The Garment District’s Density and Physical Layout Helps Emerging Designers Thrive

Katie Fong Made in New York Designer
Katie Fong at her Garment District studio in New York

The Garment District is a hub for innovation and opportunity, drawing creative talent together because its density and physical layout provides access to resources, whether it be factories or supply stores, all within a couple of blocks. As other industries continue expanding their online platforms, the need for the local resources in the fashion industry remains prevalent.

This is the second story in a three part series that begins to unfold the complexity and importance of New York City’s Garment District that cannot be understood quantitatively. The stories of designers Katie Fong, Sarah Carson, founder of Leota, and Frank Tropiano, are excerpts from Nicole Lau’s undergraduate thesis titled, “The Importance of the Garment District and Growth of ‘Made in NYC’” that she wrote as a senior at The New School submitted spring of this year.

The Garment District's Density and Physical Layout

Helps Emerging Designers Thrive

Originally based in her hometown Greenwich, Connecticut, Katie Fong would make trips to the Garment District to go fabric shopping and buy supplies for her namesake label. After a few months, she began searching for a space in the neighborhood because she needed to be closer to where everything is. In Spring of 2013, Katie moved into the Garment District. Her current Spring 2015 collection is entirely manufactured within a five block radius from her studio on 38th Street. Having gone to college and interned for several designers in the neighborhood, Katie is not only familiar with the district but an expert at navigating it to find what she needs. Although Katie’s formula for success is frequently followed, it is not the standard. The way the Garment District is physically structured and the relationships and connections that can be formed make it possible for an aspiring designer to succeed in the industry.

“I didn’t know a single soul in the Garment District because I didn’t go to fashion school, but I figured it out,” said Sarah Carson, founder of Leota. At Brown University, Sarah studied Gender Studies but went into investment banking after learning accounting. However she didn’t decided to crossover to fashion on a whim. Sarah always was crafty and making dresses was a very serious hobby. After hours and hours with her sewing machine, teaching herself from trial and error, she thought she had a concept. Having always wanted to do something creative in her career, she decided to turn her concept into reality. 

Not knowing which supply stores to purchase from or which factories to contract, Sarah had to be creative and persistent to get the information she needed. She found some of her first bulk supply stores by following the delivery guys with the rolls of fabric on their pushcarts. To find the right factories to make her samples, Sarah used the district’s proximity and density to her advantage. 

I would go door to door, find a building that had factories and I would go to every single floor with my samples and say, can you do this, can you do this, can you do this? What’s the price, what’s the price, what’s the price? And that’s how I did it because I had no idea. 

“I would go door to door, find a building that had factories and I would go to every single floor with my samples and say, can you do this, can you do this, can you do this? What’s the price, what’s the price, what’s the price? And that’s how I did it because I had no idea.”

Sarah’s determination but also the physical layout of the district, the close proximity of supply stores and factories, allowed her to navigate the district on her own. While time consuming, Sarah’s experience shows that it is not impossible. The activity on the streets and the sidewalks, the rolls of fabric on the pushcarts, not only make the neighborhood vibrant but act as a roadmap. The Garment District  provides designers access to materials and labor but also the knowledge to solve challenges through first-hand experiences, what they see and who they meet. The neighborhood’s density has also been beneficial to Frank who found his manufacturer, BK Samples, after getting off the wrong floor from the elevator. 

“I was working with another factory in that building and I had gotten confused. I went to the wrong floor, I hit the wrong button…I got off the wrong floor and saw BK Samples and on the sign it says high quality sewing. I was like, let me go in and see real quick to talk to them.”

In the Garment District, there are buildings with factories on multiple floors and multiple factories on each floor, allowing designers to easily and efficiently visit their manufacturers to check on progress and answer any questions. Frank’s encounter with BK Samples may be accidental but the district’s agglomeration made it possible. 

Nicole has a background in both Urban Studies and Fashion. She is currently the Communications Manager for Save the Garment Center, a non-profit organization that supports fashion companies in New York’s Garment District but also around New York City and throughout the USA. She also freelances for Dg Expo, a fabric and trim show held in New York City, San Francisco, and Miami. In the past, Nicole has interned for The Skyscraper Museum, researching architecture and urban history for exhibitions including Urban Fabric, The Architect’s Newspaper, and fashion designer Sue Stemp under her namesake label. She holds a BA in Urban Studies from Eugene Lang, The New School. 

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