion capital of the world while spurring investment in the area," said Andrew Brent, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber.

The history of New York's garment district and its demise is the focus of a new documentary by US cable network HBO.

"Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags," directed by Marc Levin, was scheduled to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in Canada yesterday.


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