Tim Gunn Says the Death of the Garment District Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

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From left: Tim Gunn, Michael Meola, Yeohlee Teng, Madelyn Wils. Photo: Giles Ashford

Last night at the School of Visual Arts, the Municipal Art Society of New York hosted a panel discussion with urban planners and designer Yeohlee Teng, moderated by make-it-work guru Tim Gunn. The topic of choice: the future of the garment district.

In 2009, the Design Trust for Public Space partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to create the Made in Midtown survey, a study that attempted to answer the question “Does the fashion industry really need the garment district?”

The survey results are in, and according to last night's panelists, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Design Trust executive director Deborah Marton said the Made in Midtown survey proves that the garment district is "a research and development hub, and New York City is the fashion start-up capital of the world.” She cited Jason Wu as an example of a designer whose entire business began in midtown: “In Paris or Milan, you have to come up through one of the major fashion houses. It’s virtually impossible to start the way [he] started.” Tim Gunn chimed in, “The fact that your report debunks these myths is so useful. So many people say the fashion industry has nothing to do with the garment district, and it’s just not true.”

Of course, that doesn't mean the garment district isn't without its problems. “The zoning was done in 1987 as if it would never change," said Eric Gural, executive managing director of indie real-estate service firm Newmark Knight Frank. "It has pitted the real-estate people against the fashion people.”

There's also that whole "human issue," as Teng put it. “There is no shortage of people wanting to be the next Marc Jacobs," she said. "I see an influx of new designers, but no one who wants to learn the trade. We need a program of apprenticeship. It takes about ten years to train someone to be a skilled seamstress or cutter.” Gunn couldn't have agreed more: “We pretend this isn’t an issue, but it’s huge,” he said.

The panelists also unanimously agreed that the neighborhood needs to be more identifiable. The banks and Chipotles that clog the area don’t exactly scream “creative hub.” And it’s going to take some serious strategizing to lure young designers from the greener (or at least cooler) pastures of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Marton suggested staging fashion shows in the streets, and moving showrooms to ground level. “There’ an incredible amount of spending in Times Square, only a few blocks away" added Gural. "We need to give people a reason to come south.”