Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Comments (3) Posted 09.27.10 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Project: Interboro Partners

What's Going On in the Garment District?

[Photographs: Interboro Partners]

What’s going on in Manhattan’s Garment District? That depends on who’s asking, and on where “who’s asking” is asking from.

As if it were possible to understand what is really going on anywhere! Michel Foucault wrote that the “fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men, and truths” haunted the latter half of the 18th century.” [1] But it haunts us, too, especially as we try to piece together an understanding of the Garment District from our office in Downtown Brooklyn. From our window (or even our roof), we can’t see Russia. Instead, we have to rely on our computer screens, which presently display: 1) 46 rows of a 3,087-row Excel spreadsheet that inventories every building in the "Special Garment Center District”; 2) page 7 of a 2008 economic profile published by the Fashion Center Business Improvement District; 3) a Google map showing 34th Street to 42nd Street between Fifth and Ninth Avenues; 4) a photograph of a loading dock from yesterday’s visit to the Garment District; and 5) a HBO documentary called Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.

How will we ever get the big picture from this mess of little ones, which, in any case, we can’t see in one view since our desks face each other? To relieve the Foucauldian darkness of their city, Parisians enlisted Gustave Eiffel to build his Tower; but we have no such resources. The view of the Garment District from the Empire State Building’s observation deck is pretty illuminating, but it costs $18.45 per visit (prohibitive, considering our small budget). Those bird’s-eye-view maps on are pretty nice, but maps never illuminate much in New York City, what with all the tall buildings clamoring for attention, and getting in the way of the buildings you want to see.

No, our panorama — our Eiffel Tower — would be a building section. What else would you expect from a bunch of architects? Imagine this: You are a tourist. You have never been to New York. You have never heard of the Garment District. You arrive in New York via the Port Authority Bus Terminal. You have no plans. You walk south. You cross 40th Street at 7th Avenue, and notice that things are starting to look a little rough around the edges. You wonder why Manhattan doesn’t look the way it looks in Sex and the City. You are curious, and you start to pick up clues. An old man with a baseball cap and an apron pushes a garment rack full of plastic-wrapped dresses, brown paper bags, rolls of fabric and what look like waistbands up 39th Street. A truck pulls up to a building on 37th Street and a man with a hand dolly starts shoveling boxes into it. The boxes are marked “Marc Jacobs.” The words “garment wear arcade” are engraved in an ancient looking font into the transom of an old building. You fold up your tourist map and walk west. You mouth the words written on the storefronts in gold-leaf lettering: Mood Fabrics, Fabric House, Hecht Sewing Machine & Motor Co., Spandex World, Upholstery, Drapery Novelty. You note that banners, maps, garbage cans (even garbage bags), doorknobs: everything has buttons on it. “No Parking” signs announce special “Garment District” regulations. A plaque in the sidewalk declares Seventh Avenue the “Fashion Walk of Fame.” A few steps later, a bronze statue of an old man, hunched over a sewing machine and wearing a yarmulke, catches your attention. When you glimpse a giant needle and button cantilevering over a kiosk marked “the Fashion Center,” it finally dawns on you: this is where “Project Runway" is filmed! You wonder: have I walked onto a stage set?

Your curiosity is piqued. For the first time, you look up at the wedding-cake buildings made of tan bricks. You see banners, you see ceiling-mounted florescent lights through the windows, but mostly you see . . . bricks.

Bricks! Is there a better thing for stifling curiosity than bricks? Our tourist was starting to piece it together, to figure out what is going on in this unfamiliar place that looked and felt so different than how he imagined Manhattan would look and feel. If only he could know what was going on inside the buildings — behind the bricks — he might get a real picture. Instead, he’ll have to keep looking at signs and signifiers: buzzers, directories, things that point to the world behind the bricks.

Of course, getting behind the bricks wouldn’t have given our tourist that much better a picture than our computers screens did. As Bruno Latour argued, to know something as complex as a city, we have to make do with what he called “oligopticons,” windows that allow us to see “a few things well.” [2]

The panoramic section published here, in which we peel back the bricks to reveal what we have seen and studied in the Garment District, is our oligopticon. Our limited, situated knowledge of “what’s going on in the garment district” is compiled not only from what we were able to see on our computer screens, but also from countless site visits and from dozens of interviews with designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, industry experts, and city officials. In Latourian fashion, we “followed the actors” as best as we could, in the hope that we could tell an interesting story about this remarkable place.

