The Last Millennial In The Garment District

Photographed by Amy Lombard.
Joann Kim starts her day at 6 a.m. at her dad’s home in Flushing, Queens. She and her boyfriend Luca, a handsome Italian with an undercut and tattoos, take the 7:24 LIRR train together to Penn Station, and walk five blocks to the Garment District. They pick up $1 pastries from a Chinese bakery nearby, kiss goodbye, and by 8 a.m., Kim takes an elevator to the 17th floor, where a quiet garment factory awaits.  

She is is the manager at Johnny’s Fashion Studio, a sample and development factory in the Garment District that does work for cutting edge designers and well-known brands alike. With 250 samples a month being turned out of Johnny’s, it’s not entirely unlikely that you’re wearing an item that Kim helped develop.

By Pratt Institute’s count, in 2012, there were a little over 300 factories hidden throughout the upper levels of the Garment District. The owners of these factories are, almost without exception, older men and women from China, India, and Korea in their 50s and 60s who speak little English. Designers find these factories mainly through word of mouth, and hesitate to talk about or publicize the work that factories provide for them. 

Kim is an anomaly among her peers in the industry: she’s well-educated, bilingual, tech-savvy, and boasts a background in both the NYC art and foodie worlds. She’s the daughter of the factory’s namesake, Johnny, a second-generation patternmaker who’s been in the business for 30 years. She’s also, at 31, part of the Millennial generation, though she disputes that term. “That generation that everyone is always saying is lazy? I work too hard to be a Millennial!” she says. Compared to the other, older factory managers, Kim is jarringly young and cool, with heeled ankle boots, a gold nose ring, tattoos, and ombré hair.
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Photographed by Amy Lombard.

But, despite all this, Kim is struggling with the exact same issues as every other factory in the Garment District. In the 1960s, the Garment District made 95% of clothing sold in the United States and employed 200,000 people. Now, it makes 3% and employs about 21,000 people. Even as New York becomes more of a global fashion destination, factories within its city limits continue to close up shop. 

Johnny’s is the kind of factory that makes New York Fashion Week possible. But, you could see Kim's role as demeaning — she makes the salary of a barista and spends her entire day garrisoned in a dingy space, while her friends run restaurants, direct and produce videos, and head up brand management for large companies.

Or, you could see it as inspiring. Because in an industry rocked by cataclysmic changes and helmed by tired and sclerotic managers, Kim — young, bright, hungry, and innovative — could be the garment industry's best chance to survive and thrive. 

If she fails to find a way forward for Johnny’s, it doesn’t bode well for the Garment District, for young designers who rely on the neighborhood to launch their careers, or for NYC as a fashion capital. But, if she succeeds, she could carve a space for other young people like her to succeed the older generation and keep the Garment District going for a few more decades.
Photographed by Amy Lombard.
Here's Johnny!
Kim invites me to her factory on 38th Street on a frigid February day. While I arrive, she’s measuring and cutting fabric on a table. This isn’t technically her job, but since Fashion Week is next week, it’s all hands on deck.  

Back in the '90s, when Kim was just a little immigrant kid learning English in Queens, Johnny had a production facility with 300 sewers in Long Island City. At the time, there were several hundred Korean-owned factories in NYC. When one of the two brands he was working with, Ann Taylor, decided to take everything overseas — as most big brands did — Johnny declared bankruptcy. He reemerged to set up a unique factory model for the time, a sample and development studio making patterns, prototypes, and doing fittings with models. This allowed him to capitalize on the new Garment District paradigm, where designers developed their lines in the Garment District, and once the patterns are set, have them manufactured overseas.   

As a second-generation Korean-American, managing the studio was certainly not in Kim's plans. Most of the progeny of NYC factory owners saw the decline of the industry, studied hard and traded up to a more prestigious and well-paying careers. Kim studied Art History and English at Hunter College and eventually found her way into event planning.
Photographed by Amy Lombard.
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When she was 25, she thought she might use her planning skills to help her father and do a little branding for the factory to help bring it into the 21st century. “My goal was supposed to be only to help with sales and marketing,” she says. “It was easy for me. Make a new logo, a new website, build a pamphlet, do some marketing campaigns, build some social media channels, hire a part time marketing manager, and we’re set.”    

