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Independent fashion from the heart of New York City

Cutting Carbon Is The New Black September 21, 2016

By Nancy Anderson in Torchlight, August 23, 2016


"You had me at hello", the famous line Renee Zelwegger used on Tom Cruise in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, echoed the day I met Yeohlee Teng at her fashion-forward NYC shop, when she volunteered that local production of her clothes helped to "shrink her carbon footprint. She had me at "shrink".

Next thing I knew, I sat down for a chat with Yeohlee about her design practices, honed over a career going back to 1981, and read a book about her work. [1] Before that "shrink" moment, fashion, one of NYC's most storied industries, had meant "shopping" to me. Doing something about the city's carbon footprint and raising its sustainability quotient meant my professional work on advocacy and education around high performance buildings, renewable energy, growing good green jobs and smart infrastructure. Suddenly, new greener city vistas were opening to me and at a time where local and national attention is both riveted and riven over what kinds of jobs and what kind of society should we want to be building.

Staying in a local framework and a now decades-long discussion about whether manufacturing can be revived here, a recent report, Making It Here: The Future of Manufacturing in New York City deftly sets out the terms:

"The broad consensus is that the city's recent industrial growth is being driven by a new kind of manufacturing: small, entrepreneurial companies that are making specialty products mainly for individual consumers and businesses in the region. These makers and manufacturers are producing in small batches with quick turnaround times, investing in new technologies, capitalizing on connections to the city's thriving creative industries — including design, fashion, and film — and taking advantage of powerful demographic, economic, and consumer trends.

Sounds just like what a vibrant sector of NYC fashion industry can be, when what was old — small-scale, start up and locally-made — is new again. And to think this can be climate-friendly, carbon footprint-shrinking too!

Yeohlee explained that the path to her own fashion/carbon footprint practices arose from what she described as her frugality, which in turn was rooted in her sense of the finiteness of the planet's natural resources. When early in her career, she had the opportunity to work with seven meters of expensive fine fabric, she set herself the task of using up all of the available fabric, including the scraps, creating three gowns that are now in the Permanent Collection of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.. This was the essence of a zero-waste approach to fabric, labor and time in her design decisions. It has come to infuse her teaching curriculum too.

Fashion historian Valerie Steele made this observation in an interview with Yeoholee "Architecture and fashion are usually seen as opposites: one edifice, the other ornament... What does the term 'architectural fashion' mean to you?" When Yeohlee mentioned to me that she comes from a family of architects, I was struck by a parallel between efficiency as a principle of garment making and energy efficiency in climate-friendly architecture.

As the Making It Here report sketches the innovators in NYC's recent industrial growth, "Some are tapping into New York's status as a leading center in the back-to-local movement, where a large and growing mass of consumers are demanding locally made, artisanal products." This is a good description of Yeohlee's fashion career along with the efficiency that is a core commitment of her work as expressed in the local production of much of her clothing; her production and shipping offices are in the Garment District just a few blocks from her Flatiron district shop. [2] No long-haul flights to overseas garment factories, no energy-gobbling long-haul shipments of most of her clothing from the point of production to the point of sale. Her business exemplifies the "back-to-local movement" limned in the report and in her case, one "Benefiting from the city's rapid growth in affluent residents, many of whom are willing to pay a premium for locally-made and designed clothing".

In 2011, while serving of the Board of Directors of the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) — a position she still holds — Teng led a garment district initiative that produced [3]a report on the future of NYC's garment industry. In it, the MAS tipped its hat to the emerging importance of sustainability by calling it an increasingly important concept in manufacturing and a key driver of innovation. It also presciently noted, "A focus on the environmental and social costs of garment production will only make domestic production — where labor and environmental standards are higher — more attractive for companies.

In addition, as consumers become increasingly aware of environmental and labor practices abroad, designers may be less willing to take the risk of linking their companies with these practices". Fires and other calamities in overseas garment plants over the last few years have buttressed this prediction that knits together environmental protection with labor rights.

For Alinda Franks, Director of Community Affairs at the Industrial and Technology Assistance Corporation (ITAC), the fashion industry is coming back in NYC, and it's happening in small companies using new technologies. This represents a great opportunity to cut the industry's carbon footprint through new ways of sourcing, producing high quality clothes in small batches for niche urban markets, which can command higher prices compared to the mass garment production typical of overseas manufacturers. NYC is also seeing the emergence of co-working spaces, especially outside of Manhattan, that can put a wealth of resources at the fingertips of small and start up fashion companies at lower costs.

Tara St. James, Production Coordinator, Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator sees this fashion industry comeback too. At the Accelerator there are dozens of sustainability strategies, some work in combination, others are more stand-alone. What's clear is that they're catching on with emerging fashion designers and makers. Broadly speaking, these strategies emphasize local production (within a radius of 100–300 miles), but a big challenge is finding locally produced fibers and fabrics, which can be transported to garment makers by truck rather than plane.

