New York Garment District: Unlock The History Of The Nation’s Fashion Mecca




A Centuries-Long Journey To The Top

Whenever you trace the history of a person, place, thing, or concept (as in these circumstances), you discover the journey was filled with ups, downs, tribulations, and triumphs. New York’s Garment District is no different. The region’s history is diverse in culture and encompasses significant losses and astonishing victories spanning centuries.

Buckle your seatbelts and get ready to unlock the history of the fashion mecca of the nation and beyond.

Mass Migration And High Crimes

It started with Jewish, Irish, Italian, Asian, and other migrants settling in New York for protection, freedom, and a better quality of life. The surge prompted many high and middle-class Americans to relocate to the suburbs, resulting in the development of tenement communities or neighborhoods that primarily housed low or no-income families and immigrants. With limited resources, the area soon became riddled with crime, causing concern for state officials and upper-class residents.

The Garment District Is Born

How does one resolve these issues? The Garment District. Manufacturers would contract with primarily Jewish women to make clothes from home. Unfortunately, the tenement buildings where many of these women worked were unsanitary, with no toilet, limited lighting, and inadequate ventilation.

Loft Factory Production

In 1911, the State Factory Investigating Commission Report suggested that tenement clothing production be banned. This decision sparked the creation of loft factories where owners promised to provide workers with a safe and decent environment. Unfortunately, other problems arose as managers followed workers aggressively to reduce idling, hid clocks from workers' view, and locked doors to prevent anyone from leaving before their shift was over.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Little did anyone know that these unethical practices would lead to one of the country’s most horrific industrial disasters - The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The factory employed approximately 600 workers (Jewish and Italian women and children between 13-23 years of age) in a three-story building on Greene Street, not far from Washington Square. On March 25, 1911, around 5 pm, a fire broke out on the 8th floor.

It wasn’t long before the structure was engulfed in flames as the wooden frames quickly burned. Although firefighters, good samaritans, and other workers tried desperately to put out the fire, their efforts were unsuccessful as low water pressure prevented them from extinguishing the flames. Occupants tried to get out but soon discovered the doors were locked. Desperate to escape, they ran into elevator shafts, and some even jumped out windows. In the end, 146 people lost their lives.

The Fifth Avenue Association

The Garment District took a significant setback after the fire, but manufacturers ultimately began developing loft factories, extending into the city’s elite neighborhoods. Desperate to keep their communities “safe,” a collection of wealthy and influential residents rejected the development of garment factories, causing manufacturers to relocate.

Increased Demand Leads To Showrooms And Boutiques

By the 1920s, clothing fashion had changed, and the demands for ready-to-wear options were so high that manufacturers shifted how they advertised their merchandise. The use of showrooms, department stores, and boutiques to market the latest fashions became the norm as hundreds of establishments popped up starting north of 25th street and later expanding west of 8th avenue. Eventually, the Garment District had the most showrooms and manufacturing buildings in the clothing industry.

Globalization, Immigration Laws, And More

Decades following World War II, clothing production moved to southern and western regions of the country before going overseas, where labor was less expensive. Illegal immigration laws, heavy competition from global operations, and lax employment health and safety regulations lead to the development of sweatshops. Fast-forward to 1984, home production was restricted, which caused the Garment District to relocate to Manhattan, primarily to Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

A Gradual Rise To Success

Although much of what was once regarded as the Garment District has changed and relocated over time, it provided a foundation for New York to become the Fashion metropolis of the world. Technological advancements and trends have inspired creatives worldwide to develop fashion-related businesses. Clothing brands like Tommy John were able to get their start creating men's and womens sleepwear, loungewear, and underwear. With corporate headquarters in New York, the husband and wife duo now has multiple storefronts and is available in thousands of retail locations across the US.

New York and fashion go hand-in-hand. Despite its rough start, the region’s Garment District continued to evolve. Today, it is regarded as a historic location that has helped generate billions of dollars in revenue and cultivate some of the most unique clothing designers worldwide.