TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: On the west side of Manhattan in New York City between about 34th and 40th streets is an area known as the garment district.
It’s one square mile that’s been a center of American fashion both design and manufacturing for more than a 100 years.
NANETTE LEPORE: If you walk through my design room, and you saw that we’re sewing about 20 things at a time and each one of those things needs threads, buttons, zippers, snaps, hooks, and eyes. So as we start to realize, oh no, we need a zipper for that dress and we don’t have a pink one. Like an intern will run out the door and go to the zipper shop and come back with that. Or on the next block over there’s all the lace stores and the trimming stores.
Designer Nanette Lepore makes most of her clothes right in the garment district. She showed us around where her dresses get stitched, the buttons put on and the fabric steamed.
Lepore’s been in Manhattan for 20-some-odd years. She’d like to stay there. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to change the city’s zoning laws to open up the unused spaces in the garment district, shrink the manufacturing that’s there and turn it into restaurants and hotels or other offices.
That is not an idea that Nanette Lepore is wild about.
LEPORE: For me, it’s personal. It’s where I do my manufacturing. It’s where I make my money. It’s how I keep my staff employed. But also it’s worth fighting for for the future. It’s worth fighting for the next generation of fashion designers that are coming up. It’s for the students that are going to school to learn fashion. Every design student dreams of creating a line of clothing. And you can walk out your door, you can find a factory that will make you 10 pieces of something if that’s all you can sell. It can happen.
Ryssdal: Manhattan real estate being valuable as it is. Mayor Bloomberg has some plans to consolidate the garment center into one or two buildings, make sure designers and manufacturers have space in that building. You’re not buying that?
LEPORE: We can’t be shrunken into one or two buildings. It’s impossible. Because he wants to give us about 400,000 square feet, and trade for what we’re using approximately 2 million square feet. It would be a figurehead. It would be a building to say I saved the garment but he would really be putting us all out of business.
Ryssdal: You appreciate, though, that Manhattan real estate is scarce and so the city has decided maybe it’s time to do some other things with it?
LEPORE: I appreciate that, but don’t we appreciate a legacy too? Do we really want our city to go by the way of every other city in this country where it looks the same? New York City is going to suffer it we lose everything that makes it distinct and unique. And fashion brings so much money into the city, and I don’t think they understand exactly how it all operates.
Ryssdal: Well, how does it work? You sit in your workshop, you come up with a design, you walk around the corner, and there’s your manufacturer right there in the middle of Manhattan?
LEPORE: Kind of. I have about 120 of my own employees in addition to the 10 factories that I work with. So between myself and these 120 people we work through a design to the point where we go into manufacturing on it. And then we take that garment out of my little office and into the bigger world of the garment center, where a pattern digitizer will make it into different sizes, and spread it into a cuttable form. Then it goes into a cutting room, which is another business in the garment center. Then from there it goes to a factory who then sews one together for us to fit and then we fit it, and then we give the factory the go ahead to keep going and they sew through the 500 to 1000 units that I would be cutting on a style.
Ryssdal: It does seem, though, doesn’t it, that you could do it more cheaply somewhere else if you could just send those patterns and designs over to south China and save yourself and your customers a lot of money?
LEPORE: Well, I could make bigger profit for myself, which I think how a lot of people operate in this world. But I feel like I’m happy with my business the way it is. I’m making a quality product. I’m known for my fit and for my quality, and it’s because I’m here watching it all the time, and I’m able to control what is happening.
Ryssdal: What happens then if the mayor goes ahead with his plan, consolidates the garment center, and you guys do wind up in two buildings and a couple hundred thousand square feet?
LEPORE: Well, for me, I would get through it. But what happens on the bigger picture is the interest for fashion, with buyers and press, they come here to see what is new and exciting. Maybe the focus of fashion would shift to Los Angeles, where the small factories will still exist, or maybe in 10 years there will be a new movement that happens out of Brooklyn. But it will definitely go dormant for a while. We’ll lose what we have.
Ryssdal: Fashion designer Nanette Lepore. Thanks so much for your time.
LEPORE: Thank you.
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