St. James also cites innovations like: zero waste — including highly skilled zero waste pattern making and cutting — along with upcycling — using existing material or garments to make new garments — and the "take back", especially of worn denim clothing, to make new garments by well known companies like Eileen Fisher. This fall, the Accelerator will post a new on-line tool to be used as a resource for sustainable fashion design and production. For another way to get a handle on "shops and services for lower impact shopping choices" explore this multi-borough GreenMap NYC below.

St. James also spoke frankly about the types of competitive edge and marketing impact associated with sustainable design and garment making innovations. While design innovators are starting to incorporate sustainability as good industry practice, and are seeing a rise in customer awareness, making this a new normal will take time. St. James alluded to a wrinkle in raising customer awareness via marketing or branding because of concerns that a rival company might raise criticism of what a sustainable designer or maker is not doing. As a result, often customers aren't educated on a brand's sustainable features.

Another wrinkle is that sustainable fashion still has to overcome a common perception that sustainability means ugly, not cool. Changes here will be critical because this is an industry dedicated to making the consumer look good, being good takes a back seat here. Sustainability in this industry won't really take off until consumers and CEO's insist on it.

Patrick Duffy, V.P., Sustainability, Manufacturing and External Affairs, with Manufacture New York (MNY) and I had a deep dive discussion about what the NYC fashion and design industry is doing and could be doing to advance sustainability-driven innovation. He sees a small, but vibrant movement emerging here now. Beyond NYC, there are national and international sports and active-wear and clothing brands such as Patagonia, Nike and Eileen Fisher that have adopted, or are adopting more environmentally sustainable practices.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is an industry-wide collaborative effort to develop internal sustainability performance tracking metrics for the industry as a whole. According to Duffy, more standardized ways of measuring industry performance — similar to the LEED system for buildings — is needed for fashion and apparel to move forward more rapidly. Big Green groups like NRDC, EDF, Greenpeace, and others, have helped catalyze the industry by focusing on individual attributes such as toxicity (e.g. Greenpeace's "Detox" Certification Program), but a more comprehensive system with a broader set of metrics is needed for to achieve significant change.

Then there's the trash problem. According to "Pressure Mounts to Reform Our Throwaway Clothing Culture" Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it's time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

In NYC alone, one of the ongoing sustainability challenges for the fashion and garment sector is how to cut the fabric waste footprint. It's estimated that 200 tons of used (post-consumer) clothing is thrown away every year along with close to 700 tons of "pre-consumer" (post-production) fabric waste at considerable environmental and monetary cost. These costs add urgency to the zero-waste and up-cycling revolutions.

In the garment industry, fabric is purchased by the yard and until recently utilization rates (the percent of fabric that's converted into product) have "not been uniformly great" according to Duffy, while support to improve these rates and cut production waste have been lacking, as have markets for this unutilized fabric. From a "lean manufacturing" perspective, this is a failure although more technology is emerging to support leaner, greener pattern making and fabric utilization. But, not everyone is waiting to install these new technologies.

Local designers like Daniel Silverstein, are committed to clothing design and making that incorporates zero waste into the design and look of his line. For organizations like Duffy's, the goal is to weave sustainability into every aspect of its business model and promote these practices in local production. Little wonder that he characterizes sustainability as a "lens" to look at all dimensions of a business' operations and performance to help drive innovation at Manufacture NY's manufacturing, research and design center located in Sunset Park Brooklyn.

Anthony Lilore, self-described "warrior chief" at Restore Clothing has spent more than a decade reaching back into the clothing supply chain in order to recycle used fibers and make them into new fabrics and cut down on the industry's trash footprint. It's not easy and cost has been an on-going challenge, but he has been working with mills in the US to make textile reuse and recycling scalable in a way that will drive down production costs. Here is another opportunity to boost NYC's fashion and design climate-friendly profile.

The take-away from all this ferment for making an old industry new again is not that the goal's been met or is now well under way. Instead the take-away is that the metamorphosis has just begun and its prospects are still hazy. Wondering how to end this column, a last minute Internet search closed the loop for me when I discovered Made In NYC (MINYC). With its mission "to support a vibrant manufacturing sector in New York City" and a sustainability platform for manufacturers and consumers alike, it was a perfect fit to discover that fashion designer Yeohlee Teng was a founding member. 'Nuf said.

Made in NYC Looks to Give Manufacturing a Handcrafted Image September 21, 2016

By Martha C. White in The New York Times, 04/24/2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/25/business/media/made-in-nyc-looks-to-give-manufacturing-a-handcrafted-image.html?ref=business&_r=1

The image of the American factory floor is as classic as Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line and just as enduring in the popular imagination. For decades, manufacturing jobs have been the ladder to the middle class for Americans of modest means and education.

So when Made in NYC, a group that promotes local manufacturing, began an advertising campaign this spring, its goal was more than just to draw attention to items produced in the city. Supporters of that group and others like it around the country are trying to redefine what American manufacturing means in the 21st century. They hope to capitalize on a newfound embrace of artisanal and handcrafted goods and urge consumers accustomed to big-box globalization to think of their shopping habits in the context of local economic investment.

“Urban manufacturing creates opportunity,” said Adam Friedman, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, which developed Made in NYC. “We’re coming out of a recession, which really drove home the point that you need a strong manufacturing base to create jobs.”