Things started to unravel, though. Johnny was getting divorced from his wife, and the fighting that ensued made a mess of the business. “You could make a movie out of the stupid drama,” Kim laments. “We lost a big chunk of money. We lost a lot of new clients.” Kim, out of loyalty to her father, came on full time two years ago and then overtime — taking a pay cut that took her salary down to the lowest she’d seen since she worked in a coffee shop — to sort out the mess and help the business grow. “He’s not a businessman. My goal was to make Johnny the poster child of local manufacturing and domestic production,” she says, and to attract young, up-and-coming designers, leaving Johnny free to focus on what he does best: making clothes.  

So while Johnny handles the fashion, Kim handles the clients. One second, she's speaking perfect English to a young client, giggling and vibing with her, and the next she’s barking orders in Korean to the employees. Or she’s doing a combination of both. “Cut first, sew together,” she says in a heavy Korean accent to a sewer seeking guidance.   

“[In] the majority of factories, no one speaks perfect English,” Kim says. “It allows me to engage with the client and build a better relationship — we become friends.”

Photographed by Amy Lombard.
The True Cost of a Hotel Rooftop Cocktail    
The second time I meet Kim, it’s in another building. The street, lobby and elevator all look exactly the same, until I step out onto the floor and find a different layout. Right after Fashion Week, Kim packed up and moved their factory. “The rent was too high over there,” she says. “We’ve downsized significantly. On 38th Street, we were running two floors and 30 employees. We’ve cut that down to half.” 

A bell as loud as a fire alarm goes off, and factory workers arrive, punching in and setting up the machines, which whir to life with a metallic clatter under the fluorescent lights. It’s odd to think that ten blocks away, you can get a $16 cocktail at the rooftop bar Gallow Green.  

Rent is the Big Huge Problem of the Garment District. This tiny neighborhood — 35th to 40th Street between Broadway and 9th Avenue — is being squeezed on every side by luxury hotels and offices, which can afford to pay higher rates. Rent prices were around $25 per square foot five years ago, and have jumped to between $40 and $60.  

Rag & bone produces their clothing all over the world, but makes the highest volume of their ready-to-wear collections in the Garment District. They have no plans to leave, but they do wish the Garment District had more space and production capabilities. “It would be good if the city of New York forced all the landlords in the Garment District to reserve a percentage of their total square footage for manufacturing at protected lease rates,” Marcus Wainright told me in an email.  

Photographed by Amy Lombard.
Funny he should say that, since technically, the Garment District is zoned to protect it from redevelopment, and requires landlords to set aside space for factories. But, that zoning isn’t enforced. “I’ve lost sleep over it,” Kim says.

What do you do when Manhattan is over? Move to Brooklyn, naturally. The most enticing option is the recently renovated Liberty View Industrial Plaza in Sunset Park. It’s one full city block of empty space waiting for manufacturers and just 35 minutes from the Garment District by car. Most importantly, it’s zoned for 30 years for industrial manufacturing and comes with thousands of dollars in tax credits for manufacturers who relocate. 

Bob Bland is the CEO and founder of the garment manufacturing incubator Manufacture New York and the one advocating for the space and enticing manufacturers out to Brooklyn. Kim has been in talks with her for a while. “She’s waiting for me to come,” Kim says. “I’m hesitating. It’s super, super scary because at the moment I do that, I’m going to lose half my clients.”

Many designers are fiercely protective of their ability to run just a few blocks from sample studio to trim store to their office. Sam Orley conceded that they might jump ship if Johnny’s moved. “Having a factory that is located within the Garment District is the benefit of working with American manufacturers,” she said.       

But, others are loyal to Johnny and Kim. “I’m open to any change,” Donna Kang of Timo Weiland says. “If they need to go anywhere else, it’s a partnership. I follow where the talent goes.” Rag & bone's Wainwright has personally witnessed factories the brand works with shuttering. “If the Garment District were to move to another borough, we would follow,” he says. 
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Photographed by Amy Lombard.
The Problem With Sexy Young Designers     
Later that morning, Kim's two development coordinators, recent FIT grads, arrive. She talks and jokes with them in Korean before disappearing into the depths of the factory. Occasionally, she runs back over to grab a bolt of cloth or fish trim out of a basket, measuring it against a ruler.  

Kim plops down at the glass table and uses a knife to tear open an envelope. She mock gasps with delight at the check inside for three figures. “Money!” It’s not much, but right now, every little bit counts.   

