The stretch of Third Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, that runs for several miles underneath the Gowanus Expressway has the ambience of a hangover. It's one of those urban nether regions most New Brooklyn types pass without a thought, flying above it on the way to somewhere more preciously curated. Sex shops, a car junkyard, and a concrete federal prison inhabit the drag in this mostly Mexican and Chinese neighborhood called Sunset Park. Next to the prison sits a 1.2 million-square-foot former Navy building, rechristened Liberty View Industrial Plaza, where a designer named Bob Bland is plotting to create the new epicenter of New York City fashion.
Bland is the founder of Manufacture New York, an ambitious incubator and innovation hub aiming to revitalize New York's atrophied apparel manufacturing industry, while hatching a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs. Before setting out to reboot an entire industry, the 33-year-old had the typical trajectory of a fashion designer trying to make it on her own. Bland began designing as a teenager in northern Virginia (she adopted the name Bob around the same time, although she won't share her given name) and eventually worked for big and small brands including Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren, and (now defunct) Triple Five Soul, until starting her own streetwear line, Brooklyn Royalty.
Once running her own company, she recognized two vital--and connected--challenges for fashion entrepreneurs. "In the '80s, the garment district was the fashion incubator," Bland says. "As a kid who just graduated from design school, you could roll down the street and say, 'Here's my sketches, here's my patterns. What do I do next?' We don't have that any more." That void was a result of some 25 years of offshoring U.S. apparel manufacturing jobs to Asia, where wages can be 20 times cheaper. New York's once thriving garment district--the storied square mile that runs between Manhattan's 34th Street and 42nd Street--had become a shell of its former self. Gentrification pushed up rents, making it even harder for decades-old manufacturers and suppliers to stay afloat. "In 1960, 95 percent of what Americans wore was actually made in New York," says Bland. "Today, it's 3 percent."
With Manufacture New York, Bland's plan is trying to lure both designers and the city's remaining garmentos to relocate their operations to her sprawling space at Liberty View Industrial Plaza. The pitch: Its fashion incubator gives promising young designers inexpensive space to work in, along with education and connections, while the manufacturers inherit a built-in stream of clients.
The city has made a bet this formula will work. In late 2014, the New York City Economic Development Corporation announced a $3.5 million investment to get Bland started at Liberty View. "We want to make sure design entrepreneurs are able to have a home in New York, and the manufacturing pipeline that supports their work," says Kate Daly, senior vice president of the EDC's Center for Economic Transformation. Even in the garment district's diminished state, explains Daly, the sector employs more than 16,000 workers in New York City, "more than any other manufacturing sector." The city's local factories are the lifeblood for emerging designers. And a healthy pipeline of design talent ensures a healthy future for the fashion industry, and in turn, New York.
It's a big idea. But rehabbing an entire industry is wildly harder than designing a fashion line--and subject to powerful global market forces. "It's weird when you're basically starting a movement as a business," says Bland. "Maybe I should have just started a movement, or started a business. It would have been much easier."
It's an unseasonably warm December day, and on the seventh floor of Liberty View the light streams through hundreds of giant casement windows, creating geometric shadows on the raw concrete floor. Unobstructed views of the Statue of Liberty and a battalion of container ships in the harbor are rivaled only by the enormity of the interior space: 160,000 square feet on this floor alone, enough to fit three football fields.
In a makeshift workspace of Ikea tables at the far end of the floor, a 26-year-old designer named Daniel Silverstein sits among piles of fabric remnants. Silverstein is something of a fashion prodigy who started designing and sewing well before he was 10 years old. After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology and interning at Michael Kors, he quit his first real job, at Victoria's Secret, after taking offense at how much fabric was wasted in the company's production process.
Silverstein channeled that distaste into a collection that would use excess fabric to create design flourishes on simple dresses. A popular Greenwich Village boutique picked him up almost immediately and then other stores, and he spent the next 18 months frantically trying to meet demand, pay two employees making everything in-house, and pay rent in Manhattan, all while paying himself nothing. Along the way, he made it to the finals of an NBC reality show called Fashion Star. The visibility brought in even more orders, but he simply didn't have the resources to make the business work. In 2014, he made the painful decision many young designers ultimately come to: abandon his dream and get a job. But as he was packing up his fabric scraps, several dropped to the floor and he had a vision for a kind of patchwork shirt made of irregular-shaped fragments.
