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NYC’s Denim Scene Readies for Life After Covid

New York is high on optimism, buzzing from the more than 9.8-million-and-counting Covid-19 vaccine doses administered across its federal and state-run facilities. As of May 19, the nation’s cultural capital lifted most pandemic-related capacity restrictions that plunged offices, retailers, dining establishments, salons, gyms and more into some version of dormancy over the past 15 months. Broadway stars and their supporting casts have restarted rehearsals with hopes of returning to full houses in mid-September, and the New York City subway is back to chugging along around the clock with 24-hour service. MTA New York City Transit officials recorded 2,009,025 subway trips on April 8, the first time that ridership has breached the two-million mark since the pandemic upended city life.

In other words: NYC is open for business.

It’s a stirring reversal from where the city was one year ago: the early epicenter of America’s Covid-19 crisis. Approximately 203,000 confirmed cases were reported in NYC during the first three months of the pandemic, during which images of an eerily empty Times Square and Grand Central Station devoid of travelers captivated the world. As of the end of May last year, more than 940,000 residents had contracted the virus, resulting in approximately 33,000 deaths, NYC Health reported.

Despite the palpable excitement of regaining some sense of normalcy, the weight of enduring such a trying and uncertain period lingers on New Yorkers’ psyche. The city’s fashion and retail sectors—and the people who power them—are bound to emerge from the pandemic changed.

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“During the lockdown all my vendors pivoted in a week’s time and made masks, gowns, laser-cut shields and even used 3D printers to make air mask nozzles,” said Christine Rucci, president and creative director of Godmother NYC Inc. and a member of Made in NYC, an initiative of the Pratt Center for Community Development that supports thousands of local manufacturers and makers. PPE demand that cropped up virtually overnight ultimately helped save many factories from going under, Rucci said, and underscored the city’s manufacturing capabilities at a time when both local makers and brands desperately needed a lifeline.

Marred by factory shutdowns and canceled orders, the pandemic pushed the global denim supply chain into a state of turmoil, but Rucci said the companies that tapped into a local network of NYC makers were the ones that persevered. Rucci developed small runs, prototypes and sales samples throughout the outbreak’s darkest days, serving clients like Belstaff and DiResta Make Wear by utilizing the Jeanologia technology at New Jersey’s nearby BPD Washhouse.

Denin-centric brands with a laser sharp focus on their product and identity are charging ahead with expansion plans during the pandemic.
Belstaff’s new Meatpacking store. Courtesy

As the owner of Brooklyn Denim Co., the Williamsburg outpost for denim brands like Tellason and First Standard Co. and its own eponymous label, Frank Pizzurro saw firsthand how the Covid crisis, along with growing climate-change concerns and a “general feeling of having to connect more with life,” is changing the way people view fashion. “Consuming has been a sport in the U.S. for the past three decades, but people are waking up to the fact that there is more to it than just owning things,” he said. “They will still consume but I think wiser and with more thought and purpose.”

Despite the short-term economic pain that comes with consumers buying less but better, the change will be “a good thing” in the long run, Pizzurro said.

Reality bites

Fashion, retail, entertainment and hospitality—NYC’s heart and soul—number among the city’s hardest-hit sectors. Despite retail rents cratering to historic lows—as much as 25 percent off from 2019 levels, the Real Estate Board of New York reported in January—the empty storefronts lining Fifth Avenue, Lexington Avenue and Broadway speak volumes about the health of the city’s retail sector. Retail accounts for 12 percent of businesses and nearly 9 percent of NYC’s private-sector jobs, but the Office of the New York State Comptroller reports that the pandemic unevenly affected the industry. While online retailers and essential businesses experienced growth, revenue evaporated at other large retail segments, ultimately plunging the weakest into bankruptcy.

The city lost retail institutions like Century 21, though plans are reportedly in the works to revive the beloved discount chain after its September bankruptcy. The U.S. arm of Dutch-owned G-Star Raw Retail Inc. filed its own voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August, leaving its corner Fifth Avenue flagship store vacant. Chains like H&M, Old Navy, Express and Gap also all shrank their NYC footprints in 2020. Overall, the number of chain stores in NYC declined by 13.3 percent—with 2 percent closing temporarily and 11.3 percent not indicating whether the closures are permanent or temporary, the Center for Urban Future reports.

