It's easy to dismiss fashion as a frivolous subject only to see millions of garments being sold off department store shelves around the world. At the beginning of the 20ththIn the fifth century, mass media shook the world as we know it. Radio. TV. Movie theater. The Internet. And fashion.
That's right. The industry, now worth $2.4 trillion - yes, that's trillion with a "t" - has helped spread ideas of female empowerment, freedom of self-expression with subcultures like punk and the LGBTQ+ revolution and blurring the lines between different social classes.
Fashion is mass medium. But instead of watching, listening or browsing. you wear it
Everything you wear sends a message to the world about who you are and what you believe in.
But why should New York City care about fashion?
There are a few fashion capitals around the world, but four remain unsurpassed to this day. Paris. Milan. London. And New York. That could change in the near future with globalization, e-commerce and burgeoning economies. But the fashion industry we know today wouldn't be the same if it wasn't for New York City.
Let's meander through the history of the city that never sleeps to find out how NYC became the fashion capital of the world.
Birth of the American Dream: Lower East Side
In the 1880s, millions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe flocked to the shores of America.
NYC saw the largest influx of immigrants, making the Lower East Side the most densely populated place on earth. You're lucky to see signs in English here, or to find an empty street!
1860s America. Prêt-à-porter clothing is enjoying great popularity! But why? Two reasons.
1. Sewing machines are getting smaller and more affordable.
2. The Civil War. Millions of measurements have been taken by the US military. Providing well-developed systems for boys and men sizing to the masses.
The Eastern European Jewish immigrants came to the right place at the right time because many of them were already textile and clothing workers in their homeland. This was her chance to make it in America!
Hundreds of sweatshops have opened in this neighborhood. They were overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and prone to fire. Many high-profile New Yorkers also feared that these garments would spread disease.
The city imposed strict regulations, so the sweatshops of the Lower East Side had to move to the lofts of Greenwich Village.
Triangle shirtwaist factoryFeuer: Greenwich Village
4:40 p.m. 25th Marchth1911. Greenwich-Dorf.
Inside the 10-story Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. A cigarette was carelessly thrown onto a pile of rubbish under an editing table. More than 500 people, mostly women, sewed and cut clothes.
A fire broke out on the pile of clothes and spread to the wooden table and other clothes!
The textile workers panicked, they had to get out and rushed to the exit. But the doors were locked. At that time it was common to lock up the garment workers to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks and stealing garments. Nobody let her out.
Dozens of women on the lower floors manage to escape down the stairs. Dozens more escape through the elevator, but then the fire spreads everywhere!
While the structure of the building was iron and steel, the floor was wood and the clothing items used at the time were highly flammable. The elevator didn't go up. Desperate to escape, women take their chances and jump down the elevator shaft to their deaths. While others on the upper floors jump out of windows and fall to their deaths as well.
A total of 146 people died. 123 of them were women.
It was the worst fire in New York history at the time. As hundreds of pedestrians witnessed the horrors of this fire and the subsequent mass publicization of this tragedy, the city was shocked.
The clothing industry once again found itself running the gauntlet of city regulations. Demand that these factories be built fireproof, with fire escapes and large windows, along with more decent working conditions.
Department store rise: Ladies Mile
6thAvenue between 14thstreet and 23rdStreet.
From the 1860s it was New York City's premier shopping district. This was the birth of the department store with Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, Tiffany & Co. and Macy's. Thousands of high-profile women strutted under the elevated train on this stretch of Manhattan.
However, right next door in 5thAvenue clothing factories opened. The clothing industry benefited from being right next to the shops, which saved a lot of money on shipping costs. However, during lunchtime, thousands of the male garment workers came out for lunch and flocked to the Ladies Mile.
That deterred many high-clients. And as many of the businesses started to move into town. Garment factories also moved up to 5th placethAvenue. Getting closer and closer to the villas of 5thAvenue around 50thStreet.
New York's upper class was in turmoil with the working class on their doorstep. For example, a group of aristocrats, real estate agents, and owners of high-end stores ran a full page in the New York Times entitled "Shall we save New York?". urging the city and the general public to stop garment factories from opening on May 5thth, and again a stark warning to garment manufacturers that their lives would be made really miserable if they chose not to comply.
Most of the clothing industry was owned by Eastern Europeans, who were still a minority in America, and they had no choice but to set up their clothing factories elsewhere. So they established their locations in an area of New York where no one else dared to go. The fillet.
Weaving a Global Empire: Garment District
Seventh Avenue. between 35thstreet and 40th. 1921.
This area was once known as "The Tenderloin". It was full of brothels, gambling dens, seedy bars and cabarets. This was the most seedy area in Manhattan. No upper class lady or gentleman would dare roam this area. That meant only one thing for the Garmentos. Land prices were cheap. Very cheap.
The first two garment factories to be built were the Garment Capitol Center, which flanked Seventh Avenue at 37thStreet. 14 or 21 stories high. Ushering in the era of the skyscraper industrial building. Over 130 garment factories have been built here in just 10 years.
By 1960, 75% of all women's and children's clothing sold in America was made here.
Fashion icons like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan all got their start here in the 1960s. All Jewish Americans from NYC. Then designers from other cities, like Oscar De La Renta, came to Seventh Avenue. All four, among many others, were right here at 550 Seventh Avenue. And become huge global brands selling billions of dollars in goods.
Seventh Avenue is as synonymous with fashion as Wall Street is synonymous with finance. For most of 20thIn the 19th century every aspect of clothing manufacture was based here, from the fabric to the garment to the marketing and the shelves in the stores on Fifth Avenue.
This neighborhood in the middle of Manhattan, just a 10-minute walk from end to end, is why New York became the fashion capital. Some of the world's biggest names have been produced through the support of the marketing machines of Madison Avenue and the financial powerhouse Wall Street and, above all, minorities ranging from Eastern Europeans to Italians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans to Asian Americans and Hispanics.
This neighborhood was built by immigrants seeking a better life in this country and in turn created a global empire.
In its heyday over 200,000 people worked in the Garment District, but how is the fashion industry doing at the moment?
Will New York City remain the fashion capital?
As you can see today, the Garment District isn't as lively as it used to be. You can still see a variety of fabric stores like Mood Fabrics featured on Project Runway or Daytona Trimmings. But increasingly they are aimed at small designers and retail customers.
No longer the center of fashion in New York City, the Garment District has spanned the five boroughs since the 1990s. There are currently 1,568 clothing manufacturers with around 22,000 employees.
Alongside this, small fashion designers are opening stores in places like Astoria, Queens and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With the rise of Instagram, the need for middlemen is less important as designers can serve their clientele directly.
Garment manufacture's proximity to designers is closely linked to the breeding of new global brands. Undeniably, New York is still a fashion capital. Twice a year one of the biggest fashion weeks takes place here and it is the headquarters of many global brands.
But with the economic rise of former Third World countries competing in the global marketplace, New York has competition, as do France, London, Milan and Tokyo.
As we've learned how to weave our way through the city's history, the fashion industry has had its ups and downs, and New Yorkers from all walks of life know how to persevere.
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