“All the bills and payroll are backed up a little bit,” she says. “Designers, especially if they’re young, will have a cash flow issue. It’s not like I have a $10,000 cushion where I can say, ‘Ok, just give it to me when you can!’ No, I chase people for money.” At this moment, she’s pissed at a certain designer who is two months behind on paying their invoice, but is still showing up to ask for things.  

“Back when Johnny first started, there were no young fashion designers,” she says. But, the nature of manufacturing in the Garment District has changed. What was once large, reliable brands putting in huge orders season after season is now a sea of young hopefuls scrambling to make it with tiny collections. 

Emerging designers may be dominating in the media, but they are unreliable. “We work with many who are CFDA members who get press left and right, who are such amazing, amazing designers and who have such great talent. I have to chase them for their invoices because they’re waiting for funding,” Kim says.  

“Johnny has always said in a healthy factory, 50% goes to one designer, and 50% is a range of other small designers,” she says. “We’re at 90% working with young designers. You never know what will happen. They might go bankrupt in a season, they might disappear after two seasons, they might grow.”  

Her solution for now is to cut them breaks and build loyalty so when they blow up, she’s taken along for the ride. “If I love what you’re doing, I’m loyal and I hope that you are, too,” she says. 
Photographed by Amy Lombard.
Smarter, Better, Faster, Fancier  
During Fashion Week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would be tripling the money it gives to the fashion industry through the Made in NY program from $5 million to $15 million. The money is going to awards to designers, publicizing Made in NY, internships for students, and training workers to work with new technology.  

When I tell Kim about this, she is surprised — she hadn’t heard this piece of news. She’s not so into the publicity part. What she really wants is for designers to be able to afford the good quality work Johnny’s does. “When you think about the articles that are out there, that Made in America is coming back and local manufacturing is coming back, it takes more than a lot of press,” she says. “The cost of Made in America is completely different from getting something done overseas. Rent is ten times more. Labor is ten times more. Everyone wants their garments manufactured in the U.S. without accepting the price point. ”  

So far, the CFDA and the administration’s solution to the travails of the Garment District has been to give grants to factories so they can upgrade their technology through the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative. After all, word on the street is that China is now actually more advanced than we are when it comes to apparel manufacturing. New York wants to hold on to its reputation for being the best place for luxury, quality manufacturing.      

I ask her if she could get an investor. She says that the only investor she could get would be a large label, which would want to lay claim on a certain percentage of the factory’s time and work. “It’s really risky. I had a conversation with a big brand, and a year later they closed down. Thank God I didn’t go through with that.”  
Photographed by Amy Lombard.
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A couple of weeks later, I join Kim at a private birthday party in Jackson Heights. The tiny restaurant, Little Tibet, is filled with friends. Her boyfriend Luca is there, wearing a Timo Weiland sweater. They joke and patter, passing around bowls of noodles and dumplings.  

Kim is ebullient. She’s gotten calls from a couple notable designers and one very large brand asking for test samples. But, she’s also disappointed because she and Luca have failed in their quest for an affordable apartment somewhere in the city. She was gunning for Williamsburg. She’s tired of them living with her dad, which was supposed to be a temporary thing.

In one day, Kim cycles between head-in-hands despair and visionary optimism. “The last thing I ever would have expected was to work with my father, in his factory. It’s so difficult and it’s so burdensome, and I constantly ask myself why am I doing this. I get stuck in the everyday, making sure we find the right thread, making sure we pay our payroll and taxes. I get home and I’m exhausted. Between living in bum-fuck and working here I don’t see my friends. I’ve been passing out at 9 p.m.”  

Kim yearns for the time when her energy was going to creating things, instead of just keeping her head above water. “I'm in the garment industry and I haven't been able to do what I want to be doing, pulling people together for dialogue. Fashion people don’t want to do that, because they think it’s cheesy.”

“I want to show them that we matter. We're important. I want to break this façade of fashion being all glamour, all important, all chic. It’s not. It’s brutal, exhausting, messy. All the designers avoid talking about the factory workers involved in making a garment. All you see are the photo shoots, runway, street fashion, editorial. You don’t see the gritty [side].” She nudges her glass of Prosecco my way, saying I can have it. She sips a beer instead. 

“Anything you see on a runway, it’s started in a factory.”
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