Strong-willed and unflappable, New York’s fashion and retail sectors are ready to navigate business after the coronavirus.
Workers removing the G-Star Raw sign from the Fifth Avenue store. Angela Velasquez

“We survived by cutting hours and our own salaries by 60 percent, and honestly if it wasn’t for a great landlord who has worked with us to defer rent, we would not be here,” Pizzurro said.

The pandemic’s impact on retail has been most obvious in Manhattan, where the state comptroller said foot traffic in “key corridors” plummeted a steep 90 percent in the wake of tourist-crimping travel bans and the mass rise of remote work—not to mention the privileged elite’s exodus to suburbia and second homes.

Though some were temporary relocations, nearly twice as many people bolted from Manhattan than from any other American city, the U.S. Postal Service’s 2020 data shows, though Brooklyn—the second-most-fled locale—didn’t fare much better.

By the end of 2020, “migration flow in New York City, which typically experienced net population flow gain of about 85,000 through 2019, saw human migration flow turn net negative in 2020,” said Unacast, a location data service. This population shift, it added, will likely factor into the decision-making about new infrastructure, commercial development and retail site selection this year.

The loss of high incomes—the result of finance and technology companies seeking greener pastures in other states or indefinitely extending work-from-home policies—will be a factor as well. In January, Forbes described Florida as a “second home for Wall Street” as NYC firms, tempted by low taxes, affordable real estate and a purportedly better quality of life, pulled the relocation trigger during the pandemic or planted satellite offices in the Sunshine State. Avison Young, a commercial real estate firm, reported that Manhattan’s office vacancy rate reached a record high of 15.9 percent at the end of the 2021’s first quarter, up from 10.9 percent a year ago and 14.2 percent in the prior quarter, with Midtown, Midtown South and Downtown suffering the most.

But as the city embarks on its reopening, there are wins to be had in the apparel sector. Unacast found that foot traffic is increasing for some family apparel stores, particularly those centered on value. As of April 21, Old Navy’s foot traffic climbed 23.5 percent compared to the end of last year’s fourth quarter. T.J. Maxx, Forever 21, Burlington and Marshalls also saw gains. Denim-focused retailers, however, remain in the red. American Eagle’s NYC foot traffic sagged 12.9 percent and Gap’s slumped 29.9 percent compared to 2020’s final quarter, Unacast reported.

As restrictions slowly fade, Brian Trunzo, head of brand at Informa Markets Fashion, said New Yorkers are already beginning to poke in and out of retail establishments again. “New Yorkers are ready to hit the shopping circuit again. We treat retail like a sport—lord knows we put in the miles on our Fitbits as we traipse around the city from one destination to another,” he said.

Though Brooklyn Denim Co.’s business has perked up a bit, Pizzurro said sales are 70 percent off versus pre-Covid levels ever since the store partially reopened in June 2020. “In the last month it has picked up some but we’re still at least 50 percent down,” he said, adding that he’s banking on the return of tourism to help recoup lost traffic and sales. “New York is a tourist town,” he said. “Until they are back in full swing, it’s going to be tough.”

Visitors welcomed

Indeed, tourism-related revenue forms the backbone of many industries. Last year, the city welcomed just 22.3 million visitors—a precipitous drop from its 2019 record of 66.6 million.

The NYC Hospitality Alliance reported that 92 percent of eateries in the “restaurant capital of the world” could not afford their December rent. Meanwhile, the city’s hotel sector is not expected to recover until 2025. Hotel occupancy levels were just 30 percent in 2020, and two-thirds of those rooms were attributable to government contracts accommodating homeless residents and healthcare workers at below-market rates, the NYC Department of City Planning said. For comparison, NYC typically has an annual 85-90 percent occupancy rate—one of the highest in the nation.

“Tourism is one of the pillars of our economy, there is no recovery without it,” said New York City council member Paul Vallone.

In April, NYC & Company announced its largest-ever initiative to lure tourists back to all five boroughs—a $30 million effort kicking off this month called “NYC Reawakens.” The campaign’s goal is to show that NYC is not only ready for tourists, but it’s also “a fairer, better, and more vibrant city than ever before,” New York City’s marketing organization said. Part of this plan includes flexing the city’s wokeness by promoting multicultural guides centered on Black-owned businesses as well as Latino- and AAPI-themed content.

