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Denim Manufacturing Plots Comeback to NYC’s Garment District

One style of jean—just one. That’s all Christine Rucci wants brands to commit to making in New York City.

In the 35 years she’s spent working with “pretty much every major designer and denim icon,” including Adriano Goldschmied, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, Rucci has witnessed Manhattan’s historic Garment District transform from the epicenter of American manufacturing to a relic of a bygone era increasingly under siege.

Last February, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed plans to rezone the 13-block parcel of land—bound by 35th and 40th Streets and Sixth and Ninth Avenues—while relaxing some of the laws requiring landlords to prioritize fashion-industry tenants over more commercial clientele like “another one of those work-share places,” Rucci derisively noted.

Never mind there are “9 gazillion” of those co-working spaces, said Rucci, who runs her own consultancy, Godmother NYC. Such a deregulation would “pretty much pave the way for landlords or developers to just force out all the manufacturing,” she added. 

And it’s not like these real-estate types really need the extra assist, now that manufacturing has mostly fled to cheaper climes overseas. Once a stronghold of some 100,000 pattern makers, notions sellers, cutters, sewers, pressers and finishers who produced three-quarters of America’s women’s and children’s apparel until the 1960s, the Garment District today—with just 5,000 workers—is a specter of its former self. 

And Rucci, for one, doesn’t want to see what’s left fade away. “When you think of the Garment District, there’s only one city that comes to mind,” she said. “Nobody says the Garment District of London. Nobody says the Garment District of Paris. And we don’t think about the fact that when a factory closes, a whole bunch of people lose their jobs: the thread suppliers, the vendors, the zipper people—all these little stores in the Garment District, they’re slowly starting to disappear.”

And Rucci carries the storied history of Manhattan’s manufacturing past, quite literally, in her genes. (“That’s g-e-n-e-s,” she clarified. “Pun intended.”) Decades before she was sprinting from door to door picking up a bolt of fabric here or a clutch of buttons there, Rucci’s own great-grandmother toiled as a seamstress for Anthony Traina, the financial partner of famed designer Norman Norell, whom The New York Times once professed “made Seventh Avenue the rival of Paris.”

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There are signs of life in the Garment District yet. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC) is seeking out a landlord or nonprofit that’s willing to acquire a Midtown property and dedicate it to fashion manufacturing. It will even earmark $20 million in public funds, or 30 percent of the purchase price, to the cause, whichever is less.

Perhaps cowed by the backlash over its push for more mixed-use development in the area, the city says it will use tax breaks through the New York City Industrial Development Agency’s (NYIDA) Garment Center program to to preserve at least 300,000 square feet of production space for the garment-production supply chain.

Christine Rucci
Christine Rucci Angela Velasquez

For Rucci, these are promising signs amid the de Blasio administration’s plan to open a “Made in NYC” campus slated to include 200,000 square feet of garment-manufacturing space in Brooklyn’s Industry City. Such a move, she said, doesn’t take into consideration the ecosystem of retailers, vendors and suppliers that would need to be uprooted, if not completely recreated. Neither does Bush Terminal have quite the same aspirational ring as Fashion Avenue. 

“No young designer goes, ‘Wow, when I grow up and I get into fashion, I want to work in Industry City,’” she said. “You want to work in the Garment District.”

More than anything, however, Rucci wants to bring denim home. Until the 1980s, when offshoring started to gain traction, the Garment District cranked out 95 percent of American sportswear and fashion denim, she said. That’s far from the case right now.

As indelibly American as blue jeans may be, other countries are eclipsing the United States’ ability to make them. The closure of Cone Mills’ White Oak plant, one of the few remaining denim mills in the United States, brought with it much strum and drang, of course. Premium denim—selvedge, in particular—is something we associate with the Japanese, with the Italians coming in a close second. Even the Dutch are jockeying for jean supremacy with the establishment of Denim City, an expansive “headquarters of the city’s denim ecosystem” in Amsterdam that includes an educational institute, a full-service production workshop, a laundry and a retail store, plus an archive boasting more than 500 vintage pieces.

“I’d like to see that happen in New Amsterdam,” Rucci effused.

Despite her lack of an official role in NYEDC or NYIDA efforts, Rucci has taken it upon herself to rally the troops—her “indigo tribe,” as she dubs them—earning the support of Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer along the way.

“Some people think we can be a city entirely of offices and desks, but it’s as critical today as ever that we make things in New York,” Brewer said, noting she’d be “thrilled” to see New York recapture its denim clout just by giving denim makers room to grow. “The goal of the NYIDA program and our intended purchase of a building for garment manufacturing is simple: to guarantee there will be space to produce garments right here for years to come.”

Rucci is talking to companies such as Tonello, which developed a water-saving all-in-one denim-finishing system, and Officina+39, which turns recycled fabric scraps into eco-friendly dyestuffs. She hopes to set up a brand-agnostic, Denim City-like environ that couples such innovations as body scanning, 3-D pattern making and ozone processing with mentoring, hands-on training and support for emerging designers who’ll be able to access textiles and trims without fretting about high minimums. “I’d like to know that future generations are going to know how to do this,” Rucci added. By keeping things local, quick turnarounds—without the carbon expenditure of back-and-forth shipping—will be virtually guaranteed.

Rucci describes what she calls her “super dream,” a building with a “street-level development center that you can walk into [and] that’s all about denim.”

“People can come in and get body scanned, we sew the jeans, and they’re able to purchase a made-in-New York City jean,” Rucci said. “All the vendors, all the denim mills will have their products there.”

Is she swinging for the fences? Not if industry leaders, including America’s top brands, help make it happen. Beyond sponsorships, grants and other types of funding, simply pledging to make one style of jean in the Garment District would make a “nice movement,” she said.

“What’s one of the things that everyone seems to have in their collections, that you can see on everyone? It’s denim,” Rucci said. “And any other industry can be anywhere, but fashion needs to be in the Garment District.”