Although high shipping costs and uncertainty in the textile supply chain have driven some production back to the United States, a lack of skilled workers willing to do intensive, hands-on work has been a problem, Ward said.
Many factories in the city told him that taking on additional business would overwhelm their employees.
The average age of a sewer in a New York City factory is 55, Ward said. When the pandemic struck, many left the industry. A lack of new blood has created a hole in the sector. The average wage of a cut-and-sew manufacturing worker in the spring of 2021 was $74,340, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found.
Another problem facing the industry is the lack of new technology that offshore manufacturers have come to rely upon but local manufacturers have failed to keep up with, said Kinda Younes, executive director of the NYC Industrial Technology Assistance Corp., a manufacturing-technology consultancy. The organization helps owners for free, she said, through a grant provided by the Garment District Alliance.
Younes, who works closely with the small and medium businesses that make up the city’s fashion manufacturing industry, said many owners are so steeped in their day-to-day work that they sometimes fail to see the larger picture.
For example, as more consumers buy clothes via social media platforms while still valuing sustainability, designers turn to manufacturers to produce small-batch clothing, which they, in turn, sell directly to consumers. To reach direct-to-consumer designers, who can operate anywhere in the country, New York City manufacturers need to have a web presence, but many haven’t had one until recently, Younes said.
“The whole system of looking for clients walking down the street isn’t how they do business anymore,” Ward said. “[Manufacturers] have to open up their eyes to the broader picture of where retail is occurring.”
Issues such as high rent, finding space to work and a lack of skilled workers, which persisted before the pandemic, remain today, said Lisa Kesselman, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a former owner of a manufacturing company.
But Kesselman, who has been in the industry for close to four decades, said the Garment District can continue to grow with enough support from subsidies from the local government and incentives for landlords to keep manufacturers in the area.
“I don’t think [the industry is] going anywhere,” she said. “It’ll be here long after we’re gone—or at least long after I’m gone.”
Looking out across her factory floor, Lee said she has seen a recovery in the fashion industry. Her business, based on eveningwear for women, is picking up speed as events resume.
“There will always be fashion,” Lee said. The question, she said, is “can we produce and manufacture in a way that can sustain an industry in New York City?”