And if culture isn’t enough to draw tourists to NYC, maybe protection from Covid-19 is. The city has set up vaccination centers in tourist destinations like Times Square and Central Park where out-of-town walk-ins can get a one-and-done Johnson & Johnson jab.

NYC & Company is predicting 36.4 million people will visit the city this year, with 69.3 million expected in 2024.

Tourism, in large part, is what’s driving Macy’s Inc., owner of arguably the most famous store in NYC, to plunk down $235 million to not only improve its sprawling flagship anchoring Manhattan’s Herald Square but also to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. It’s a move that signals “the city is set to come roaring back,” said Melva M. Miller, CEO of the Association for a Better New York.

Macy's unveiled a $235 million plan to improve the Herald Square neighborhood and construct an office tower atop its iconic flagship store.
A rendering of the new office tower Macy’s plans to build on top of its Herald Square flagship store. FXCollaborative

Macy’s two-pronged plan involves building a 900-foot glass office tower above the department store and upgrading the street-level pedestrian area as well as the Herald Square subway station with accessibility-minded features. Describing the flagship as one of the city’s “most iconic institutions,” Macy’s Inc. CEO Jeff Gennette said the company is “doubling down” on its commitment to New York City, which includes notable events like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Flower Show, 4th of July Fireworks and Santaland.

Retail renaissance

A revamped Herald Square will serve as a complementary bookend to the newly renovated Penn Station and the businesses located just east of Macy’s at Hudson Yards. Billed as a “new neighborhood” by real estate development giants Related Cos. and Oxford Properties Group, the office, retail and arts complex marked its one-year anniversary just as the coronavirus battered the city. While marquee tenant Neiman Marcus vacated last summer after filing for bankruptcy, and wooing new tenants has been a challenge, the mall remains home to denim retailers like AG Adriano Goldschmied, Aritzia, Levi’s and Madewell.

Elsewhere in the city, Frame opened new locations during the pandemic. Along with an Upper East Side pop-up shop, the premium lifestyle brand opened a 3,324-square-foot store in Meatpacking on Gansevoort Row. Designed to embody Frame’s “California-chic aesthetic,” the store features custom furniture designed by Atelier de Troupe, natural fir plywood tables and brass fixtures. The store also includes a handcrafted gridded denim wall that displays Frame’s signature and best-selling styles, while a subtle play on color and textures serves as the backdrop for the brand’s growing accessories range.

“We’ve been expanding our retail footprint in recent years, placing Frame stores in the most desirable neighborhoods in the country, and Meatpacking is a key part of this strategy,” said Jens Grede, Frame co-founder and creative director.

Frame’s New York City-centric growth spurt was in the works prior to the pandemic, before there was even an inkling of how retail would be disrupted. As construction slowed down in 2020, Grede said Frame had to press pause for a few months to take the necessary precautions and ensure that the store “could be a destination for our customers for years to come.” The brand, Grede added, pushed forward with plans because the “store offers an incredible opportunity to deliver a true Frame experience.”

Frame's new Meatpacking store
Frame’s new Meatpacking store. Courtesy

Creating immersive retail experiences was all the rage prior to the pandemic, but the verdict is out on how much in-person engagement socially starved consumers will come to expect. Consumers may also be met with a less-is-more approach to merchandising as retailers work to mitigate the risk of overbuying, navigate e-commerce (and the flood of competition that comes with it), and the delays that continue to plague the supply chain.

“The biggest challenge at this point has been getting product,” Pizzurro said. “With reduced cash flow it has made it very hard to get goods.”

Pizzurro foresees a retail landscape that is permanently changed, particularly by consumers’ dependence on e-commerce during the pandemic. Though there’s a place for brick-and-mortar stores, they’ll have to be built to support an online business, he said. Multi-brand stores like his own might have the greatest uphill battle in assimilating to the new world. In the case of Brooklyn Denim Co., Pizzurro said the brands that his store helped build up over the years are now reaping the benefit of his customers shopping on their websites. “Stores will have to be smaller and interactive with a company website going forward to survive,” he said.

Given what the apparel and retail industries experienced over the past year in terms of the duration, severity and level of uncertainty, Trunzo anticipates a smarter way of conducting business. “The past year was a lesson in diversification, nimbleness, and the importance of a future-forward mindset,” he said. “I think what’s different in this instance, particularly for NYC-based retailers and businesses, is that we do have abundant optimism in the air. While these businesses will be moving forward likely with a shapeshifted strategy, leaned-out budgets, and a bit more conservativeness, consumers and businesses alike are collectively optimistic and ready to make the bounce back happen.”

