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Fashion doesn't live here anymore?

It was here that the Southern plantation owners placed uniform orders for their workforce, and where the mob controlled the logistics until FedEx, UPS and U-Haul took over the reigns.

Today, brush up on your who’s who of American designers by milling along the Fashion Walk of Fame on 7th, where plaques list 26 icons - including Diane von Furstenberg and Liz Claiborne who were honoured this year. This is where creativity embraces the retail industry so hang around for a little while and you may even spot the stars of the future as they exit Parsons, New York’s equivalent of St Martin’s.

But for how long?

The profile of the area has slowly been changing, but recently rising rents and shorter leases have sped up the process forcing the industry’s support business, for example small scale factories, trimmers and fabric shops to move out, with many of them closing their business as they don’t have the energy (or cash flow) to reestablish themselves in an increasingly competitive market. As I walked along 35th the other day I noticed signs in three out of 10 shop windows announcing immediate closure. Just another dying breed.

About 60 per cent of the area’s buildings are leased to the fashion industry - this is showrooms galore but also where 4000 people are employed in small scale factories supplying some of the biggest names in the industry. This isn’t about nostalgia. The industry is very aware of the downturn of local manufacturing, limited square footage needed for cut and trim, but wholesalers, HQ of large brands as well as trim and fabric shops still believe that this is the home of fashion. So why is this traditional area becoming just another mixed-use neighbourhood?

The Garment Industry Development Corporation (GIDC), a non-profit organisation set up by New York City and two trade unions, recently launched the Enforcement Project challenging the rapidly decreasing supply of affordable space to the industry’s support businesses. Landlords weren’t and to some extent still aren’t obliged to rent space to the industry and for over 12 years vacancies went to the highest bidders - i.e. media, larger finance and legal corporations as well as real estate.

With the support business dwindling, the fashion industry, including several high profile designers are lending their names to put pressure on landlords, enforcing the zoning or preservation of the area and setting rents that are affordable to the occupants - right for the market, right for the industry applicable.

But in a city where money does most of the talking it may take more than a few headstrong designers and a recession to get the fat landlords to consider the impact on the industry whenever another small scale factory turns off the Singer for the last time. Maybe that’s why GothamShop (a guided tour company for shopaholics) is already advertising tours of the Garment District, inviting you to grab bargains from the sample bucket and see where fashion once lived.

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