Like a (Sewing) Needle in a Haystack

There are thousands of workers in the Garment District, but who are they?


Looming over Seventh Avenue, aptly nicknamed Fashion Avenue, is the larger-than-life sculpture Needle Threading a Button. Designed in the mid-1990s by Pentagram Architectural Services, this 31-foot-high behemoth acts as a sartorial lighthouse in a sea of Midtown chaos, signaling to city residents and tourists alike that they are now entering New York City’s Garment District. A rectangular microcosm running from 34th to 40th streets and bordered by Sixth and Ninth avenues, the Garment District has been synonymous with fashion and all of its accouterments since it was established more than a century ago. Over the decades, the Garment District has been the nerve center for both emerging and established designers, including household names such as Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren.

New York City’s garment industry began on the Lower East Side, in tenements that also functioned as home factories. It was in the early 1900s that those factories moved to commercial loft spaces in Midtown. “The district was pushed out of residential buildings by legal changes and by the desire of garment manufacturers to open factories in lofts and open showrooms to market their products,” explains Robert W. Snyder, professor emeritus of American Studies and Journalism at Rutgers University-Newark, via email. Throughout its existence, the industry has employed a succession of immigrants from all over. “Initially they came from Western Europe, such as the Irish during the Potato Famine,” says Mike Kaback when I speak to him over Zoom. Kaback is a Garment District historian and tour guide who has worked in the district for decades, giving tours every few weeks. By the early 20th century, many Jews who were already skilled in garment work had migrated to New York from Eastern Europe; over time, other immigrants settled in the city and found jobs in the Garment District as well. In the 1930s, my great-aunts, a group of young women from Southern Italy, were just a few of the countless newcomers who went to work in the district’s lofts each day. Their weekdays were spent toiling away at factory sewing machines crafting Christian Dior scarves. Their evenings at home in Queens were for recreating gowns from Vogue patterns, later to be worn to weekend birthday parties. My aunts always managed to dress to the nines on a dime.

Today, the demographics of the garment industry have shifted, but the expertise remains unparalleled. According to research done by Nest, an organization that helps support the responsible growth of the artisan economy, 73 percent of garment workers here are foreign-born, many coming from South America, South Korea, and China. The conditions of the workplaces have vastly improved since the Garment District’s beginnings. Tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—in which 146 garment workers, mostly young women, were killed when fire swept through a sweatshop in Greenwich Village—were the impetus for labor reforms and safety regulations fueled by the rise of unions. “I say that most of the people employed manufacturing garments in NYC, at little factories or big factories, those that are union outnumber however many may be employed by non-union facilities,” explains Kaback about the industry today. Some newer businesses, such as Carmesi, a community-organized manufacturing cooperative founded by Robert Ramirez, are looking even further to modernize how their companies are run, by making them employee-owned cooperatives. “This means that all employees, after a certain amount of time, can buy in,” Ramirez explained in a phone call.

Like other parts of New York City, the Garment District has not been immune to negative change: Business lost to outsourcing and offshore manufacturing has caused the local industry to shrink. The allure of convenience created by Amazon has encouraged people to buy more products online, whether garments or supplies, instead of patronizing the District’s shops in person. New immigrants are also looking to get jobs with Amazon as opposed to the garment industry, says Ramirez. And, of course, there is the rise of Midtown rents, which has forced companies to either shutter permanently or move their operations to the outer boroughs or New Jersey. Most recently, akin to the rest of the world, the Garment District was hit hard by COVID-19. A research study by Nest found that 98 percent of businesses in the District were negatively impacted by the pandemic. “As a center of manufacturing, the old Garment District in Midtown is a dramatically diminished version of its former self,” comments Snyder.

This diminishment can manifest in the uneasiness one may experience nowadays walking down 8th Avenue to Penn Station after dark. One factory worker told me she did not want to walk in the area with a pocketbook. Late-night crime alerts on the Citizen mobile app can light up the pixelated map of Manhattan’s West Side with red dots like a game of Battleship. Before and during my visits to the area, I was cautioned that I was more likely to cross paths with someone using drugs in the street than someone with a pushcart. And they were right. As I rounded 37th Street one morning, a young man, clean-shaven and dressed in business casual, sat in a doorway prepping a heroin needle. A wave of sadness hit me as I realized that this was a Garment District my long-gone aunts would no longer recognize.

