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It may no longer be overflowing with fabric shops and specialty costume warehouses, but the Garment District is still the go-to for editorial and theatrical artists seeking businesses with centuries of expertise. As conversations around rezoning the historic neighborhood to accommodate fewer offices and more housing gain steam, the Garment District’s surviving businesses say that it’s time for them to be sewn permanently into the fabric of the area’s real estate.
Spanning approximately W35th Street to W41st Street between 5th and 9th Avenues, the Garment District is one of the neighborhoods highlighted in Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul’s “New New York” plan as a potential target for commercial to residential rezoning. The Garment District Alliance (GDA), a business improvement organization established in 1993 to spur local development and boost economic value, recently released a research report outlining the potential to add over 3,000 new housing units through rezoning.
“We think having residential will bring more of a 24/7 feel to the neighborhood,” said Garment District Alliance Vice President Gerald Scupp at a recent City Council hearing. “I don’t think Broadway is going to close down because a glove manufacturer moves a few blocks away.” W42ST reached out to the Garment District Alliance, who declined to comment further on potential rezoning.
But for the entire city’s only remaining glove manufacturer, picking up to move is not so easy. Katie Sue Nicklos, CEO of Wing & Weft Gloves, told W42ST that not only would moving further away from Broadway’s stage doors be detrimental to the shop, but that most newer, non-Garment District buildings weren’t equipped to handle the specialty equipment needs of fashion manufacturers.
“The city was built a long, long time ago, and these buildings were built a long, long time ago,” said Katie. “They’re made for our specialty machines.” She explored the idea of moving out of the district when her previous shop was displaced for luxury office space in 2019, but newer landlords wouldn’t accept her 4-ton machines — a make-or-break item — in their spaces.
While potential rezoning plans have not yet been finalized, Katie and other garment industry business owners are worried that they may be written out of the process. “We really don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” she said, “but the fact that this is being washed over the small businesses of the Garment District is just another wave of things that are making it harder and harder for us to keep our foothold.”
Wing & Weft has managed to maintain its foothold for five decades. Founded in 1973 by Jay Ruckel and Lacrasia Duchein as Lacrasia Gloves, the pair “passed the gauntlet” to Katie in 2017 to keep the operation going. “They kept this alive for more time than anybody could believe,” said Katie, who added that learning from and eventually taking over for Jay and Lacrasia is why “we consider ourselves a fourth-generation family business.” She said, “They’re not family, but they’re like family.”
Katie wants to keep the lone glove shop — which outfits everyone from Diane Von Furstenberg to the city’s top-notch drag performers — firmly planted where they can make the most economic and artistic impact on the city. “The arts can be looked at as being frivolous, but they have such a greater meaning in our life and society,” she said. “Part of that is this special place called the Garment District, and there are all these talented, talented artisans here doing incredible work, adding joy to the world.
“Most of us are just happy to keep plugging away and I am too,” she added. “For someone to say, ‘Well, they can go somewhere else’ — the real truth is we can’t be out of Manhattan — and we can’t be in Manhattan unless we’re in the Garment District.”
Jon Coles, co-owner of the century-old Dersh Feather & Trading company — the only purveyor of its kind left in the city — agrees that leaders should find a way to keep the Garment District home to garment industry shops. “These buildings have a very strong structural integrity — they were built for heavy machinery,” said Jon. “You can’t move a business that has a heavy machine into just any old place. It might fall through the floor!”
Dersh Feather originally opened in 1918 in lower Manhattan, but has been in the Garment District since “practically time immemorial,” said Jon, who joined the business 14 years ago after 25 years in the fashion industry. While Dersh doesn’t require machines that would prevent them from relocating, “if we’re not in this kind of a location in the Garment Center, somewhere between, let’s say 8th Avenue and 5th Avenue in the mid-30s — it would change our business pretty drastically,” said Jon. “We couldn’t be in Brooklyn or Queens or even 10th Avenue. We would lose a lot.”