When Made in NYC was conceived in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “this was a strategy to both encourage consumers to shop more locally and to get companies to buy from each other to strengthen local supply chains,” Mr. Friedman said.

Growth was initially slow, until four or five years ago. “Something dramatic changed,” he said. “I think there was really a shift in consumer preferences. It coincided with the whole locavore movement.”

Seizing on this trend, and with $750,000 from the New York City Council, Made in NYC introduced its recent campaign with “Dreams, Jobs and ____,” and, “Made Here in NYC.”

“We’re helping businesses learn how to market themselves a little more, but also doing a public branding campaign,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker. “We’re raising that level of consciousness and awareness.”

This quest to revitalize urban manufacturing is not limited to New York City.

Founded in 2011, the Urban Manufacturing Alliance is a grass-roots effort to help small manufacturers. Led by the Pratt Center and an alliance of manufacturers in San Francisco called SFMade, it has members in 115 cities, including Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle. This year it formed a committee to focus on local marketing strategies, said Lee Wellington, the group’s founding executive director.

“Within the economic development movement, there isn’t always a recognition that branding is a viable strategy,” Ms. Wellington said. Urban manufacturers are realizing that, along with issues like zoning regulations and land use rules, marketing plays a role in advocacy — retaining industrial zoning in gentrifying neighborhoods, for instance — as well as increasing sales.

“That’s an important element to this whole movement,” Ms. Wellington said. “It creates a stronger relationship between the consumer market in these cities and the maker movement.”

Ms. Wellington predicted that the New York City campaign would attract attention from other members.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in how this can be replicated,” she said.

Since modern urban factories are more high-tech and nimble than their predecessors, manufacturers today can create a wide array of products in smaller spaces, and Made in NYC wanted to communicate that in its campaign.

“Our main objective was to highlight the diversity of things that are made here,” said T. J. McCormick, partner and executive creative director at Eyeball, a strategic design and branding firm that is working with Made in NYC.

Antonio Reynoso, a city councilman whose district includes the North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone, has supported the Council’s involvement in the campaign. “About 40 percent of my district that I represent is manufacturing,” he said. “We have chair makers. We have belt makers. We have food distributors and packagers.”

The challenge was portraying that diversity in a cohesive way. In the new ads, the blank representing the final word of “Dreams, Jobs and ____” is variously filled in with examples as diverse as guitars and gourmet food.

Similarly, there was a deliberate choice to use the word “made” in the ads instead of “manufactured.”

“There are a lot of associations with it — that it’s just old-school tooling and heavy machinery and stuff, which is why we ultimately landed on the word ‘made,’” Mr. McCormick said. “It softens it a little bit, makes it feel more broad.”

The campaign includes a social element, which uses geography to focus ads and incorporates a quiz about locally made products, said Noreen O’Loughlin, Made in NYC’s program director. The group is also investing in targeted digital advertising, created by Eyeball, to increase its reach, especially among young adults.

To reach New Yorkers while they are commuting or running errands, the campaign uses billboards and advertisements on kiosks and subways in places like Manhattan’s garment district and the Lower East Side, along the Long Island Expressway and in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. “We felt we needed to be on the street and in front of people,” Mr. McCormick said.

“Educating that consumer base is, I think, what the Made in NYC campaign is all about, and so much of what we’re trying to do with our entire member base across the country,” Ms. Wellington said. “It’s communicating the value of manufacturing.”

Women’s Influence on the Garment Industry to be Explored at New York Historical Society Symposium March 05, 2016

by Rosemary Feitelberg in WWD, 02/19/2016 - http://bit.ly/1SqxVOQ

GARMENT CENTER CLOSE-UP: In honor of Women’s History Month, the New York Historical Society will host a symposium on March 6 in its Upper West Side location to explore the garment industry’s historical impact on women.

“Sweat Equity: Women in the Garment Industry” will feature two keynote addresses, courtesy of Columbia University’s Alice Kessler-Harris and union leader Julie Kushner. Kessler-Harris, a professor of American history in the school’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, will offer the introductory remarks and Kushner, director of the United Auto Workers Region 9A, will speak about the ongoing fight for fair labor laws.

Yeohlee Teng and Nanette Lepore will speak with moderator JoAnne Olian about “Preservation and Renewal in New York’s Garment District.” Other sessions will include Mary Anne Trasciatti, chairwoman of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, discussing the historic 1911 fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 145 workers.

More forward-thinking will be Parsons’ Timo Rissanen’s presentation “The Future of Fashion: From Consumption to Sustainability.” The Tenement Museum’s Annie Polland will lead the discussion “A Century of Change: The Immigrant Workforce over Time” with Fordham University’s Daniel Soyer, Baruch College, CUNY’s Hector Cordero Guzmán and Hunter College, CUNY’s Margaret Chin.

Established in memory of Jean Dubinsky Appleton, veteran labor organizer David Dubinsky’s daughter who died last year, the conference will be open to the public at no charge.

"Sweat Equity: Women in the Garment Industry": http://www.nyhistory.org/programs/sweat-equity-women-garment-industry