Today, he rents studio space for his eponymous line at Liberty View at about a sixth of the cost of his old space, enlists the incubator's product-development team, and has his pieces sewn by a manufacturer that set up shop across the floor from his work tables. "I've scaled back 75 percent," he says, "but this is the first year I've been profitable."
This is what Bland first imagined the incubator could do when she came up with the idea in early 2012. She had experienced many of the same fashion-upstart challenges firsthand after she quit her job at Triple Five Soul and turned her side-project label--Brooklyn Royalty--into her full-time gig. With about $15,000 in savings, she transformed her bedroom into a studio and worked around the clock. It wasn't easy. Some of her designs required special manufacturing skills--a metallic coating for denim, for instance--and finding the right makers required exhaustive networking and "muddling through," she says. So began the germ of Manufacture New York, an incubator that would not only mentor participants on business basics--"the things they don't learn in design school," Bland says--but also help them navigate tricky production issues and forge industry connections. Because fashion upstarts can take five to seven years to get off the ground, there would be no time limit for designers' participation. "It's incubating in a different way," says Mimi Prober, one of some 50 designers who have participated in the program.
But six months into helping the incubator's first few designers get their ideas produced, it became clear Manufacture New York would also need to focus on New York's manufacturers who were getting left behind. In 2014, Bland got a $50,000 grant from the Small Business Administration Accelerator Growth Fund and spent six months looking for a space large enough to anchor the more expansive Manufacture New York. She was eventually introduced to Marvin Schein, a 73-year-old native New Yorker who had made a fortune running a dental-equipment business and had decided, as a sort of legacy project, to develop a decaying industrial building on the Brooklyn waterfront. "It looked like a horror-movie set," Schein says, of the building's broken windows, crumbling façade, and caving-in roof. He wanted to turn the space into a state-of-the-art facility that would help manufacturing companies create new jobs in the city, so Bland was the ideal tenant. "The fashion industry is being squeezed out of Manhattan," Schein says. "We want to encourage it to stay in New York." Bland leased the massive floor in Schein's building and found herself taking on a much more audacious challenge than she had ever planned on.
I first met Bland over a year ago, shortly after Manufacture New York moved into its Brooklyn headquarters. The space was basically empty at the time--a perfect vessel for dreams--and Bland pushed aside her long red hair as she leaned over a table covered with interior renderings and floor plans from the architect she'd enlisted, the same firm that designed the flashy Brooklyn headquarters for both Etsy and Kickstarter. Construction was about to get started, she said excitedly, and manufacturers would soon begin moving in.
When I visit a year later, the buildout is again just around the corner--"early 2016." It took the better part of a year for money from the EDC's big investment to start flowing after the announcement. Bland sighs: "It does make you think sometimes that maybe I should have done this whole thing with private funding; it would have gone so much faster."
The area that's been particularly slow to evolve is its central piece--the manufacturing hub. Bland says she is "engaged in conversations with dozens of manufacturers" to make the move and has enough interest to fill almost twice as much space as she has available. But the reality is, there are only two manufacturers currently residing there--an embroidery and screen-printing shop and a small cut-and-sew operation. Hardly an epicenter of industry.
A big reason there aren't more is a chicken-and-egg problem. When the EDC announced its funding more than a year ago, garment district stalwart Johnny's Fashion Studio declared it would make the Sunset Park move. But shortly after the announcement, explains Johnny's co-owner Joann Kim, it retracted. Kim says it's too risky to move unless a whole swath of the industry goes en masse. Most of the manufacturing that happens in the garment district is either for small designers with limited distribution or quick-turnaround sample making for bigger names. That means you need to fill lots of small orders, and being outside the garment district would simply be too big a competitive disadvantage because it's less convenient for clients. What's more, it's still possible to "get lucky," as Johnny's did, and find a reasonable landlord in the old neighborhood--at least for now. The only other condition under which moving would make sense, Kim says, is if brands started bringing more large-scale production back to the U.S.
To kick-start that, Manufacture New York has established a consulting arm to help designers of any size make domestic sourcing plans, and Bland cites ongoing conversations with several established brands, including Brooklyn Industries, that have shown interest in using the service to reshore specific product lines. Existing clients include a textile company that sought help developing its business plan for a U.S.-produced line of hemp fabrics.