From what we can tell:

Face-to-face interactions with people and materials are essential to the design process, which is very tactile, and which isn’t entirely compatible with jpg attachments, telephone conversations and other tactics for long-distance communication. We try to tell this story in the “Timeline” sequence, and in our “Face-to-Face” comic.

The Garment District is an incubator for emerging design talent. We visited some young designers who source, design and produce garments from their living rooms, but most young designers couldn’t cut it without the Garment District’s dense network of suppliers and manufacturers, which enable emerging designers to outsource specialized, equipment-heavy processes.

The Garment District plays a different — but equally important — role in each stage of a designer’s career. More established designers might do design and production in-house, but they too outsource specialized processes. Established designers also source in the Garment District, and rely on the Garment District’s dense cluster of showrooms. We try to tell this story in our “Life of a Designer” comic.

Lanuch Interactive


In late 2009, Tobias Armborst, Daniel D'Oca and Georgeen — collectively known as Interboro Partners — along with urban planner Sarah Williams, filmmaker Jordan Alport, graphic designer Glen Cummings, and writer Tom Vanderbilt, were asked by the Design Trust for Public Space to do “a study of how [Manhattan’s] garment industry works and why it's an integral part of New York City's economy, identity, and sense of place.” Their effort began, sensibly enough, with old-fashioned detective work: patient, unbiased observation of “what’s going on in the garment district.” 

The interactive section presented here is complementary to the Design Trust for Public Space's project on the Garment District, Made in Midtown

Rebecca Beyer Winik, an associate at Interboro Partners, was the project architect.

Andrew Morgan,of Molotov Lemonade, built the interactive section.  


1. See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (New York: Vintage, 1980).

2. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Share This Story


Louis Curtiss and the Politics of Architectural Reputation

What the Nation’s Best-Educated Amateur Planners Learned from Hurricane Isaac. And Gustav. And Rita and Katrina. And Cindy, Ivan, Lili, Isidore, and Georges.

L.A. Day/L.A. Night

Detroit Re-Photography


RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (3)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

That explained so much in a short time - and got me thinking. Thank you!
Eva H.
09.28.10 at 10:29

This is a beautifully crafted article. Just as many of the garments constructed completely within the island of Manhattan attract attention the world over so too should this piece and Interboro's research.
Sarah C.
09.30.10 at 09:55

Insightful! However, role of computer aided designing cannot be undermined.
Sunidhi Garg-
Sunidhi Garg
10.01.10 at 05:06

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


Tobias Armborst is an architect based in New York City, and one of the founders of Interboro Partners.

More Bio >>

Daniel D'Oca is an urban planner based in New York City, and one of the founders of Interboro Partners.

More Bio >>

Georgeen Theodore is a registered architect and urban designer in New York City, and one of the founders of Interboro Partners.

More Bio >>


MORE ON New York City

"The moment for something to happen"
On Places, Belmont Freeman reviews The Making of an Avant-Garde, Diana Agrest's new documentary on the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, from its 1970s heyday to its brilliant legacy.

Resilience in Red Hook
On Places, Alexandros Washburn, chief urban designer for New York, describes the frightening onset and complicated aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the city last October.

The City and the Sea
On Places, Tom Vanderbilt surveys the landscape and politics of New York City after Hurricane Sandy, focusing on both early response and long-range planning.

An Interview with David Burney: On New York and the 21st-Century City-State
On Places, an interview with New York City Design and Construction Commissioner David Burney, who reflects on the urban design record of the Bloomberg years, the post-Sandy recovery effort, and the rise of the 21st-century city-state.

Seagram: Union of Building and Landscape
On Places, Phyllis Lambert explores the evolution of the Seagram Building, focusing on Mies van der Rohe's profound concern for the relationship between building and nature.

Past Perfect: Four Freedoms Park
On Places, Belmont Freeman reviews the controversial politics of presidential memorials, focusing especially on Four Freedoms Park in New York City, the memorial to FDR designed 40 years by Louis Kahn.

