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Because the Garment District Isn’t the Meatpacking District

In 1957, the West 30s loomed large enough in the national imagination to provide the setting for a film noir called The Garment Jungle (tagline: “Life is cheap in the Garment Jungle”). Today, the union-busting vipers in that B-classic are gone, and the neighborhood that then produced 95 percent of America’s clothing now makes 3 percent. Yet the movie and today’s streets barely look different. Cigarette-clutching immigrants trundle rolling racks down the sidewalks at high speed. Button and trimmings stores — as well as specialists in esoterica like fabric-covered belts — still line the side streets. Fashion shows don’t take place here, but everyone in the industry is around constantly. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor at USC, and her MIT colleague Sarah Williams ­recently did a study of the movements of designers and interns and found that even those whose studios were in Brooklyn or Queens made 77 percent of their work-­related trips to the area between 34th and 42nd Streets. “One of the reasons the Garment District still works,” she says, “is that people still use it all the time.” A manufacturer may produce most of its clothing overseas, but for a prototype needed in a few hours, FedEx isn’t fast enough. “You see a lot of interns running down the street carrying multiple rolls of fabric, people carrying patterns,” says Kaelen Haworth, who’s part of the CFDA’s incubator program that backs up-and-coming labels.

You also find a concentration of super-specialized skills. Ask Haworth about her zipper guy: “We don’t know each other’s names, but he’s kind of an institution,” one who always has a quip for her—not to mention the right zipper. The old European immigrants are now mixed with people from China, India, anywhere. But it’s not all start-ups. Anna Sui started her business in the Garment District and stayed. Starting out, Sui says, “when I was kind of stumped for what to do, I would just kind of walk around and look in all the different textile stores to see what they had.”

The landlords might have thrown those stores out long ago, but in 2009, a trade group called Save the Garment Center was able to help thwart a zoning change, keeping the neighborhood devoted to industry. So the button stores remain, and so do the old-school Italian restaurants that serve the garment guys. “They’re like, ‘Why aren’t you sitting down for like a ten-course lunch?’ ” says Haworth with a laugh. “There are still people who do that up here.”