Op-Ed: Without the Garment Center, There Would Be No Nanette Lepore

As an American fashion designer who manufactures most of my line in New York City, I’m relieved to see that domestic manufacturing has finally taken center stage at a national level. President Barack Obama’s incentives for companies to bring manufacturing back to America present an enormous opportunity for Manhattan’s embattled garment center.

Fashion designer Nanette Lepore, left, walks with her daughter, Violet, on the runway after the presentation of her Spring 2012 collection. Lepore says that she continues to manufacture her designs in Midtown's garment center because it ensures greater quality control, provides local jobs and is comparable in price to outsourcing orders abroad. AP/Bebeto Matthews

When my husband Bob Savage and I started our business in 1992, we sold my designs out of our boutique in the East Village. Every day we would drag rolls of fabric back and forth in taxicabs and on the subway between the factories in the garment center and our shop downtown.

After weeks of shuttling back and forth, we realized how vital it was for our work space to be close to our factories. We soon rented a small penthouse office on 35th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues and hired our first staff, including a pattern maker, sewer and cutter. We still have that office today but have expanded to an additional eight floors in that same building.

One of the first garment center factories that I worked with was manufacturing large runs for Ralph Lauren and Geoffrey Beene at the time.

I had just received my very first order from Barneys for 40 dresses, and despite that relatively small order, the owner was willing to take me in and produce my line. Every step of the way, that factory owner mentored me through the process.

I was also lucky enough to be mentored by a factory owner named Rodger Cohen, who owns Regal Originals on 37th Street. I would run around the factory after Rodger trying to keep up with him as he buzzed from machine to machine, attending to all the different lines being produced at once. I could go to Rodger with problems and he helped me work it out every time. Throughout the years, Bob and I have encountered many production issues and the factories were — and still are — always there to help.

Nanette Lepore's first clothing line was called Robespierre, hence the R insignia in this display at the East Village shop she opened with her husband Bob Savage in 1992. Photo courtesy of Nanette Lepore.

From early on, I saw that small local manufacturers afford emerging designers the ability to start small and grow their production as orders increase. The other advantages to producing locally include more thorough quality control, easier management of inventory and a quicker turnaround time to fill orders and meet spur-of-the-moment trends.

Today, I continue to produce 85 percent of my Nanette Lepore line in New York City. (Many of the knitting mills in the U.S. have closed, making it very difficult to produce sweaters domestically, and hand beaded and heavily embellished garments are also difficult to produce here because of the extreme cost. These items account in large part for the items manufactured elsewhere). I still work with some of the same factories from back in my East Village days. Without their support I could never have succeeded in business. Having my entire team and factory support system all within four blocks and two avenues is one of the main reasons my business has achieved so much success.


WNET reports on “Made in Midtown,” a project that explored the relationship between the garment district and the surrounding neighborhood.  Designers Nanette Lepore and Yeohlee Teng were interviewed for the video.

The future designers of America deserve the same opportunity that I had 25 years ago, and it is the proximity of the resources in the garment center that make this neighborhood a research and development hub for fashion design. This originality creates the interest that draws the buyers and press from all over the world to come for markets and fashion week.

The numbers behind New York’s fashion industry point to the importance of the garment district:

  • The city’s biannual Fashion Weeks generate $773 million in direct visitor spending a year, making fashion one of the largest industries in New York City.
  • There are 856 fashion companies headquartered in New York City; that’s more than Paris, Milan, and London combined.
  • The New York fashion industry employs 165,000 people. Of those people, 24,000 work in manufacturing jobs.
  • The industry generates $9 billion in total wages and $1.7 billion in tax revenues here.

Leo Andrade and Vicente Lescano, who both work for Nanette Lepore as fabric cutters, joined hundreds at a Save The Garment Rally in New York in 2009. The goal of the gathering was to show industry support for the garment center. Photo courtesy of Nanette Lepore.

If we lose our manufacturing infrastructure, we risk losing future generations of emerging designers, and losing our status as a leader in the world of fashion. We can only sustain a future for American fashion by supporting the American manufacturing base, and fully utilizing its potential. The factories and suppliers in the garment district already provide the infrastructure to support an increase in production, but they are currently operating at just 60 percent capacity. They are ready, willing and capable of immediately taking on more work.

Consumers have enormous power to signal their desire for more Made in America garments with their purchases. We need to encourage established American designers to bring some manufacturing back from overseas. By buying American and asking your favorite brands to manufacture more in the USA, and New York City, you can help ensure a future for jobs in American fashion.

Nanette Lepore founded her namesake brand in New York City’s garment center in 1992. Known for her signature prints, bold colors and flawless fit, Nanette Lepore has become a premier name in contemporary American fashion.

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