Building a business in the garment district during COVID
Visiting Lisa Sun’s factory on West 39th Street is like stepping back to the 1960s. It’s a large open space with mostly women sitting in front of sewing machines. In the back, workers use large ironing boards that press the layers of fabric together like a panini sandwich. Steam comes from a boiler through pipes draped from above.
âYou need a certificate for a boiler because of the heat that comes from pressing,â Sun said, while showing how this machine pre-shrinks a wool jacket to the perfect size. Old-fashioned equipment is everywhere in the factory. A black Singer sewing machine is used for uniforms because they have a thicker fabric.
Sun is the CEO of an online clothing company she founded in 2013, Gravitas. In January, she bought this factory by partnering with Michael Lee. His company, Superb Stitch, sews his clothes.
Buying a factory at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a crazy gamble. The city’s garment manufacturing sector has been in the throes of job hemorrhaging for more than half a century. In the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people worked in the industry. These jobs dried up as the manufacturing sector moved south and then overseas for cheap labor.
But Sun, 41, describes his investment as a survival strategy and a statement of hope for a sector of New York’s economy that has long struggled to bounce back.
âI still have at least 20 or 30 years in the fashion industry and I would like it to be here in New York,â she said.
Sun is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up in California and spent over a decade analyzing the fashion industry for McKinsey & Company.
Lee, a Taiwanese immigrant himself, founded Superb Stitch in 1990. He worked with famous designers, like Anna Sui, and had hundreds of sewers on his payroll at the start. By the time the pandemic hit, he said he only had about 20. Then it all stopped.
âLast year has been very, very difficult,â he said. âI’m over 30 years old and I’ve never met like this. It was horrible.”
To keep Lee’s employees busy, Sun’s company designed face masks and donated them to hospitals. The publicity led to contracts to make more masks and dresses, and a collaboration when they bought the factory.
âIn the end, I said, why are we in separate places when we work so much together?â Sun explained. âWhy don’t we share the expenses? Why not join forces?
Sun calls Lee a âmentorâ. They knocked on doors and found a factory owner ready to retire and bought her equipment. They said they are now paying $ 6,000 per month for 2,100 square feet, which they describe as a cost savings. They also rent space from a small business that makes uniforms for doormen, police and firefighters.
But Sun wasn’t just looking to share the expenses. Her label Gravitas specializes in creating inclusive fashion for women of all sizes, with half of its styles produced in China and the rest in New York. She sees the potential of this factory and the Made in New York brand image for two main reasons.
âFirst, we are fast,â she explained.
Sun said her orders sent to China could take four months to complete and ship to the U.S. She uses Chinese factories for mass-produced and cheaper items like leggings. In New York, she can have something ready to wear in two weeks.
âAnd so that I can chase the demand, I can follow the trends,â she said.
But it’s much more expensive to make clothes here. She said workers at her 39th Street factory made between $ 15 and $ 22 an hour, three times more than in China. This is Sun’s second strategy. She is now educating customers with a new line of items that explains who makes them.
This year, its designer, Aruk Ochirvaani, made a black tote bag with layers of fabric that symbolize the interconnected segments of the clothing district.
âThis bag saved our business in January because no one buys work clothes during a pandemic,â she said. Her website features a collection of bags and says five bags equals a full day’s work for a seamstress. She said the message helped.
âWhen you let a consumer know what that item of clothing or bag means to someone who lives in America, there is an emotional attachment to the product that is different than that. âI bought it on saleâ and it was made overseas by a faceless worker. “
The limits of Made in New York
Sun isn’t the first person to try and capitalize on the phrase Made in New York. It has been around for decades. Barbara Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance, said she never had a lot of cache.
âMaybe I could pay more for something made in Italy, to speak as a consumer, or made in France,â she explained, of the mindset of the average American buyer. “But I don’t necessarily pay more for something that is made in the United States.”
And Americans don’t buy so much fashion, in general. âThere’s a big drop because we dress differently,â she said, noting how casual Friday has turned into working from home all week, following the rise of e-commerce and the collapse of physical retail. There were just under 10,000 clothing manufacturing jobs at the start of 2020, according to an analysis from the Center for an Urban Future. But another third was lost during the pandemic, with just 6,300 remaining in March.
Still, Blair believes there is room for small, niche businesses like Gravitas to grow. But she said the clothing industry needs to be more competitive. Its equipment is old and many companies, like Superb Stitch, don’t even have websites.
Meanwhile, factory jobs are unattractive for high school and college graduates. Few people are unionized now, and workers in the garment industry are mostly immigrants who cannot get better paying jobs. âNo young person comes to this trade to learn this job,â said Josie Davila, who runs an editing room in the same building as Gravitas.
The city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has a program with the Fashion Designers Council of America to provide grants. Adam Friedman, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, said the government could do more.
“This could therefore concern export aid, or branding, or even workforce development and equipment lending for companies wishing to buy,” he explained. .
He said zoning protections did not prevent factories from being assessed from expensive space in the Garment District. The city has also failed to get anyone to buy a new building for manufacturing in the district, despite the offer of $ 20 million in capital.
An EDC spokesperson said it had not received any viable proposals “despite the procurement deadline being repeatedly postponed until February 2021”. The agency is now working with three separate building owners to preserve 240,000 square feet of fashion manufacturing space through incentives.
Friedman said the $ 20 million offer was clearly not enough. âThe city had to contribute more,â he said. âAlso, they should have tried to put together a funding pool in conjunction with New York State and the federal government.
The federal government recently contracted three companies in the city to manufacture personal protective equipment, one of which has unionized workers. EDC said it has purchased more than 4.2 million locally made medical gowns for distribution to healthcare workers in the city. But Friedman said the city should do more by stockpiling for future emergencies, as the federal government has done. The state has recently joined forces with a few companies.
Now that the pandemic is abating, the Sun and Lee factory is doing more business and most of the workers are back. Sun hopes to develop gradually. She is interested in 3D scanning to make personalized clothing, as they do in China. She said investors might be drawn in if she lands on a popular article or finds more partners.
âIt’s all part of the plans, but for now this year is just to prove that we can do this job,â she said.
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering the city’s recovery efforts at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.