Still, through the loss of business, rising rents, crime, and even a pandemic, a bastion of garment workers still congregate in the Garment District each workday. Allegiance to their craft and a passion for this strange little area of Manhattan acts as a buoy to help keep the District from drowning. There is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie within the businesses and the community as a whole. I talked to some of them to learn their stories.

Mustafa, Owner, City Fabric Shop
240 West 38th Street

Even if City Fabric did not have signage outside the shop, people would still manage to find a reason to stop in—that’s how colorful its windows are. This neighborhood fabric business is owned by Mustafa, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in New York nearly 20 years ago. Although the walls are lined with luxurious fabrics that would seemingly require trained experts to curate—beaded tulle, sequined chiffon, and myriad feathered options, to name a few—Mustafa’s background is not in fashion. “When I first came [to the States], I was a carpenter,” he explains. “But I had no diploma, so I could not get a [professional carpentry] job here.” So in 2004, he ended up in the Garment District, working alongside his brother.

It was a few years ago that Mustafa decided to start his own business, City Fabric Shop, which is open to the public seven days a week—he usually takes a day off only once a week. When I ask him how fabric shops in the Garment District differ from those in his native Pakistan, he thinks for a moment. “In Pakistan, there are bigger markets,” he explains. “Here, more people buy online. In Pakistan, the people buy more in person.” An important detail, he says, as fabric is best experienced in the flesh, so one can see and feel the quality before purchasing.

Although Mustafa’s shop is packed with fabrics that embody all colors of the spectrum—chartreuse, indigo, vermilion—his favorite fabric color is a simple black (“Any women’s clothing looks good made in black”). When asked for style insight, he offers an interesting piece of advice: Pay attention to clothing lengths. “Certain lengths can make someone look older,” he says, “while others can make someone look younger.”

Bara Thiam, Owner and Designer,
Bara Thiam
240 West 37th Street

Take a look into Bara Thiam’s studio and it is quickly evident that he is an expert at what he does. A rising designer, Thiam specializes in custom design and manufacturing. Originally from Senegal, he moved to New York City almost five years ago after spending time in Europe, and when he arrived in the city, he went straight to work. He’s been at his current location in the Garment District for the past year, creating custom projects from bridal gowns to celebrity red-carpet ensembles. 

When I stop in, Thiam is busy doing a fitting with a client, a well-known media CEO getting a custom design for an event. She is standing on a pedestal in front of a mirror, dressed in a striking black-sequined outfit that fits perfectly. “This is my first fitting, can you imagine?” she asks. “He’s amazing.” What may be even more amazing than Thiam’s intricate, high-fashion designs—he has absolutely no formal training. “I never went to fashion school,” he says, smiling.

Mariam, Custom Fabric Flower Maker,
M & S Schmalberg
242 West 36th Street

For over 40 years, Mariam has been traveling from her home in the Bronx to Midtown to craft custom fabric flowers at M & S Schmalberg. The family-owned company has been making these custom flowers at their West 36th Street atelier for more than 100 years. Creations from this Garment District mainstay have graced Met Gala dresses, elaborate runway designs, red-carpet couture, and bridal gowns.

Their rich background may be the only thing more vibrant than the handmade flowers they produce. M & S Schmalberg was founded in the early 20th century by two brothers who also employed their 17-year-old nephew, Harold Schmalberg, a Holocaust survivor who had come to the city after losing his family in the war. Fast forward to the present time, and the business is currently helmed by a fourth-generation family member, Adam Brand.

The company employs a group of artisans who have been with them for years, including Mariam, who works during the studio’s hours of operation, Monday through Thursday. “When you love something, you stay there,” Mariam explains. “People always ask me, ‘You’re still there?’ I’m retired but I’m still here. This is not a factory, this is an art for me. We have a good environment here, we are like a family.”

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Mariam fell into her craft by chance in the 1970s. It was through an employment agency placement that she discovered her love for the trade. Decades later, you can still hear her passion: “I love when the customers send us something, asking if we can do it, and we do it and they love it,” she says. When I ask her what some of her favorite projects are, she smiles. “Oh, there are too many. There’s the Harry Winston one….” but she trails off. As for style advice, Mariam exclaims that she loves when she sees younger people wearing fabric flowers, whether in their hair or pinned onto their clothes. “I know older people like to wear flowers already, but I love when the younger people wear them,” she says. “I also love when the men wear flowers [on their suits]. I think that’s amazing. The flower is not just for women, but it can be for men, too.”