Back to business

That new and improved business acumen has yet to be displayed at an apparel trade show in NYC, but organizers are hoping to host in-person events later this year, though they may be smaller and have a more local flavor as guidelines for international travel continue to be in flux. Texworld New York City will host a modified version of its event July 20-22 at the Starrett-Lehigh Building. The children’s apparel trade show Playtime New York will return Aug. 1-3 at the Metropolitan Pavilion, and the women’s apparel event, Coterie, remains on Informa’s schedule for Sept. 19-21 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

The next Kingpins New York, the U.S. denim industry’s main supply chain event, will take place Dec. 6-7 at its usual venue, Pier 36. Kingpins founder Andrew Olah said the group had been waiting to hear what the laws for public gatherings would be to understand the changes they would need to make in their shows. While Pier 36, refered to as “Basketball City” by locals, often felt too spacious for the intimate trade show, it is now the ideal space for social distancing.

Denim supply chain event Kingpins and women's apparel event Coterie confirm their return to in-person trade shows in New York City.
Kingpins Show in 2017. Courtesy

The first trade shows will also serve as a litmus test of whether the apparel sector is addressing the issues that 2020 brought to light, including topics on sustainability, diversity and the questions raised about the industry’s seasonality. Retailers are understandably now more interested in shorter buying cycles that allow for a nimbler approach to style selection and order commitments, according to Courtney Bradarich, vice president of events, contemporary women’s—Coterie and Project. “We will likely see more brands establishing core programming that is trans-seasonal and evergreen, in addition to creating capsule collections with special drops throughout the year,” she said.

Similarly, Bradarich said brands are now “more empowered with amazing technology which eases so many planning and logistical woes, such as enhanced data-driven direction, resulting in better margins as well as improved forecasting on collection performance, resulting in less unnecessary overproduction.” With sustainability’s rising in importance, both in terms of ethical production and the environment, she said seasonal pre-bookings will remain very relevant.

While there are new considerations in play, such as enhanced safety measures needed in a post-pandemic world, Bradarich said everyone’s real focus is on getting back together with the community. “Overall, I think there’s a real sense of increased appreciation for many things we only now realize were so fundamental to our lives—both personally and professionally,” she said. “Conducting business and involvement in our live events is no exception: from touching fabrics and spotting new talent, to making connections with new customers and dinners out with longstanding partners.”

No matter the occassion, when the denim community finally reunites, a roaring good time can be expected. “From what I hear people can’t wait to re-engage with their denim brethren,” Olah said. “All of us have been cooped up too long. I imagine the best parties we ever had will be the ones post-Covid.”

The new New York

Indeed, New Yorkers’ prowess at throwing parties, and the city’s unique brand of glitz and grit, may be the antidote to staid quarantine hobbies such as gardening and baking. It will likely be that winning combination that silences critics who’ve questioned if New York City was “over.”

“Anyone who says New York is over hasn’t a clue,” Rucci said. “We will always be resilient and the center of everything, including fashion and even denim and manufacturing. Name me one other city so good they named it twice.”

Olah urges anyone who thinks NYC is over to “get 19 boxes of popcorn” and watch Ken Burns’ “New York, a Documentary Film” to understand how the city grew into what it is today through all types of adversity. “I laugh when people say the city is over—this is New York City,” Olah said.

While Pizzurro claims NYC “is never over,” the city’s current state does remind him of the late ’70s, when the wealthy decamped for the safety of the suburbs—giving young creatives space to move in. Though it marked a dark moment in the city’s history, as economic and political instability ravaged the quality of life, it theoretically catalyzed new ideas and talent. “It was scary, exciting and creative,” Pizzurro said. “I think that will be the new cycle.”

With the recent slew of announcements heralding the return of in-person events, including New York Fashion Week, which will culminate with the Sept. 13 Met Gala, Trunzo asks how anyone can say NYC is over. “People can move upstate or out of state, but fashion’s not going with them,” he said. “New York City is fashion; it’s taste, culture, hustle, inspiration and all of things that drive our industry. Following a time of total upheaval in tradition, this would be the time to break tradition and start anew, and yet the entire industry is gearing up for a return to New York.”

This article and more appears in the summer issue of Rivet. Click here to download the issue.