Who else is super-excited about the season finale of Project Runway tonight?! If you wish yourself into the shots of Mood in New York City every time the contestants shop, you’ll love today’s post about the NYC Garment District by Rebecca Frey. Rebecca is a costume designer and wardrobe stylist with more than twelve years of experience in the entertainment industry. She holds an M.F.A. in Costume Design from Carnegie Mellon University and is also a licensed New York City Sightseeing Guide with a specific interest in the city’s garment and retail industries. Rebecca is the owner/founder of Seek, a New York City-based company which provides costume design and styling services, as well as tourist-oriented shopping and fashion history tours.

For more information about Rebecca’s work and tours, visit www.seeknewyorkllc.com or www.seeknewyorktours.com. You can also connect with Seek on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to work as a “shopper” for the Metropolitan Opera, one of the largest and busiest union costume shops in New York City. All day, every day, I swatched, sourced and purchased fabrics (as well as other things like trims, notions, beads, buttons and crystals), spending 90% of my time within the borders of the New York Garment District.

For first-time visitors to New York City, the term “Garment District” can be something of a misnomer. People hear “garment” and expect to find streets lined with clothing retailers, but with the exception of West 34th Street (which creates the southern border of the neighborhood, and also serves as a “main drag” for shopping in midtown), very few clothing stores make their home within its boundaries. In truth, the Garment District (also referred to as the Garment Center, Fashion Center or Fashion District) is best described as the heart of the fashion industry in NYC.

At its earliest beginnings, the city’s garment industry was primarily a home-based business, with immigrant workers taking in piecework which could be done in their tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. During the Civil War, the need for military uniforms kicked production into high gear. The war, along with the increasing demand for ready-made garments instead of custom-tailored clothing, necessitated a shift to loft factory manufacturing, much of which took place along Fifth Avenue. And when a 1916 zoning regulation forced garment lofts to relocate, the modern Garment District began to emerge on the west side of midtown Manhattan between 34th to 42nd Streets, where it remains to this day.

While most clothing worn in the United States is now produced overseas, the Garment District remains crucial to the business of American fashion, with the headquarters or branch offices of countless fashion labels located on and around “Fashion Avenue.” And with the exception of a few holdouts on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, almost all of the city’s fabric, trim and notions stores are located in the Garment District. The area also plays home to numerous sample makers, theatrical costume shops, pleaters, tailors, patternmakers, fabric and leather wholesalers, button makers, and countless other industry suppliers, as well as wholesale clothing companies and designer showrooms. Through my work as a costume designer, I’ve developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the resources in the neighborhood, and have built relationships with many of the salespeople and business owners that make the garment industry tick.

Fabric shopping in New York can be an overwhelming experience for out-of-towners, especially since the stores are quite different from suburban craft and fabric chains. My company, Seek, offers guided tours of the Garment District which are designed to introduce visitors to the ins and outs of fabric shopping in NYC. In addition to their familiarity with things like store layouts, swatching procedures and yardage minimums, Seek guides (all of whom are also working costume or fashion designers) can offer shopping advice, like which store is best for fine silks and which one has the biggest selection of printed cottons.

Amid streets bustling with designers and with racks of clothing whizzing by, tour participants experience firsthand what it’s like to be a part of the New York garment industry. And since everybody– from professional designers to fashion students to home seamstresses– utilizes the same sources, it’s not uncommon to bump into a costume designer putting the finishing touches on a Broadway show, or meet an assistant swatching for a major fashion house. In addition to fabric shopping, tour participants learn the history of the garment industry and see important neighborhood landmarks like the Fashion Walk of Fame, the famous “Needle Threading a Button” statue, and Project Runway locations like Parsons and Bryant Park.

Planning a trip to New York? Are you looking for more info on tours? Seek offers weekly group tours of the NYC Garment District as well as private Garment District tours for those who’d prefer a more intimate experience. Now through December, readers are invited to enter MAMA in the discount field at checkout to receive an exclusive 10% discount on a private or public Garment District tour.

Tell us about your Garment District experiences in the comments! Our Super Online Sewing Mach grand prize winner did a bunch of her fabric shopping for the contest in the Garment District… Have you toured? Have you bought fabric, trim, buttons and more? Are you planning a “some day” trip to New York City?!