It's tempting to see that effort as a potential breakthrough for Manufacture New York, and it comes at a time when tales of a U.S. manufacturing renaissance have become something like an industrial meme, with the likes of GE's Jeff Immelt praising the virtues of colocating design and production. But the reality is more complicated. Making apparel is more human-labor intensive than most industries, so the cost of wages matters more in fashion than in, say, aerospace or appliances, where advanced manufacturing technologies can make domestic manufacturing more competitive. Several recent studies have found that the economics of reshoring varies widely by industry, and even within different parts of a single company, and that on a net basis, more manufacturing is still leaving the U.S. than coming back. In apparel, there's value in prototyping and making small collections or luxury goods close to home--proximity does allow for more control and flexibility--but mass production remains cost prohibitive for the most part. As the minimum wage rises in the U.S., that hard reality is unlikely to change, even as labor costs rise in China. In Los Angeles, where a new law will push the minimum wage to $15 in 2020, garment factory owners have already begun saying they'll move out of the city.
In order for Manufacture New York to lure factories to Sunset Park, it needs to be perceived as not only cheaper but also more innovative. Hence Bland's decision to add an apparel-tech R&D lab to the organization, run by Amanda Parkes, an MIT Media Lab PhD who can act as a bridge between the technology and fashion industries. At least one major company has taken notice: Intel contracted Manufacture New York's lab to help develop a product in the wearable-tech space. "It's not just about making sure there's space for local factories and emerging designers," says the EDC's Daly, "but also, for instance, thinking about what's going to happen when worsening droughts affect cotton growth and we need better ways to recycle textiles. That's what's really exciting. Thinking about where we need to be in the future."
Bland still has the present to deal with, though. After almost four years, her vision is largely still just that. She says revenue has doubled each year and amounts to about $1 million so far, but that "revenue isn't really our focus right now." The EDC's Daly says it is too soon to see meaningful results, but the success of its investment will be judged on the levels of participation and work force development. "I would say it's still very much a work in progress," says Daly.
Small signs of industry conversion are starting to surface. Jordan Adoni, who runs shoe manufacturer Modern Vice with his brother, says he intends to move part of his operation to Liberty View in the near future. "There is enormous value in what Bob is doing, and there's a buzz about it in the industry," says Adoni, a second-generation garment district entrepreneur. Along with the cost savings, he says the colocation of designers and different kinds of manufacturers is one of her biggest selling points. "She gives people sort of a light at the end of the tunnel," says Adoni. But he has yet to set a date.
In the three years since Bland got started building Manufacture New York, others have begun to tackle the same issues. Most notably, New York mayor Bill de Blasio last year announced the city would triple its investment in local fashion initiatives, from $5 million to $15 million, including a splashy ad campaign about locally produced products. The Council of Fashion Designers backed a Fashion Manufacturing Initiative (in partnership with the EDC) that awards grants to garment factories in need of upgrades and fosters connections with designers. Another initiative has promoted locally produced garments with a pop-up shop at the Waldorf Astoria hotel as well as a Made in New York collection at the tony department store Barneys. But critics call the moves incremental, and question whether they'll have much impact beyond a nice brand halo for the establishment fashion players who are funding them.
The experience of one of those establishment players, Theory founder and CEO Andrew Rosen--a key backer of the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative--suggests that Bland's much grander vision is simply unrealistic, though. A third-generation garment industry entrepreneur who has built a billion-dollar brand and invested in other hot brands, including Rag & Bone and Proenza Schouler, Rosen was equally distraught by the state of the garment district and came up with a plan to resurrect it. As The New Yorker wrote in 2013: "He hoped to identify a single building, of fifty thousand or a hundred thousand square feet, that could serve as an incubator for innovative manufacturing, with pattern makers, cutters, and sewers on different floors, so that a designer could bring an idea to the top floor and emerge with a finished sample on the ground floor." Sound familiar? In the end, Rosen scrapped the idea after concluding it couldn't be done on a practical timeline.
If someone like Rosen couldn't pull it off, how likely is it that Bland will? She aims to keep trying. "I don't care if this takes three years," she says, "or 20."