New York City’s Garment District was once a bustling hub of American manufacturing. After World War I, many of the city’s garment factories moved to the area, carving out a plot of Midtown Manhattan from Sixth Avenue to Ninth Avenue and 35th Street to 40th Street. During the district’s heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s, vehicles jammed the roadways as they prepped to ship clothes across the country. Workers pushed and pulled around hand trucks, clothes hanging all over as they scrambled to haul materials to the next factory. “The streets were packed,” says Andrew Scott Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University. “At lunchtime you could barely move the streets were so congested. Trucks were parked and double-parked.”
In 2015, the district’s glory days are sadly long gone. As early as the mid-1900s, factory owners started to leave in search of cheaper labor, says Dolkart. Certain niches were quicker to move—underwear, slips, and other kinds of clothes that weren't fashion-based left first, untethered by the need to be close to all the latest styles and trends. By the 1970s, companies began to set their sights overseas, lured by rock-bottom wages that could save them some cash. The streets slowly cleared.
Today, coffee shops, hotels, retailers, and upscale bars and restaurants have flooded in as non-fashion businesses—like architecture firms, tech companies, and ad agencies—move into new office spaces. Some have even tried to change the district’s name while activists, including famed designer Nanette Lepore, are still pushing to curb the decline of manufacturing in the area. Despite its decline, the Garment District will always hark back to its roots and be a testament to New York's place at the center of the fashion world as the city hosts its bi-annual Fashion Week.