Stitching Together A Business In The Garment District During COVID


Visiting Lisa Solar’s manufacturing facility on West thirty ninth Avenue appears like going again to the Sixties. It’s a large open house with principally ladies sitting at stitching machines within the entrance. Within the again, staff function huge ironing boards that press layers of cloth collectively like a panini sandwich. The steam comes from a boiler by way of pipes draped from above.

“You want a certificates for a boiler due to the warmth that comes from urgent,” stated Solar, whereas exhibiting how this equipment pre-shrinks a woolen jacket to the proper dimension. Old school tools is all around the manufacturing facility. A black Singer stitching machine is used for uniforms as a result of they’ve thicker cloth. 

Solar is CEO of a web-based attire firm she based in 2013 referred to as Gravitas. In January, she purchased this manufacturing facility by partnering with Michael Lee. His firm, Very good Sew, sews her clothes.

Shopping for a manufacturing facility on the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic may look like a loopy guess. The town’s attire manufacturing sector has been hemorrhaging jobs for greater than half a century. Within the Nineteen Fifties, tons of of 1000’s of individuals labored within the business. These jobs dried up as manufacturing moved south after which abroad for affordable labor. 

However Solar, 41, describes her funding as a survival technique and a declaration of hope for a sector of NYC’s financial system that has lengthy struggled to bounce again.

“I’ve obtained no less than one other 20 or 30 years within the style business and I would like for it to be right here in New York Metropolis,” she stated.

A Partnership

Solar is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up in California and spent greater than a decade analyzing the style business for McKinsey & Firm. 

Lee, a Taiwanese immigrant himself, based Very good Sew in 1990. He’s labored with well-known designers, like Anna Sui, and had tons of of sewers on his payroll to start with. By the point the pandemic struck, he stated he solely had about 20. Then, all the things got here to a halt. 

Michael Lee is seen, wearing a mask and standing next to rows of suits


Michael Lee, of Very good Sew, with males’s fits and uniforms

Beth Fertig / WNYC

“Final 12 months may be very, very powerful,” he stated. “I’m doing over 30 years and by no means met like this. It was horrible.”

To maintain Lee’s staff busy, Solar’s firm designed facemasks and donated them to hospitals. The publicity led to contracts to make extra masks and robes, and a collaboration once they purchased the manufacturing facility.

“In the end I stated, why are we in separate areas after we work collectively a lot?” Solar defined. “Why do not we share bills? Why do not we be part of forces?”

Solar calls Lee a “mentor.” They knocked on doorways and located a manufacturing facility proprietor who was able to retire, and acquired her tools. They stated they now pay $6,000 a month for two,100 sq. toes, which they describe as a value financial savings. In addition they lease out house to a small firm that makes uniforms for doormen, police, and firefighters. 

Mike Cardillo, Michael Lee, and Lisa Sun all wear masks and pose for a photograph inside the factory


Mike Cardillo of M&G uniforms (left) rents house from manufacturing facility homeowners Michael Lee and Lisa Solar

Beth Fertig / WNYC

However Solar wasn’t simply trying to share bills. Her Gravitas label focuses on making inclusive style for girls of all sizes, with half its kinds produced in China and the remainder in New York. She sees potential on this manufacturing facility and the branding of Made in New York for 2 foremost causes. 

“One is, we’re quick,” she defined. 

Solar stated her orders that go to China can take 4 months earlier than they’re accomplished and shipped to the U.S. She makes use of Chinese language factories for mass-produced, cheaper objects like leggings. In New York, she will be able to have one thing able to put on in two weeks.

“And so I can chase demand, I can chase tendencies,” she stated.

Nevertheless it’s way more costly to make garments right here. She stated staff at her thirty ninth Avenue manufacturing facility earn $15-$22 per hour—3 times as a lot as they make in China. That is Solar’s second technique. She’s now educating clients with a brand new line of things that explains who’s making them. 

This 12 months, her designer, Aruk Ochirvaani, made a black tote bag with layers of cloth that symbolize the interconnected segments of the garment district. 

