New York in the World: How one New York City industry refashioned itself

Aug 21, 2013

In 1950, New York City’s garment industry employed 300,000 workers. During the last several decades, those production jobs have all but disappeared. But the story of what happened next in this industry is dramatically different from others in cities elsewhere in the state.

Today, Fashion Week in New York City attracts nearly 250,000 visitors from around the world and has an economic impact on the city of of more than $750 million.

How did this happen? From the remains of the city’s garment industry arose something new. A designer-fashion industry with high skill, higher paying jobs. Today, New York City is a global fashion center -- a textbook example of the advantages of a large city that can draw investment and talent. 

Nanette Lepore grew up in Youngstown, Ohio from a family of bricklayers and carpenters. She and her husband left Ohio and came to New York City in 1982. She wanted to work with a big-name designer. When that didn’t work, she became her own designer and started her own brand in lower Manhattan, not far from where the Dutch had launched their first businesses more than 300 years earlier.

“We found a storefront on 1st Street, between 1st and 2nd, between a gas station and a soup kitchen, and the rent was $500 a month. So, when I didn’t get the Ralph Lauren job, we signed the lease and we started a business,” Lepore said.

Now, Lepore is an international brand with a retail volume of around 50 million to 70 million. Like any industry, designer fashion depends on skilled workers, a pool of talent constantly fed by schools such as Nanette Lepore’s alma matter: the Fashion Institute of Technology, or FIT.

Students at FIT say they are drawn to New York City.

“New York there’s a bustling feeling her that the kids like.  And I think the energy brings them here.  Also a place that dreams are made.  There’s all those songs about it, and I think that everybody who comes to New York is a dreamer,” explains Jerry Dellova, a teacher at FIT.

“[In] New York, you can intern at the top design houses and get all this experience learning from different designers,” said Lynn Choi, a senior at FIT.

“Being a career-driven school and having industry professionals as members of our faculty, we have a very fluid curriculum,” said Joanne Arbuckle, the dean of the School of Art and Design.

“And so, our curriculum moves with the needs of the industry, with where we project the industry is going and that creates a very different college graduate.”

Michelle Sweet is one of those graduates. From Skodack, N.Y., she is one of many New Yorkers or young people anywhere, who move to where they see opportunity and a way to fulfill their dream.

“I just feel like there’s so much energy in New York.  And there’s so many different people and cultures that come to New York that there’s so much inspiration and things you can see around and experience,” she said.

So as upstate cities struggle to hold on to the young and ambitious, people like Michelle Sweet, the question becomes: how can they compete with the energy and critical mass of talent and investment of global cities, such as New York? 

All this week, we’ll be bringing you  a series of stories from the documentary about the state of the economy in New York state. "New York in the World" with Garrick Utley will air on WRVO Public Media  Sunday, August 25 at 7 p.m. In part four, more on the topic of how upstate cities can compete in this global economy.