Garment District Heroes: Meet the People Who Make Fashion Week Happen

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From left: Luzmala Rodriguez, Sunny "the Dragon Lady" Chung, and Demitri Kermelis. Photo: Melissa Hom (left, center); courtesy of Demitri Kermelis (right)

There's no question that New York's garment district has undergone significant changes in the last 25 years — the majority of which involve the international outsourcing of sampling and production. Fashion jobs that used to be handled from start to finish in the workshops clustered around 38th Street have all but disappeared, as have the craftspeople whose skill sets were handed down from generation to generation. But where there's a will there's a way, and a handful of diehards remain. Click ahead to meet a skin trader, a pattern maker, and an embellisher who make a big behind-the-scenes impact on New York Fashion Week.

The Skin Trader: Demitri Kermelis, co-owner of Leather Impact (256 W. 38th St., nr. Eighth Ave.; leatherimpact.com)
Who he is: A 33-year-old leather and suede merchant who describes his 3,600-square-foot store as the "Sephora of skins." That's no joke: Designers come to him for a rainbow selection of leather, suede, and pricey exotics (stingray, eel, shark, alligator, ostrich, zebra, etc.). Though Kermelis has seen his skins used for everything from Notorious B.I.G.'s jerseys to leather flowers in Sex & the City, his first big designer gig was providing fur and leather for J.Lo's premier fashion show. From there, his client list eventually grew to include Betsey Johnson, Vera Wang, and even Oprah, to whom he sold skins for a leather birthday corset.
His spring/summer 2011 client list: The Row, Catherine Malandrino, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, and rag & bone.
His most unusual request: "Juicy Couture wanted neon alligator — I'll never forget those colors! Alligator is not cheap, and I had to have [the skins] custom-dyed locally in the Carolinas. Juicy Couture loves their colors."
One thing Fashion Week has taught him:"Patience! Chaos and egos are part of the gig when you're dealing with people who are looking for perfection when it doesn't exist. We have no choice but to shut up and do it."

The Pattern Maker: Luzmala Rodriguez, owner of Lucy's Creations (308 W. 38th St, twelfth fl.; 212-465-0926)
Who she is: Rodriguez spent fifteen years pattern making and sample sewing before opening her own shop four years ago. Her first big break came in a shapely little package by the name of Amanda Lepore, who Rodriguez said had a thing for "sequins, bright colors, and special hats." (You don't say.) Other clients were quick to follow, including Vivienne Tam and Jason Wu.
Her spring/summer 2011 client list: Timo Weiland and Fabiola Arias — a small lot, explains Rodriguez, because she's been busy trying to develop her own line. Plus, a great deal of what she does leading up to Fashion Week is fix samples that were botched somewhere overseas.
The most stressful part of her job: "Designer indecision — changing minds at the last minute, then changing again. Even the day of the show, they can decide they want a dress in a completely different color and they need it immediately."
Why the garment district isn't doomed: "New designers have more money and parental support than they did ten to twenty years ago. There is a trend in investing in the community and creating a sustainable local industry."

The Embellisher: Sunny "the Dragon Lady" Chung, co-owner of Jonathan Embroidery Plus (256 W. 38th St., nr. Eighth Ave.; jeplus.com)
Who she is: The finishing touch. Designers come to Chung for precise embroidery, delicately sewn emblems, sequins, studs, rhinestones, grommets, and flawless buttonholes — all the little details. So dependent are designers on her expert needlework, you can find lines out the door on show days. "I love the challenge of last-minute changes," she says. "For the designers, I want to be perfect. I have to be the best." That client list, at one time or another, has included Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Zac Posen, and Cynthia Rowley.
Her spring/summer 2011 client list: Marc Jacobs, Jill Stuart, Mara Hoffman, Opening Ceremony, and Coach.
On keeping her cool during Fashion Week: "I don't always. Sometimes you have an assistant crying and screaming at you because the boss just yelled at them, and I'll yell right back. People say I'm crazy, but I don't care."
One thing Fashion Week has taught her: "Life goes on. Clothes change every season, and you can't stay the same, either. To survive, you have to upgrade yourself — all the time."

See more in our Spring 2011 Fashion Week Preview.