Adventures in the rag trade: A photographic tour of the holdout fabric stores of the Garment District

Shaima Siddiqi at her store, Lenox Textile Corp. ()
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It's by now a well-recorded fact that garment manufacturing has left New York City.

But walking through the streets of the Garment District still has an almost medieval-city feel, with street after street of fabric stores touting their wares both wholesale and to the public.

The textile factories that make the fabric they sell are now almost all overseas, as are most of the businesses that actually manufacture clothing from those textiles. And upstairs in the garment district, the warrens of buildings that used to bustle with men and women at their sewing machines have given way largely to white-collar offices and the occasional minimalist designer showroom.

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But walk down many blocks between 36th and 40th streets and 7th and 8th avenues, and you'll see about a million fabric stores, where the frequent customers are students from nearby Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology spending hours among the seemingly endless rows of colorful fabrics, under fluorescent lights.

Beckenstein Fashion Fabrics, run by self-procalimed "Fabric Czar" Jonathan Boyarsky, is an old New York institution. But it's also a relatively recent arrival in the Garment District, where the concentration of fabric stores speaks as much to the shrinking business as anything else.

Boyarsky is the fourth generation to run the business which began on the Lower East Side in 1919, but moved to West 39th Street in 2003 as the Orchard Street area, once full of fabric stores and tailors, began to change.

"You know, when I was on Orchard Street, they claimed that that would be better when they put in these restaurants and antique shops," Boyarsky said. "But the truth of the matter is those kind of stores and restaurants only opened up at night so in the daytime it was dead."

He said the same thing was starting to happen in Midtown as former factories and storefronts were turned into hotels and apartment buildings and as the businesses that attract Times Square tourists start to lurch southward.

"There's no more fabric guys," Boyarsky said. "And it's happening here: the landlord across the street doesn't want anymore fabric guys. They just put a restaurant in there, so it's going."

He pointed out a few of his new neighbors include a yoga and a fencing studio. But like the neighborhood, he's adapted by diversifying. Now he's selling online and getting more attention for his line of custom-made suits. He sees no reason to move.

"I gotta be on the ground floor," he said. "I gotta be in this area."

Though they have many fabrics, the real action is at the atelier, which claims Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, Mayor Bloomberg and the cast of "Boardwalk Empire" as customers for its custom-made suits.

That can lead, not surprisingly, to a lot of media attention.

And a seemingly overworked frog.

Arman Singh at Better Choice Fabrics, which carries mostly Indian trimmings, opened across 39th street ten years ago. As he helped customers, he described a similar trend and explained business may migrate westward toward Ninth Avenue. "That's the only thing bothering people. Maybe if the leases are gone, the then landlord will thinking about going toward restaurants, more franchises and these things."

Shaima Siddiqi runs Lenox Textile Corp., also on 39th Street. Siddiqi, who moved to the United States from Afghanistan in 1980, initially joined the industry with her late husband, a third generation fabric dealer. They opened their first store on the north side of the street in 1984. She said because of the sour economy, business is slow, adding that many customers opt for cheaper fabrics. She said no customers came the prior Tuesday, and she had only made a single $55 sale on Saturday. While she spoke, a customer asking about a pricey Chanel fabric ($200 per yard) left to get cheaper rhinestone-studded version next door.

She pointed across the street. "Look, $16,000 rent. You see somebody inside? No."

Down 39th Street, a customer browses at Vogue Fabrics, Inc.

Sonia Singh, who runs Vogue Fabrics, pointed out many Indians replaced what was a largely Jewish and Italian industry. Singh said she gets her materials from her husband who is a wholesaler in China and India. Many of her customers are dealers serving immigrants from Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. Even with changing styles and neighborhoods, she said fabric would always appeal to buyers. "This business will never die," she said.

One store markets the district's proximity to New York landmarks, one of the reasons for rising rents; and here, a showroom, not a fabric store, is wanted.

Zathra Fabrics on 39th Street.

Surath Maiman, a worker at Zathra, said business has gotten a little better since the recession began. He said some younger people opened local fabric stores but they don't understand the low margins and the bad economy.

"We are like old people, we have some customers, you know, that's why we are still here .... They are just opening and they are closing, too."

He didn't blame landlords for the rising rent, saying they too had rising costs like more security guards for a rising number of 24-hour buildings.

A camouflaged customer.

The big button-and-needle scultpure on Seventh Ave. and 39th Street. The Fashion Center Business Improvement District markets the blocks to tourists and companies looking to relocate. Other groups, like Save the Garment Center, try to preserve the zoning codes that keep the remaining manufacturing slots open.

Polyesters at B&J Fabrics, one of the eminent stores in the district.

Camera assisted shopping can be common.

Many of the stores maintain hectic shelves while being otherwise spotless. This stray scrap is a rarity.

In another store on 38th Street, rolls of fabric make a sort of sculpture of their own. (For a place connected to the fashionable, much of the in-store music is a mix of the reliable sounds of Coldplay, Al Green and WPLJ.)

New York Elegant Fabrics, on West 40th Street, is the center's northernmost outpost. It's on the same block as newer arrivals like the New York Times headquarters, several restaurants and a club with fashion-themed drinks, such as "The Designer" (with Stoli Vanil vodka, Malibu, pineapple juice, sour mix, and a blue curacao).

Fabric isn't the only draw of the area. At the King of Heat Transfers is a city built on beads.

City Sewing, locted in what looks like an old office building workshop, specializes in new and used sewing machines.

Jack Sauma stands among the fabric at Mood Design Fabrics, his hectic fabric warehouse spanning several floors on West 37th Street. It gained recent popularity as the official supplier of "Project Runway," where buses take contestants and tourists to the store for threads. Born in the Middle East and educated in Sweden, he moved to the United States in 1976 before starting Mood in the early 1990s. He remembers when each building had 20 or 30 factories and delivieries would move in and out.

"It was very, very busy in those days. Now everything moved to China and Sri Lanka, what have you. Vietnam, also."

Small designers buy several dozen yards of fabric, but bigger designers often use the store "as a library" and copy the fabric overseas.

"They get inspired here," he said.

At Mood, like many fabric stores, unauthorized swatching, or tearing off samples of fabric, is the bane of store owners. According to Sauma, many customers rip from the same corners, leading to thousands of dollars in lost merchandise. (Swatch is also the name of the store's mascot, a Boston terrier that Sauma has to walk three times a day.)

While he said the industry in the area is done, Sauma still sees the district as a hub for inspiration, particularly for kids.

"The only hope I have, which I believe that the 'Project Runway' show has been really creating all these young kids to go and sew. And maybe the next five or ten years, we'll see a lot of these young kids they want to do the fashion industry back again. So how do they want to do it? I don't know. It could be in Brooklyn, it could be in Queens, it could be in West New York, up here across the river [with] cheaper rent, and that could be done."