“This bag saved our enterprise in January as a result of nobody’s shopping for workwear throughout a pandemic,” she stated. Her web site encompasses a assortment of totes and says 5 baggage equals a full day of labor for a seamstress. She stated the message helped.

“Once you make clear to a shopper what that garment or that bag means to somebody who lives in America, there’s an emotional attachment to the product that’s completely different than. ‘I purchased it on sale’ and it was made abroad by a faceless employee.”

Arun Ochirvaani and Lisa Sun, both masked, pose for a photograph inside the factory


Lisa Solar with Gravitas designer Aruk Ochirvaani

Beth Fertig / WNYC

The Limits of Made in New York

Solar is hardly the primary individual to attempt to capitalize on the phrase Made in New York. It’s been round for many years. Barbara Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance, stated it’s by no means carried a lot cache.

“I’d pay extra for one thing made in Italy, talking as a shopper, or made in France,” she defined, of the typical American purchaser’s mentality. “However I do not essentially pay extra for one thing that is made in the US.” 

And People aren’t shopping for as a lot style, typically. “There is a huge decline as a result of we’re dressing otherwise,” she stated, noting how informal Friday has now changed into working from dwelling all week, following the rise of e-commerce and the collapse of brick-and-mortar retail. There have been slightly below 10,000 attire manufacturing jobs in early 2020, in line with an evaluation by the Heart for an City Future. However one other third had been misplaced through the pandemic, with simply 6,300 remaining as of March. 

But, Blair does assume there’s room for small, area of interest firms like Gravitas to increase. However she stated the garment business must be extra aggressive. Its tools is outdated and lots of companies, like Very good Sew, don’t even have web sites. 

An old-fashioned heavy looking black Singer sewing machine sits in the middle of other garments and tools


A Singer stitching machine contained in the manufacturing facility

Beth Fertig / WNYC

In the meantime, manufacturing facility jobs aren’t engaging to highschool and faculty graduates. Few are unionized now and garment business staff are principally immigrants who can’t get greater paying jobs. “No younger folks be part of this commerce to be taught this work anymore,” stated Josie Davila, who runs a slicing room in the identical constructing as Gravitas.

The town’s Financial Growth Company (EDC) has a program with the Council of Style Designers of America to offer grants. Adam Friedman, Director of the Pratt Heart for Group Growth, stated the federal government can do extra.

“In order that is likely to be round export help, or that is likely to be round branding, or that is likely to be round workforce growth and lending for tools for these firms that wish to purchase,” he defined. 

He stated zoning protections didn’t maintain factories from being priced out of high-priced house within the Garment District. Nor was the town in a position to entice anybody to purchase a brand new constructing for manufacturing within the district—regardless of providing $20 million in capital funds. 

An EDC spokesperson stated it didn’t obtain any viable proposals “regardless of extending the procurement deadline a number of occasions by way of February 2021.” The company is now working with three separate constructing homeowners to protect 240,000 sq. toes of style manufacturing house by way of incentives.

Women sit at tables, sewing inside the factory


Sewers on the manufacturing facility

Beth Fertig / WNYC

Friedman stated the $20 million provide clearly wasn’t sufficient. “The town wanted to contribute extra,” he stated. “Plus they need to have tried to assemble a pool of funding in collaboration with New York State and the federal authorities.

The federal authorities not too long ago contracted with three metropolis firms to make private protecting tools, considered one of which has union staff. EDC stated it bought over 4.2 million locally-made medical robes for distribution to healthcare staff within the metropolis. However Friedman stated the town ought to do extra by stockpiling for future emergencies, because the federal authorities did. The state not too long ago partnered with a number of firms.

Now that the pandemic is easing, Solar and Lee’s manufacturing facility is doing extra enterprise and a lot of the staff are again. Solar hopes to regularly increase. She’s trying into 3D scanning to make custom-made garments, as they do in China. She stated traders is likely to be attracted if she lands on a well-liked merchandise, or finds extra companions.

“These are all a part of the plans however proper now, this 12 months is simply to show that we are able to make this work,” she stated.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter overlaying the town’s restoration efforts at WNYC. You may observe her on Twitter at @bethfertig.