Project Runway portrays designers working in a vacuum, but in the real world, fashion is a team effort. From appliqués to zippers, producing a garment requires many skilled specialists.
No one understands this process better than Tim Gunn. On June 8, the Project Runway mentor and Parsons dean turned Chief Creative Officer of Liz Claiborne moderated “Made in Midtown: The Garment District Today & Tomorrow,” a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and the Design Trust.
Fresh off the launch of madeinmidtown.org, the event asked a diverse sample of neighborhood stakeholders – Sarah Crean, deputy director, New York Industrial Retention Network; Eric Gural, executive managing director, Newmark Knight Frank; Madelyn Wils, executive vice president of the Planning, Development and Maritime division, NYCEDC; Deborah Marton, executive director, Design Trust for Public Space; Michael Meola, consultant, formerly senior vice president, Real Estate and Special Projects, NYCEDC; and Yeohlee Teng, designer, YEOHLEE Inc. – to consider how the neighborhood works now and what it could look like in the future.
Design Trust’s Deborah Marton kicked off the conversation with a presentation of Made in Midtown’s key findings. No longer a center of mass production, the Garment District functions as a hub of research and development – a place where the integration of design and production drive innovation. “To realize ideas, designers need the support they find in the Garment District,” she said. “Today’s start-up is tomorrow’s Marc Jacobs.”
Or, for that matter, Jason Wu, designer of Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown. The neighborhood infrastructure that catapulted Wu from a Parsons drop-out to industry darling helps make New York the fashion start-up capital of the world. “In Paris or Milan, you have to come up through one of the major fashion houses. It’s virtually impossible to start the way [Wu] started,” Deborah said.
Panelists’ collectively agreed that fashion is a critical piece of New York’s creative economy. “We offer opportunity to entrepreneurs, start-ups, anyone with a dream,” designer Yeohlee Teng claimed.
The discussion grew more heated as the panelists touched on the challenges facing the Garment District: the real estate pressures that will rebound as the city’s economy climbs out of the recession, the growing reliance on overseas manufacturing, and a dwindling pool of skilled trade workers.
Still, urban neighborhoods, like fashion, are about reinvention. “What we have here are core strengths, not chronic problems,” NYIRN’s Sarah Crean said. “The issue here is not how do we save X square feet, but how do we connect people to resources.”
Gunn asked panelists to peer into their crystal ball and imagine the neighborhood’s future. Visions called for more activated storefronts and mixed-use buildings – and less “Chipotles and banks.”
“I would hate to see us wipe out all the creative industry and become a city of lawyers and brokers,” Yeohlee said.
Ultimately, the Garment District needs a stronger identity – one that balances the needs of its stakeholders and reflects the its role as an incubator for new ideas. “What happens within the buildings should inform and give life to what happens on the street,” Deborah said.
A 27-year veteran of the Garment District, Gunn praised Made in Midtown for debunking myths. “So many people say the fashion industry has nothing to do with the Garment District, and it’s just not true,” he said. “I feel very optimistic about all this. Now get the word out.”
The MAS panel series continues on Tuesday, June 15 with Design Trust executive director Deborah Marton moderating a discussion on urban creative districts. To learn more or purchase tickets, visit http://mas.org/programs/#midtown .