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Autoethnographic Research Reflection:
A Case for Rapid Innovation Through Hyper-Local Manufacturing in New York City’s Garment District

Within the cultural context of American individualism and the product design & production space, it's a winner takes all mentality. Quantity over quality – as they say. Whereas, in communities of practice (a.k.a. shared development), we find a much more open-source, collaborative ecosystem.

In conversation with an expert, I learned that CD manufacturing in the 1990's gave way to the development of semi-conductors in the United States. However, with off-shoring due to business cost concerns, the subsequent loss of generational knowledge, IP, and R&D for this type of manufacturing greatly impacted the ability for the US to keep up with neighboring countries.

This is the authors reflection on NYC's Garment District. A production hub and hyper-local, small-scale, decentralized network of manufacturing.

In the United States, where funding and policy for large-scale manufacturing has failed, policy for supporting smaller-scale networks of makerspaces might succeed (Anderson, 2021). Many experts, including Chris Anderson and Dale Dougherty, believe the Maker Movement moment is now, and that it has the potential to revitalize local networks of manufacturing.

Depending on your definition of "makerspace" and "community", the NYC garment district, located in the heart of New York’s Midtown Manhattan, could be viewed as a "makerspace ecosystem" or "manufacturing nexus." The garment district acts as a social and communal hub of clothing creation, from patternmaking to industrial pleating, hosting a vast collection of manufacturing capabilities. Spread across 20+ square blocks in midtown, this manufacturing nexus offers support to soft-goods (clothing, handbags, hats, etc.) designers, small brands, and large luxury fashion houses. Because of the proximity of facilities, equipment, and the people who know how to use them, the development of product and opportunity for rapid innovation exists (much like the ultra-localized open-source hardware hub in Shenzen, China – see mini-case study #2).

I spent ten years working with a diverse set of skilled manufacturers and craftspeople in the garment district. As a fashion designer, I was able to take sketches or patterns to be cut and sewn into full garments. I could have custom buttons made in one shop and take them directly to the factory floor to be placed on samples and production runs. I was able to rapidly innovate without wasting much time or money. For example, if one of the manufacturers had a problem, they would call me, and I would waste no time visiting the factory to make changes to the garment construction with the input of extremely knowledgeable makers.

Often innovative construction techniques, finishes, or shapes would emerge from the hands-on troubleshooting afforded by this proximity to the manufacturing process.

Unfortunately, in recent years there have been efforts to move these small-business craftspeople and manufacturers away from the central midtown hub and disperse them across New York’s five boroughs. This will have an impact the designers, suppliers, manufacturers, and many other businesses in the area. As property prices continue to rise and these businesses can no longer afford to stay, it comes as not only a loss of economic support through employment and exchange of goods and services within the manufacturing network, but also a loss for production and manufacturing innovation.

In my experience with off-shore manufacturing of clothing and handbags, shipping costs can get out of control, and samples very rarely come back on-spec (accurate to the technical measurements or pattern). Other problematic scenarios arise from the off-shore model, like intellectual property theft, trademark infringement, loss of technical making knowledge, and issues of ethics and fair wages. This may not be the case for all off-shore manufactured products, however, clothing, furniture, and homewares are at a higher risk for some, or all, of the risk areas (listed above).

As an auto-ethnographic case and through conversations with experts I have found my personal experience to be similar to other designers in the fashion and home goods industries.

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© Mary Kahle, 2024