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As we learned from Meryl Streep’s memorable cerulean-blue rant in The Devil Wears Prada, that Gap V-neck you’re sporting right this very moment originated on some runway, one or several seasons ago. Fashion permeates everything, and that’s more true in this city than almost anywhere else. Even if you don’t give a shit about the latest trends or what went on at Bryant Park last week, you are still undeniably affected by the clothing business, simply by living here.
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“Fashion is one of the largest industries in New York,” says Steven Kolb, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, explaining that it’s a huge contributor to the city’s job market and overall wealth. In 2005 the industry employed 169,000 New Yorkers, who made a total of $9.2 billion in wages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This brought the city $672 million in personal tax revenue alone. So if you’re thrilled about the revamped Madison Square Park or if you really like riding the new(ish) subway trains, you can give thanks (in part) to those who toil away in the Garment District and prance down the runways. There’s also shopping, the second most popular activity for tourists (dining comes first), whose sprees generate an annual $4.5 billion. And fashion-industry types also add to the pot. “Each year, 125,000 visits are made by out-of-town apparel buyers and editors,” says Kolb. Tourism organization NYC and Company estimates that this accounts for another $1 billion per year for restaurants, hotels and transportation systems. Meanwhile, New York Fashion Week, which has grown wildly since its inception in the early ’90s, brings in a yearly $177 million. And don’t forget cachet: “Fashion helps support other creative industries like advertising and media,” says Patrick Murphy, a vice president at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “And having these industries in the city is a major reason that the best talent wants to live and work here.”
Of course, there are some negative aspects to this avalanche of dollars: It lends to soul-stripping gentrification and erases characteristic NYC grit. The quirky industrial feel of Soho and the Meatpacking District is long gone, having been exchanged for the very boutiques that make us wonder if fashion really is good for New York, cash cow or not. Everywhere we turn—the once factory-filled, now trendy Dumbo, the ever more residential Greenpoint and Williamsburg—we see former industrial areas sprouting luxury residences. But right smack in Midtown West is the Garment District, an area that not only remains totally sketchy but also has (so far) resisted gentrification. “This is one of the few remaining neighborhoods in New York City that hasn’t lost its historic identity,” says Barbara Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District. “New Yorkers want a neighborhood that is what it’s always been, but is also still an important piece of the economic puzzle. And this is that neighborhood.” Though manufacturing has decreased significantly there (see “Eyes of the needle”), the district remains a highly concentrated center for fashion design—and a reminder of the old New York that’s on its way out in so many other parts of the city.
Although the number of factories in the city has been on the decline since the ’70s, the garment center retains about 8,000 manufacturing jobs (compare this with 200,000 of 30 years ago). Randall argues that as the city moves away from production in industries across the board, fewer and fewer jobs will be available for semi- or unskilled laborers. “Most of those jobs have gone overseas, while we get more of the intellectual and creative capital,” she says. The lingering local garment-manufacturing business is helping to keep the New York workplace diverse. “To continue to be an international magnet for humanity, you have to have a distribution of industries that include everyone from the least educated people to the most highly educated. That is how a place functions at the very high level that New York does.”