Occupying Wall Street: Places and Spaces of Political Action
On Places, Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder explore the physical places and virtual spaces of Occupy Wall Street — the "hypercity built of granite and asphalt, algorithms and information."

Occupy: The Day After
On Places, Reinhold Martin explores how Occupy Wall Street might challenge the structural inequities of finance capitalism, and how architects and urbanists can contribute to the next phase of the movement

Occupy: What Architecture Can Do
On Places, Reinhold Martin explores the role of architecture in the Occupy Wall Street movement — and in the larger challenges of constructing a better and more equitable society.

Above Grade: On the High Line
On Places, writer Phillip Lopate traces the pre-history of the High Line, and ponders whether New York City's elevated park will be a victim of its own success.

Lunch with the Critics: Supertall
On Places, Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster debate the merits of Supertall!, the latest exhibition at New York City's Skycraper Museum.

The Art of Advocacy: The Museum as Design Laboratory
On Places, MoMA's curator of architecture and design, Barry Bergdoll, describes his efforts to expand the museum's role to support experimentation and advocacy.

Queer Beacon
On Places, architect Kian Goh explores LGBT public spaces in contemporary New York, where activism confronts gentrification.

Gita Lenz: New York Views
On Places, a gallery by the mid-century New York photographer Gita Lenz, whose long neglected work is gaining new recognition.

Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is
On Places, Tim Mennel compares the radically different New York worlds of Andy Warhol's Factory and Jane Jacobs's Village — and comes to some provocative conclusions.

Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning
On Places, Thomas Campanella evaluates the complex legacy Jane Jacobs, including the ongoing marginalization of the urban planning profession.

Lunch with the Critics: Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University
For this installment of Lunch with the Critics, Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange visit the Northwest Corner Building, Columbia University.

Street Cred
On Places, Mimi Zeiger reviews Street Value, the new book about Downtown Brooklyn and the dynamic interplay of shopping and planning, of politics and race and class.

Hallowed Ground, Worldly City: Ground Zero and the Struggle for Lower Manhattan
On Places, James Sanders looks at the current controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in a larger context, noting that New York City has for most of its history "abhorred the very idea of memorials." 

Lunch with the Critics: Park51 & 15 Penn
"Lunch with the Critics," a new feature on Design Observer: Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange travel to midtown to visit the Hotel Pennsylvania, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Lunch with the Critics: The New Lincoln Center
"Lunch with the Critics," a new feature on Design Observer, begins with Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster's visit to the recently revamped Lincoln Center.

The Water Underground
On Places, watch The Water Underground, a video from the Center for Urban Pedagogy that tracks the complex — and contested — systems of water supply, treatment and waste that serve New York City.

Green Metropolis
On Places, urban planning professor Timothy Beatley, author of Green Urbanism, reviews Green Metropolis, by David Owen, which argues that Manhattan is the greenest city in the U.S.

Adventure Playground: John V. Lindsay and the Transformation of Modern New York
On Places, James Sanders on the transformation of New York City that began in the Sixties under Mayor John Lindsay — the reinvention of the city from a workaday zone to a scenic setting for urban play, an "adventure playground."

Two Feet High and Rising: On Optimism, Speculation and Oysters
On Places, Mimi Zeiger reviews MoMA's ambitious new architecture and urban design show, Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront, which explores how New York Harbor might be adapted in the face of rising sea levels.

The City's End
Architect Beth Weinstein reviews The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York's Destruction, by architectural historian Max Page — just in time for the season premiere of 24, which finds Jack Bauer and his fellow counter-terrorists relocated to NYC.

Bodega Down Bronx
Why is it easier to get fresh produce in Park Slope than in the South Bronx? Places presents Bodega Down Bronx, a video from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, that examines where and why New York's bodegas get their food.

The Past Is Promenade: On the High Line
Architect Ian Baldwin contemplates the High Line and sees in New York's newest park a rare and valuable form of urban place: a slow corridor.

On the Water: The New York/New Jersey Harbor
As the planet warms, rising seas will endanger coastal communities around the world. Engineer Guy Nordenson proposes a bold plan to protect New York City.