Bangladesh factory tragedy boosts 'Made in NYC' campaign
People work at the High Production factory in the garment district on April 22, 2014 in New York - by Timothy A. Clary
Her calm, deft movements were a contrast to the upbeat buzz emanating from New York's newly revitalized historic garment sector, which over the years had fallen victim to cheaper overseas labor and production.
Now a burgeoning "Made in NYC" movement has been given a boost by the Bangladesh factory disaster one year ago that sent shockwaves around the world and hit home in the Big Apple, industry experts say.
"How the heck did that happen in 2013?" asked Erica Wolf, who heads an initiative called "Save the Garment Center."
But it did. The collapse of the nine-story Rana Plaza complex on April 24, 2013 -- where dozens of Western retailers were using cheap labor to produce their clothing lines -- killed 1,138 people and injured more than 2,000.
It prompted industry-wide soul searching and for some, it was a chilling echo of a long-ago tragedy in New York when a fire in 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory left 146 dead -- one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the city.
Before last year's tragedy, "customers were not aware that there were people who were suffering as a result of the production choices of bigger brands," said independent designer Bob Bland.
"And so now that that was blown completely wide open with the tragedy of Rana Plaza last April, customers have woken up ... also brands have woken up," she said.
Convinced that ethical practices are key to reviving the US textile industry, Bland set up "Manufacture New York" in 2012.
Dedicated to helping independent fashion designers, the platform has set up a shared space in Manhattan for designers complete with a fully equipped industrial sewing room and computers. Another similar space is due to open in Brooklyn this year.
"We have noticed many lines reshoring as a direct response to the Rana Plaza disaster and other human rights violations of garment workers globally," said Bland.
"I have also noticed that more designers are staying in NYC, and benefiting from doing their lines. There seems to be less of a mass exodus of creative talent than there was after the financial crisis of 2008."
Behind her lay tables strewn with sewing machines, bobbins wound tightly with multi-colored thread, scissors and mannequins -- the chaotic jumble a potent symbol of the hive of activity now humming across the Garment District.
On 36th Street, trucks were unloading their merchandise, as clients bustled into wholesalers and Art Deco-style lofts brimming with swathes of bright materials, feathers and lace.
- Bangladesh 'was a red flag' -
"Made in New York has become a very prestigious selling point and marketing point," confirmed Libretto designer Victoria Watson.
"The fact that I manufacture in New York, that I like New York, that I sell in New York, that everything is in New York -- it's a very big plus for me. More so now than ever."
"Bangladesh was a real red flag. It really opened up eyes for people," Watson said, adding that "buyers who have never asked any question before are suddenly asking... 'Where do you make your sweaters by the way? And where does your yarn come from?'"
According to the Garment District Alliance, for the first time since the sector began to plunge in the 1960s, there is a small but noticeable uptick in activity.
While the number of jobs in the district fell by almost 60 percent from 1995 to 2011, from the summer of 2012 to 2013, the number of pattern and sample makers in the area rose from 106 to 121, a 14 percent increase.
Similarly the number of specialized textile contractors jumped 25.4 percent from 130 to 163 in the 2012-2013 period.
"It has become a political imperative after Rana Plaza that we make changes in how clothing is made and how the garment industry functions here in New York and on a global scale," agreed Charles Beckwith, executive director with The Fashion Media Center.
In the loft belonging to High Production where May works, a placard setting out the workers' rights greets them at the entrance.
The minimum salary is set at $8 an hour, with extra overtime pay and a toll-free hotline to call in case of emergencies.
"It's a completely different world" in the High Production factory from that of Bangladesh, said the company spokeswoman, Ida Law.
"Here we treat our workers with respect."