In the late 19th century, the Garment District emerged as a bustling hub of the fashion industry, synonymous with the clatter of sewing machines and clothing racks filled with garments pushed along the streets in every direction. Soon, the area was packed with high-density loft buildings, each floor teeming with skilled tailors and seamstresses (or sewists as they are now known).
These buildings, characterized by spacious, open floor plans, were built to house rows of sewing machines and large cutting tables. The workers transformed bolts of fabric into the latest fashions worn from Fifth Avenue to the Champs-Élysées. The production of ready-to-wear women's clothing, particularly dresses, blouses, and skirts, spurred the industry; this was a departure from the custom-tailored clothing that dominated the previous era. New York City quickly became the epicenter for textile manufacturing and garment production.
The garment business thrived for decades. It was so good, in fact, that many owners purchased the buildings where their businesses operated. Of course, these buildings were more affordable back then, so it made sense. The foresight to invest in the NYC real estate market helped create stability for their businesses and, as an unintended consequence, created generational wealth for many of their descendants who are rent collectors for the buildings today.
While there is very little manufacturing in Manhattan today, we still occasionally see a garmento pushing a rack of coats along West 38th Street or catch a glimpse of a sewing machine through an office window.
The glory days of the Garment District may have passed, but the city's connection with fashion and design continues to flourish.
WHERE IS THE GARMENT DISTRICT IN NYC?
New York City's Garment District is located in the southwest portion of Midtown Manhattan, between Penn Station and Hell's Kitchen, and Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue.
The Garment District has several intriguing landmarks and well-known sites. Among these is the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which, according to its website, transports around 200,000 people daily, making it the busiest bus terminal in the world. It's been the butt of many jokes over the years, such as when Mayor Michael Bloomberg commemorated Conan O'Brien's 16th anniversary in New York with a 'key' to the men's room at the Port Authority.
Welcoming visitors at the entrance of the Port Authority stands a statue of Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, a nod to the character's iconic status as a New York City bus driver. Many passersby must think the statue is a celebrated real-life bus driver, not a TV character from the 1950s.
Macy's flagship department store is also located in the Garment District and takes up an entire city block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues on 34th Street. Even if you've never been, you might recognize Macy's from your TV set, as it marks the grand finale of the Thanksgiving Day Parade every year.
Situated at the intersection of Seventh Avenue, also known as Fashion Avenue, and West 39th Street stands an homage to the Garment District: a pop art sculpture made of stainless steel and aluminum of a needle threading a gigantic yellow button.
Walking down Fashion Avenue, you'll discover the Fashion Walk of Fame, where the names of honored icons like Ralph Lauren, Halston, Diane von Fürstenberg, Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, and Isaac Mizrahi are embedded on stars in the sidewalk.
What's the Garment District like today
The heyday of the Garment District passed, and the manufacturing business, for the most part, moved overseas. Therefore, it might come as a surprise that the Garment District remains a hub for the apparel business. Clustered within select buildings along Broadway, Seventh Avenue, 38th Street, and 39th Street, fashion showrooms display their wares for wholesale buyers who travel from around the country to see them in person.
These buyers often work for department stores or boutiques. They might visit dozens of showrooms in the city on a given day. It's a tactile business—they touch the fabrics, inspect the seams, and assess the dies and colors. A Zoom meeting won't cut it. If they see a shirt or a pair of blue jeans they like, they may order a few thousand units.
PR firms specializing in fashion often rent office space in the Garment District. These companies might handle the social media, websites, and branding for a fashion label. They rent office space here to be near their clients; they're part of the fabric of the community, so to speak.
And if you're in the area, check out the local flavor—literally. Zeppola Bakery at 499 Seventh Avenue has exquisite pastries, sandwiches, and pizzettas (small pizzas). Skip the dollar slice and try Zeppola. Once you taste it, you might have to rent office space in the Garment District just to be nearby.