Some officials counter that while stalwarts like Dersh and Wing & Weft have impressively maintained their businesses in the district, most fashion-industry shops have not. Known as the world’s capital of clothing manufacturing in the 1940s, US-based and New York-based production has steadily declined since the 1950s. After a 2003 Department of Labor study showed that apparel manufacturing shops had continued to shrink across the neighborhood, the district was rezoned in 2005 to accommodate for additional housing — though the re-draw resulted in more hotel buildings (29) than apartment units (976). The Garment District and surrounding Penn Station area has also recently suffered a slew of COVID-19-related commercial vacancies and subsequent quality-of-life issues, leading some city and state officials to deem it “blighted”.
Katie said that despite some of the grimmer numbers, “this is not about saving the Garment District. The Garment District is thriving — I’m not suffering, my business is thriving here, and so it needs to stay where it is.” She added that while she’s “not pleased with the news of converting to residences,” she does understand it, and is not opposed to plans that include more housing. “I just want to make sure that we can have a plan where if there are buildings with some residences, then maybe some small businesses are subsidized with rent,” she added. “Something that benefits what makes this neighborhood so great.”
Jon agrees, adding that he believes a rezoning plan “has to be about what’s better for New York City.” He said, “If you can take a fairly desolate, and perhaps dangerous area, that’s zoned commercial and put a whole bunch of families there, maybe crime will go down and certainly maybe the area would be kept cleaner. But the thing is, if you move out people such as Wing & Weft, the costume houses and Dersh Feather, it hurts the city.” He added, “For instance Broadway, I think, is a money maker for the city and draws in tourists — and we want to make things pleasant for the costume designers and the performers.”
Both operators agreed that collaboration between business owners, landlords, city agencies, and the Alliance is the way to keep the Garment District reflective of its vibrant history and address evolving housing needs. “The GDA is so powerful, and the small businesses that are housed in their buildings really want to work together with them,” said Katie. “I have a fabulous landlord. I think working together to make sure we all have a seat at the table to show the reasons that the Garment District needs these businesses would work — we are contributing money to this economy and we should be able to be in these conversations. Let’s make sure everybody gets a little something out of this.”
Jon, who plans to retire in the next few years and is actively looking for a successor to the business, hopes that conversation and collaboration with the GDA will keep Dersh Feather around for the next 100 years. “There are so few of us left in Manhattan,” he added. “I think we should have a voice.”
WOW….My fingers are crossed that Katie and Jon, and their fabulous businesses that are literally “the fabric of New York”, continue to thrive. Thanks for the great article!!!!!
Mixing garment manufacturing dynamics with residential dynamics seems incompatible. There would need to be totally separate entrances and elevators. The historical significance of the area and how it was the main player in the global manufacturing of garments before being dispatched to other countries is worth preserving. Something must be figured out for the shops in the article. A 4-ton piece of equipment is not going anywhere. It is not a household sewing machine.
Ultimately, the cost of converting most buildings in the garment center area to anything remotely residential will prove far too costly to do. The buildings were designed and built specifically for garment manufacturing. However, some of these buildings could be perfect for temporary supportive housing and mental health services for the needy on our streets. Loft type spaces with dormitory style areas and communal bathrooms with very little conversion expenses.
I worked in that neighborhood in the 80’s. I really loved walking down those streets window shopping and looking at all the different styles in the windows. In fact, when I married in the 1990’s I went to the garment district to purchase materials to make wedding favors and remember all the wonderful people that helped me and wished us a wonderful life. It’s so sad to read that this is disappearing too. I would love to see that manufacturing personal touch increase its presence in American life right were it is.
Plus powerful bicycle lobby TransAlt intent on ensuring that DOT reduces street space – so businesses that need vehicles cannot operate.
Not to mention TransAlt has zero interest in mass transit or mass transit users – TransAlt supports closing streets (open streets) which force bus rerouting.
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