Nicole Lau knows the importance of New York’s Garment District. For three years, she was involved with Save the Garment Center, a grassroots, community organization that advocates for the preservation of the Garment District as a manufacturing and design center. She started as an intern during her senior year of college grew into the role of Communications Manager. She is now pursuing an MS in Urban Policy at the New School and her latest endeavor, Urban Made Project is an admirable venture that shares the stories of the people that make the fashion industry thrive.
What is Urban Made Project?
Urban Made Project’s mission is to educate and inspire discussions on the need for local manufacturing and highlight the challenges in sustaining a vibrant urban manufacturing base. We do this by telling the stories of the people and their trade through written profiles, photography, and video clips, providing an inside look into a part of the fashion industry that is unknown to many.
Why did you start it?
Urban Made Project is a marriage of my knowledge of how cities operate and function, my curiosity for how things are made, who made them, and love for learning about people’s lives.
Starting Urban Made Project made sense. It was the right fit with my education and work background. In high school, I briefly interned for designer Sue Stemp for her Fall 2008 About a Girl collection. Her studio, ironically, was located in the Garment District, although I knew nothing about the neighborhood at that time.
As an undergrad majoring in Urban Studies, I interned at the Skyscraper Museum where I assisted in the research and production of the Urban Fabric exhibition. This led to my involvement with Save the Garment Center where I worked with community members to support the garment manufacturing sector through programs and outreach.
What motivated me to go forth with the idea came down to two reasons, the desire to share what I have seen and learned and the need to participate in the way the city I was born and raised was being shaped.
What I have enjoyed the most about my involvement with Save the Garment Center has been the people. I have continuously been inspired by people I have met, their trade, and their commitment to the community.
What I have enjoyed the most about my involvement with Save the Garment Center has been the people. I have continuously been inspired by people I have met, their trade, and their commitment to the community. When I began telling my friends who are architects, engineers, urban planners, and financial advisors about the people I met, they too were inspired. There are so many good stories that have not been told but would captivate an audience if there was a place to bring them together. Urban Made Project was developed to be that platform, a voice for the garment industry.
Recently, the City of New York unveiled a plan to rezone the Garment District and relocate garment-related businesses to Sunset Park. I have never considered myself as an activist, in the traditional sense, but Urban Made Project is a form of activism. I lead with a firm belief that policies need to be formed in conjunction with the constituents it will effect because their contribution of knowledge and experience, as one reading the profiles will recognize, will ensure the vitality of the industry in the years to come.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I hope that these stories change the discussion and focus around manufacturing. I noticed that there has been more news coverage of manufacturing trends which provides a good bird’s eye view. But it doesn’t fully capture what is happening on the ground. Numbers, like the number of manufacturing jobs or dollars of economic activity generated, disregards the human and social aspect of the industry which is pivotal to its growth and success. It is why Urban Made Project focuses on the most micro level, the individual.
From a policy perspective, I hope this can add to the discourse of the garment industry as its future is being contested today. As a body of research, it shows the complexity of the industry and its impact on the people it serves.
What are some of the most interesting stories/learnings from your interviews?
One of the main themes that came up in every profile was the ability to identify a demand in the market that was being unmet and cater to it. The main reason why these businesses continue to operate today is because they are responsive to the market and are willing to adapt as it shifts.
In the Garment District, Carl Schimel and his daughter Elyse run CJS Sales. You walk off the elevator and in every room, there are boxes staked floor to ceiling of vintage deadstock jewelry and accessory making components. The reason why CJS Sales is successful is because they understand how designers work. As Carl described it, a picture of a car in a beautiful champagne mist is different than going into the showroom and seeing it in person. It reflects light differently, it has a different intensity. Designers go to CJS Sales because online, they can’t get the depth of an item exactly. A designer may determine that a turquoise cabochon is alright but the green isn’t. Or that the rhinestone’s purple color actually looks deeper than depicted in the photograph. When talking to a designer, what is important is how a product looks to them.
This echoed what I learned from Richard Korenstein, the owner of R. Kaye. For the first 21 years, R. Kaye made custom buttons, dye to match buttons, covered buttons, and casted metal buttons, which are widely used by the military, and belt buckles. His clients would search his mold books would find that his belt buckles were a good fit for shoe buckles and his buttons could be turned into earring pieces. Realizing this potential, Richard opened a custom jewelry division four years ago which allowed clients to cross reference items from the button and buckle line and convert them to jewelry pieces.
It was fascinating for me to learn about the business aspect. The common thread in news articles about New York City’s garment industry references the businesses closing its doors, which unfortunately is the current state of the industry. But I found myself wondering, who is succeeding and what can we learn from them? When developing the concept for Urban Made Project, that is one of the themes I wanted to address and communicate in the profiles.
Any interesting facts that you have learned from these manufacturers?
It is uncommon nowadays for someone to remain at one job for more than 10, even 5 years. But for those in the garment industry, the “garmentos,” it is a job for life. Warren Brand, the co-owner of M&S Schmalberg, told his son Adam that he graduated on a Tuesday from college and came in the factory on a Wednesday, working full-time from then on. Adam went on to describe how sometimes, when his father is in bed, he’ll think of a new flower that can be made by pairing together their 1,500 petal and leaf molds. When you listen to the stories of these people, you realize it isn’t a job, it’s really a life-long passion and commitment that is admirable and I think even bit envied.
During my visit to AGH Trimsource, Bob Sadin and Dave German entertained me with the story of Liz Claiborne who would go to their office twice a week to match her suits with their zipper colors. When she first started in the 70s, it was just her, her husband, and two partners. One of the lessons Bob and Dave learned was that when Liz Claiborne’s husband wanted something done, he would say, this is what I want, and people would tell him it is impossible. To which he would reply, it is not impossible. Just tell me how much it is going to cost and long it is going to take. This is one of the stories I recount to people because it captures the spirit of the garment industry. As Bob has said to me, if you can envision it, it can be created.
What types of companies do you feature?
We feature garment-related companies, manufacturers and supply stores. In the past, we have featured a vintage warehouse for jewelry suppliers, a fabric flower manufacturer, a zipper supplier, and custom jewelry manufacturer, so it a wide range, which is really great because it shows the diversity of the industry. Our focus right now is New York City but we hope to expand to other cities in the future. It would be fascinating to compare how the garment manufacturing landscape compares from coast to coast.
Learn more at Urban Made Project.
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