THE streets are bustling with activity. Young men are pushing tall wire-mesh carts with long bolts of multicolored fabric, canvas carts filled with cut pieces of cloth, and carts with finished garments covered with plastic bags hanging from a high rod.
Vendors are opening their storefronts. White poster-board signs advertise Chanel silk ties, three for $10. Older men are standing on the corners, chatting. Many are congregated around newsstands asking each other about today's latest in fashion news. Towering above this street bustle are the buildings that house New York's garment industry, which produces $12 billion worth of clothing annually.
New York offers everything the industry needs, says Bruce Herman, president of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, designers' offices and showrooms, cutting and sewing rooms, textile manufacturers, a large immigrant work force, creative elements such as models, photographers, and advertising agencies.
The garment district is preparing for fall fashion shows featuring New York designers. These shows are held twice a year in the Big Apple. Between March 30 and April 10, says Ruth Finley of the Fashion Calendar, 86 fall fashion shows are scheduled. They attract buyers and the press from all over the US, Europe, Canada, and Japan to New York. "Up until the mid-1940s, clothes were made with the store's labels rather than a designer's.
"When the industry began promoting designers, New York became fashionable. America has designers equivalent to any in the world," says Eleanor Lambert, who has been a fashion publicist in New York for 58 years.
"Fashion is an industry that involves a lot of people at various dimensions - not just glitz and glamour - livelihoods and economic opportunities for a lot of people as well as culture and art," says James Parrott, executive assistant to the president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).
Employment in women's outerwear dropped by 16 percent between 1975 and 1990. The ILGWU attributes much of this to imports. Mr. Parrott says that 60 percent of apparel sold in United States markets today is imported.
"We've recently tried to become a catalyst for creating more services for out-of-town buyers, and for changing the way people think and talk about the industry," Parrott says.
The garment industry boom began near the end of the 19th century, says Roger D. Waldinger in his book, "Through The Eye Of The Needle," (New York University Press, 1986).
It is wrapped up in the story of new immigrant entrepreneurship, Mr. Waldinger says, and began with the influx of Eastern European Jews and Italians.
Many of the Jewish men had been tailors in their home countries, and quickly adapted to the machine operations. Italian men moved into heavy labor jobs, and both Jewish and Italian young women went to work in the garment manufacturing shops.
"By 1919," Waldinger says, "the women's garment industry comprised 165,659 workers, almost all of whom were employed as factory help. From the immigrants the garment industry gained a labor force that was poor, industrious, and compelled by want of other skills to seek work in a clothing shop."
Today, the industry is still a story of immigrants. According to figures from the ILGWU, 90 percent of the work force is comprised of women and 90 percent of them are members of minorities. Hispanic workers make up 40 percent of the workers, 30 percent are Asian, and 20 percent are African-American.
The ILGWU was founded in 1900, says Susan Cowell, vice president in charge of public relations. "The first two decades were very much a struggle of immigrants. Thousands of young immigrant girls went out on strike in 1910.
In 1911, 146 young immigrant women were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a shop where the women had gone out on strike.
Although the factory owner succeeded in breaking the union, says Ms. Cowell, the action provided the impetus for a reform movement that greatly improved working conditions. Along with loss of jobs due to foreign imports, the ILGWU sees health care and child care as its main issues today, says Cowell. The ILGWU, along with the City of New York and the industry created the Garment Industry Development Corporation (GIDC) in 1984, says Mr. Herman.
The GIDC is involved in tasks such as creating markets overseas for American-made apparel. It conducted a study on child care and aided the ILGWU in creating a child care center in Chinatown. Three more such centers are planned. The GIDC also has developed training programs for garment workers.