Vickie, Artisan, New York
Embroidery Studio
Milad, Design Director, NYES
307 West 36th Street

When you visit the New York Embroidery Studio, the first thing you notice is a few dozen vintage Singer sewing machines artfully placed on shelves around the studio’s entrance, an homage to the area’s storied past. But the studio is a far cry from the cramped spaces that dominated the Garment District in earlier times: the New York Embroidery Studio (NYES) is open and very spacious. There’s an office area with glass walls, a comfortable meeting room with plush couches, and energetic music playing over a sound system.

NYES was founded in 2002 by owner Michelle Feinberg, and is a full-service design studio and manufacturing facility whose clients range from Met Gala attendees to local well-known designers. The studio employs dozens of artisans, who do everything from hand embellishment and embroidery to pleating and printing. One of these artisans is Vickie, a veteran of the garment industry, who has been in it for more than 50 years. “I started working when I was younger,” she says. “I would come down after my classes.” Originally from the Dominican Republic, Vickie shares with me that she knows Mariam at M & S, an indication of just how tight-knit New York’s garment community still is. When I ask for insight on working with fabrics, Vickie offers me a tip: “Wool is very easy to work with,” she says. “It is more durable and it is not delicate. Jeans fabric is good, too.”

Another employee is Milad, the creative director of NYES, who is originally from Lebanon. He explains to me how the death of department stores and the ways in which designers now approach seasons have affected the garment industry. Because of the ”want right now, buy right now” culture, he says, manufacturers have had to shift accordingly. He also has sage style advice: “You don’t have to wear every trend, beading should never die.” And then he adds with a laugh, “And please, don’t wear pajamas while flying on a plane.”

Katie Nicklos, Owner, Wing + Weft
265 West 37th Street

If you tuned into the 2020 presidential inauguration, chances are you have seen a Wing + Weft glove in action. That’s because Wing + Weft, the last custom glove factory in the Garment District, custom-made Jill Biden’s gloves for the special occasion.

Formerly known as Lacrasia, Wing + Weft has been a stalwart in the District since 1973. In 2017, the company was bought by Katie Sue Nicklos, who has a background in costume design and was a loyal Lacrasia customer for years. Known for its expertise, the company’s clients have included Jackie O. and Prince; it also has a large presence in both the Broadway and drag queen communities. The space is bright, spacious, and calming. On the day I visit, a few artisans busily work at sewing machines while jazz plays softly in the background. One of these women is Benita. “She is very talented and has over 35 years of experience,” says Nicklos. When it comes to style insight, Nicklos says that she will always push gloves. “Having a fun pair of gloves is handy. It’s an easy thing [to wear] and people love to see the glamour.”

Maria Lipari, Director of Operations,
Quality Patterns
246 West 38th Street

“To me, Quality Patterns is like a human being treated with such respect, because that is the place that has afforded dreams to come true,” says Maria Lipari, Quality Patterns’ director of operations. The business’s main focus is on grading and marking, the process in which a range of sizes are made for a garment, and it services both emerging designers and iconic red-carpet names. The company was started by Lipari’s two older brothers more than 50 years ago; in the 1980s, when computerization was introduced into the trade, Maria joined the business. Everyone who is still with the company today has been there for at least 25 to 30 years, and they consider each other family.

But Lipari and her brothers’ story begins with their father, an immigrant from Sicily who used to work in the city’s garment center as a paper cutter. “He was a laborer, and he never spoke English so he couldn’t really move up,” she says. Over time, her two brothers took jobs as delivery boys for the factories, eventually joining together to create their own business. “I love the garment center because it is a labor of love,” Lipari explains. “With open arms it has taken in so many people and has changed their lives.” When one looks at the bigger picture, this notion becomes palpable: Immigrants, such as those in Lipari’s family and mine, who had humble beginnings in the Garment District, have gone on to raise doctors, attorneys, business owners, and more.

In terms of style, Lipari suggests, “Wear whatever you are comfortable in,” and adds, “Always wear nice shoes.” Also, be sure to pay attention to fabric—“You can tell a beautiful fabric by the way it hangs.” And she has advice for designers looking to get a start in the industry: “When you start, start with what you love and have that vision come to life. Then when you grow, branch out to other areas.” And her most basic advice? “Do whatever pulls at your heartstrings and you will really excel.”  ❖

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