Want To Support Asian Americans In Fashion? Start In The Garment District
Nestled between 34th and 40th Streets, from Broadway to Ninth Avenue, is the Garment District, where 54% of all businesses are Asian-owned and led.
This spring, during an increase of violent acts toward Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, fashion brands began to show their support and solidarity. This involved posting visually pleasing #StopAsianHate art treatments to their Instagram grids or offering limited-edition specialty items where a portion of the purchase price would be allocated toward charitable initiatives.
Meanwhile, on another grid, the one that runs through the streets of New York City, a show of support with significantly more punch played out. Nestled between 34th and 40th Streets, from Broadway to Ninth Avenue, is the Garment District, a small and once-mighty quarter where, according to a recent study by artisans-rights nonprofit Nest, 54% of all businesses are Asian American-owned and led. According to a study by The Asian American Federation, almost 44% of the total workers in America's garment industry are Asian. The neighborhood’s factory owners, pattern makers, fabric cutters, seamstresses, and more, have worked there for generations and play an indispensable role in the fashion industry. And yet, as Asian American-directed violence increases around the U.S., the fashion industry hasn’t rushed to support them as much as they support their Asian customers. In fact, many brands have begun seeking production elsewhere to cut costs on labor.
Rather than broadcasting their support for the AAPI community on social media, designers can make a direct impact and reroute their efforts to investing in the thousands of Asian Americans who play a crucial part in New York City’s reputation as a major fashion capital. One way they can do so is by sourcing their patterns, samples, and collections from the many AAPI-owned factories in the Garment District that are currently struggling to stay afloat.
The Asian American Federation found that the apparel manufacturing industry in New York saw a 52.8% decrease of jobs in April and 41% in May of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. There’s only one thing that will prevent more such losses: steady work.
“Because of my Asian background, in a sense, going to the Garment District factories that are Asian-owned is like talking to my grandma or my uncle — it’s like going home,” says Timothy Jaw, the founder of New York fashion brand Jaw x Jawshop. “The neighborhood is so diverse and rich with culture, it is almost like a second Chinatown, full of history, friendship, and community.” Though Jaw sees the draw of manufacturing abroad as his brand grows as the cost of manufacturing in New York is much higher than overseas, he feels compelled to continue working with local factories, especially now, after the pandemic caused a steep decline in business for Asian Americans that work in garment manufacturing.
Jaw’s patternmaker, William Wai, has been a key figure in the Garment District for more than 40 years, having started as a sample maker after he arrived in New York from Hong Kong in his twenties. He’s owned his own clothing manufacturing company, helped launch some of the city’s most well-known brands, and worked with labels like Christian Siriano and Mark McNary. He finds business only through word-of-mouth due to his sterling reputation in the industry.
Now, four decades after he arrived in the once-booming locale, Wai sees all the ways that the Garment District has changed. There was a time when seeing large garment trucks parked on either side of the street, racks rolling constantly through crowded sidewalks, and friendly faces everywhere was the norm. Wai says he hardly sees anyone these days: "A ghost town," he describes.
As fashion sales plummeted during the pandemic, many designers began looking for ways to save money, which often meant leaving their pricier manufacturers in New York for cheaper alternatives. Even before the pandemic, more and more brands that had started in the Garment District were taking their business to less expensive factories overseas as they scaled.
Having experienced firsthand the tireless work that those who craft his pieces put into every garment, as well as the family-oriented nature of the communities in the Garment District, Jaw says that he wouldn’t dare follow suit. “I love seeing my community, improving my broken Mandarin, and working with them to create new designs,” he says. “It gives me a sense of purpose and joy.”
“We continued to produce [in the Garment District] last year, and we will continue to do so in the future because the quality and craftsmanship are stellar.”
Alexandra O'Neill, founder of Markarian
He’s one of a core group of designers and brands that remain devoted to supporting the local economy. “We have been producing in the Garment District since Markarian’s inception in 2017,” says Alexandra O’Neill, whose label got a boost earlier this year when Jill Biden wore one of its designs on Inauguration Day. “We continued to produce there last year, and we will continue to do so in the future because the quality and craftsmanship are stellar,” the designer says. According to O’Neill, producing locally comes with several upsides. “I know exactly who is making [my pieces] and can feel good about the conditions in which they are working,” she says. Though she recognizes that prices are higher in New York, she says that by remaining there, she has complete control over worker treatment, production lead times, and quality. “These are essential if you want to produce a truly luxury product,” she says.
Lauren Chan is the founder of plus-size luxury brand Henning, and she agrees. According to Chan, manufacturing in the Garment District allows her brand to maintain a high level of craftsmanship while also cutting waste by producing in small batches and avoiding global shipping, which helps to keep carbon emissions down. Most importantly, though, it supports local family- and Asian-owned businesses. “As a half-Chinese person, it makes me extremely proud that the best quality clothing in New York City is produced by Asian-owned factories,” she tells Refinery29.
“As a half-Chinese person, it makes me extremely proud that the best quality clothing in New York City is produced by Asian-owned factories."
Lauren Chan, founder of Henning
Chan and O’Neill maintain close relationships with everyone in their supply chains, from the seamstresses to the sample makers. Chan says she’s used multiple factories over the past couple years since she launched Henning in 2019, and not a single one of these relationships let her down. “I have known three generations of the family from one of our factories,” says O’Neill.
Thirty blocks downtown, the sentiment is the same. Instagram-favorite Susan Alexandra began manufacturing her popular handbags after spotting an array of beaded items in a Chinatown shop owned by local artisan Lisa Deng. Immediately upon seeing Deng’s pieces, Alexandra commissioned her to bead a bag with a watermelon on it — something that Deng had never done before. When Alexandra decided to manufacture similar bags for her then-jewelry brand, she named Deng her head of production, which the shop owner took as an opportunity to hire dozens of fellow Asian American artisans to help her.
“For me, working with these women is one of the most gratifying parts of this whole song and dance,” Alexandra says. “I feel like I have partners who are just as excited as me. I deeply cherish them.” Alexandra’s brand has snowballed into one of the most recognizable accessories brands on social media. Throughout its growth, the designer never considered taking her production elsewhere. “The women who make our pieces have been artisans for years, and have a level of understanding of this craft that constantly impresses me,” she says.
“There is a great synergy between the industry and [fashion] schools because of the Garment District.”
Adam Friedman, the director of the Pratt Center
The Garment District plays another vital role in the city’s fashion ecosystem: It’s a hotbed of talent; home to schools like Pratt, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Parsons; and where thousands of new creatives flock to create their debut collections every year. “There is a great synergy between the industry and the schools because of the Garment District,” says Adam Friedman, the director of the Pratt Center. There, young designers can get everything done, from purchasing fabrics to making samples.
No matter how popular O’Neill’s dresses are among the First Family or how many young designers utilize the Garment District post-grad, they alone aren’t enough to keep New York’s garment industry afloat. As pattern maker Wai points out, the Garment District is almost entirely deserted right now. Many of those who are still there believe they won’t be able to stay open for much longer if designers and big brands don’t invest in the neighborhood’s factories.
Awareness and funding is a necessary first step in the fight for a safer and more equitable future for Asian Americans, no hashtag required.