What’s going on in Manhattan’s Garment District? That depends on who’s asking, and on where “who’s asking” is asking from.
As if it were possible to understand what is really going on anywhere! Michel Foucault wrote that the “fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men, and truths” haunted the latter half of the 18th century.” 1 But it haunts us, too, especially as we try to piece together an understanding of the Garment District from our office in Downtown Brooklyn. From our window (or even our roof), we can’t see Russia. Instead, we have to rely on our computer screens, which presently display: 1) 46 rows of a 3,087-row Excel spreadsheet that inventories every building in the “Special Garment Center District”; 2) page 7 of a 2008 economic profile published by the Fashion Center Business Improvement District; 3) a Google map showing 34th Street to 42nd Street between Fifth and Ninth Avenues; 4) a photograph of a loading dock from yesterday’s visit to the Garment District; and 5) a HBO documentary called Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.
How will we ever get the big picture from this mess of little ones, which, in any case, we can’t see in one view since our desks face each other? To relieve the Foucauldian darkness of their city, Parisians enlisted Gustave Eiffel to build his Tower; but we have no such resources. The view of the Garment District from the Empire State Building’s observation deck is pretty illuminating, but it costs $18.45 per visit (prohibitive, considering our small budget). Those bird’s-eye-view maps on bing.com are pretty nice, but bing.com maps never illuminate much in New York City, what with all the tall buildings clamoring for attention, and getting in the way of the buildings you want to see.
No, our panorama — our Eiffel Tower — would be a building section. What else would you expect from a bunch of architects? Imagine this: You are a tourist. You have never been to New York. You have never heard of the Garment District. You arrive in New York via the Port Authority Bus Terminal. You have no plans. You walk south. You cross 40th Street at 7th Avenue, and notice that things are starting to look a little rough around the edges. You wonder why Manhattan doesn’t look the way it looks in Sex and the City. You are curious, and you start to pick up clues. An old man with a baseball cap and an apron pushes a garment rack full of plastic-wrapped dresses, brown paper bags, rolls of fabric and what look like waistbands up 39th Street. A truck pulls up to a building on 37th Street and a man with a hand dolly starts shoveling boxes into it. The boxes are marked “Marc Jacobs.” The words “garment wear arcade” are engraved in an ancient looking font into the transom of an old building. You fold up your tourist map and walk west. You mouth the words written on the storefronts in gold-leaf lettering: Mood Fabrics, Fabric House, Hecht Sewing Machine & Motor Co., Spandex World, Upholstery, Drapery Novelty. You note that banners, maps, garbage cans (even garbage bags), doorknobs: everything has buttons on it. “No Parking” signs announce special “Garment District” regulations. A plaque in the sidewalk declares Seventh Avenue the “Fashion Walk of Fame.” A few steps later, a bronze statue of an old man, hunched over a sewing machine and wearing a yarmulke, catches your attention. When you glimpse a giant needle and button cantilevering over a kiosk marked “the Fashion Center,” it finally dawns on you: this is where “Project Runway” is filmed! You wonder: have I walked onto a stage set?
Your curiosity is piqued. For the first time, you look up at the wedding-cake buildings made of tan bricks. You see banners, you see ceiling-mounted florescent lights through the windows, but mostly you see . . . bricks.
Bricks! Is there a better thing for stifling curiosity than bricks? Our tourist was starting to piece it together, to figure out what is going on in this unfamiliar place that looked and felt so different than how he imagined Manhattan would look and feel. If only he could know what was going on inside the buildings — behind the bricks — he might get a real picture. Instead, he’ll have to keep looking at signs and signifiers: buzzers, directories, things that point to the world behind the bricks.
Of course, getting behind the bricks wouldn’t have given our tourist that much better a picture than our computers screens did. As Bruno Latour argued, to know something as complex as a city, we have to make do with what he called “oligopticons,” windows that allow us to see “a few things well.” 2
The panoramic section published here, in which we peel back the bricks to reveal what we have seen and studied in the Garment District, is our oligopticon. Our limited, situated knowledge of “what’s going on in the garment district” is compiled not only from what we were able to see on our computer screens, but also from countless site visits and from dozens of interviews with designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, industry experts, and city officials. In Latourian fashion, we “followed the actors” as best as we could, in the hope that we could tell an interesting story about this remarkable place.
From what we can tell:
Face-to-face interactions with people and materials are essential to the design process, which is very tactile, and which isn’t entirely compatible with jpg attachments, telephone conversations and other tactics for long-distance communication. We try to tell this story in the “Timeline” sequence, and in our “Face-to-Face” comic.
The Garment District is an incubator for emerging design talent. We visited some young designers who source, design and produce garments from their living rooms, but most young designers couldn’t cut it without the Garment District’s dense network of suppliers and manufacturers, which enable emerging designers to outsource specialized, equipment-heavy processes.
The Garment District plays a different — but equally important — role in each stage of a designer’s career. More established designers might do design and production in-house, but they too outsource specialized processes. Established designers also source in the Garment District, and rely on the Garment District’s dense cluster of showrooms. We try to tell this story in our “Life of a Designer” comic.