There are few big-name fashion designers as stalwart in their support of New York City’s Garment Center as Nanette Lepore. When she launched her eponymous label in 1992, financed with little more than a $5,000 loan from her father, domestic manufacturing was the only way to get her fledgling business off the ground.
“When you don’t have a major investor, you have to start your company slowly, gradually growing, with small minimums,” explained Jimmy Lepore Hagan, vice president of strategy for the brand.
Fast-forward to today and the majority of Lepore’s whimsical womenswear is still made within a few blocks of her offices on West 35th Street — by choice.
“Nanette is dedicated to refocusing the perception of manufacturing,” Lepore Hagan said. “She likes to say that she has been pioneering the ‘slow clothes’ movement.”
A vocal cheerleader for Save the Garment Center — a trade association dedicated to supporting and advocating on behalf of the city’s apparel factories, suppliers and designers — Lepore is oft cited as a major muscle behind the Made-in-U.S.A. movement. Furthermore, she leads by example, keeping tabs on each of the local factories charged with pattern-making, sample production, grading, marketing, cutting and sewing for her 22-year-old label.
Tight quality control, leaner production schedules and a quicker turnaround time to fill orders (and re-orders) are just a few of the competitive advantages of producing locally as Lepore Hagan pointed out, not to mention the economic impact of providing jobs for the city. “It’s something that stands out in our marketplace,” he added.
Lepore, who recently signed with Bluestar Alliance to expand into a lifestyle brand, is known for a bohemian aesthetic in step with her label’s East Village beginnings (in the early days she sold her wares out of a shop tucked between a gas station and a soup kitchen) and her Fall ’15 collection is no exception. Swingy silhouettes (read: tunic dresses with bell sleeves, wide-leg pants and capes), crochet knits and military-inspired two-pieces come in a medley of berry tones and brocade prints, offering a ‘60s spin on contemporary threads.
Carried by the likes of Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as in its own brick-and-mortar stores in New York, Las Vegas and Tokyo, the line comprises clothing, handbags, swimwear and accessories and prices average around $400.
But despite the best efforts of activists like Lepore, the decline of Manhattan’s garment industry cannot be denied: In 1960, 95 percent of clothing sold in the U.S. was manufactured in New York City; today, that number has plummeted to a paltry 3 percent. Lower production costs overseas put many a manufacturer and supplier out of business in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and now rising rents are threatening to force the survivors out.
Fortunately, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stepped in and this year will triple the amount of money allocated to the city’s fashion industry by investing $15 million in the Made in New York initiative. The program provides incentives to factories to train garment workers in new technology, as well as funds internships and scholarships. Eligible companies must sell at least 1,000 products annually and design, cut, sew, assemble and finish their fashions in the city.
“Fashion is incredibly important to New York City, not just because it helps make us the most creative and exciting city in the world, but because of the hundreds of thousands of jobs and links to economic opportunity it creates,” de Blasio said in a statement.
So while the Garment Center may never return to the glory days of yesteryear, the future is at least looking a little brighter. As Lepore Hagan put it, “It doesn’t do us any good to live in the past. We’re devoted to securing a prosperous future for local manufacturing and artisanal craftsmanship right here in New York City.”