One Woman’s Impossible Mission to Save New York’s Garment District

Samantha Cortes had a dream: to revive clothing manufacturing in Midtown Manhattan. Rapidly gentrifying NYC had other plans.

One Woman’s Impossible Mission to Save New York’s Garment District

Three years ago, Samanta Cortes strolled through a conference center in Barcelona, where thousands had gathered for the International Textile Machinery Association’s exhibition, a trade show often called “the Olympics of the textile industry.” She walked by hundreds of exhibitors who spun thread and made fabric. Inspired by the array of equipment, Cortes began wondering why so many of the American designers she knew worked solely with basic sewing machines. After the show, Cortes returned home to New York City’s Garment District, where she ran a small company developing prototypes for designers. She had her hands full with her own business, but also had a new goal in mind: acquiring some of the machines she had seen in Barcelona and starting a school to teach others how to use them.

One of the high-tech sewing-machines Cortes hoped to bring to the Garment District. (Photo by Madeline Cummings).
One of the high-tech sewing-machines Cortes hoped to bring to the Garment District. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)

Over the next few months, Cortes reached out to companies and factories to ask if they would consider donating equipment to the school. A few agreed, but they warned that she would need a significant marketing campaign to get any type of school running. Cortes didn’t have a marketing team but she did have big dreams for the school, which she shared with others constantly. Her classes would teach students not just how to design clothing but how to build items themselves. Her instructors would inspire young designers to embellish their own garments and take every stage of production into their own hands. Advanced embroidery and embellishment skills, she fiercely believed, would strengthen the Made in America movement and empower the next generation of American factory workers. Her school, in the heart of the Garment District, could be a place where people from all parts of the manufacturing process could meet and learn from each other.

To get started, Cortes partnered with the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and offered three-day workshops combining sewing with modern technology and machines. In addition to automatic and semiautomatic single-stitch sewing machines, Cortes had acquired a multi-head embroidery machine, which could allow sewers to work on several items at once. Using special software, students could digitize their own embroidery designs and then apply them to their garments.

A woman shops for fabric at Spandex World, Inc. on 38th Street in Manhattan’s garment district (Photo by Jessica Bal).
A woman shops for fabric at Spandex World, Inc. on 38th Street in Manhattan’s garment district (Photo by Jessica Bal)

In 2013, she launched Tx Institute (Trendy Technical Textile Training), which offered workshops on skills like programming, illustration, and patternmaking. For the first year, the Institute succeeded, and students seemed satisfied. But in February, toward the end of an unusually harsh winter, everything unraveled. Rent was high, and without significantly more students, Cortes couldn’t make ends meet. She had a room full of expensive machines but few students to use them. She took to Kickstarter as a last-ditch effort to save Tx Institute, attaching a $50,000 price tag to its fate. In January 2014, she posted, “Only one month left! This is our last chance to provide New York’s garment industry with properly educated workers and save ourselves!” If she could raise enough money before February 18, she figured she could save the struggling school. If not, she would have to pack up everything and move out.

Four days before the deadline, the Kickstarter campaign had yielded a measly $600. Cortes sat at the back of the institute’s one-room home on West 39th Street and surveyed the scene. Once an organized chaos of creative projects and humming machines, the room was now a mess of garbage bags and boxes overflowing with spools of thread and stacks of folded fabric. She decided to donate almost everything to local churches and return the rented machines. She would sell a few things and pack up the rest. But it hurt to part with the studio and all the work and hopes it represented. “It’s like packing fifteen years of work,” she told a friend over the phone.

Cortes still couldn’t quite figure out why it had all failed. If she had more marketing, or another staff member, she wondered, might things have taken off? Instead, she was leaving New York City for good — moving to Texas, taking some time off, and pushing her dreams for the Institute aside. It was all too much for one person, she reasoned. Sitting at one of the sewing machine stations, she said of her vision, “You see it there but you can’t reach it.”

Cortes, who has thick curly brown hair and wears a silver cross around her neck, grew up in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. She speaks quietly, but her voice catches and carries and can fill a room when she gets excited or angry. After studying art at a small school in Miami, she returned home and worked as an assistant designer for a company in Puerto Rico that made sportswear. In the mid-nineties, the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement meant the United States could trade freely with Canada and Mexico, Puerto Rico’s textile industry suffered and Cortes decided to move to New York City.

Samanta Cortes. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)
Samanta Cortes. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)

She arrived in New York in her early twenties with a suitcase and barely enough money to pay rent. But she found a room on West 38th Street in the Garment District, and eventually a job as a production coordinator with a pajama manufacturing company. She traveled to Guatemala, where the company was opening new factories, and her Spanish came in handy as she met with potential suppliers and managers there.

The work had its downsides. Most of her colleagues were male and hit on her all the time, even during business meetings. During her trips, she also made the startling discovery that young girls were working in one of the company’s factories. Some looked as young as twelve. When she approached one factory owner about this, he said, “Well, you can’t really pinpoint the age of the girls.”

Seeking a change, Cortes started working with a company that manufactured lace in New Jersey, but when that company closed she decided to start her own business. As an embroidery and embellishment specialist, Cortes helped designers make intricate decorated garments. Instead of embroidering a dress with a needle and thread by hand, for example, she could use embroidery machines and computers to do all the embellishment work. For two years she carried a suitcase of prototypes around the District, helping designers make samples, developing their pieces, and, in some cases, helping them go into production overseas. Before long she had hired employees, doubled her revenue and moved into a bigger working space. The atmosphere was intense. During Fashion Week, her staff would be hovered over machines, racing to finish garments that were then rushed to the runways at Bryant Park.

“The Garment Worker” statue by Judith Weller is a monument to the garment industry's past. (Photo by Jessica Bal)
“The Garment Worker” statue by Judith Weller is a monument to the garment industry’s past. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

Cortes built her business in a pocket of Manhattan that loosely comprises 34th to 42nd Streets between Fifth and Ninth Avenues. The area was once packed with factories that, until the 1960s, manufactured much of the clothing sold in the United States. Having a place where patternmakers, sewers and manufacturers could easily do business with each other was valuable, but as it became cheaper to outsource production overseas, the factories fled and businesses from other industries moved in. Gentrification continued its march through the District’s streets, but Cortes also noticed some new factories moving in, and that Americans’ support for locally made clothing had risen sharply over the years. She became convinced that manufacturing was coming back to New York City.

In 2005, Cortes’s rent went up by thirty-five percent because a section of her neighborhood was rezoned. She viewed the increase as just another example of the Garment District being under attack. Businesses and real-estate developers were anxious to get their hands on buildings they could raze and replace with condos or office buildings. The city was even thinking about lifting the zoning laws, which had been designed in 1987 to keep fashion industry businesses in the area. Quietly, slices of the District were rezoned, allowing landlords to charge tenants much higher rents. By 2007, Cortes was angry and willing to take action. She and other fashion industry locals founded a group called Save the Garment Center, and started handing out flyers, calling city officials and holding meetings every other week. She had always cared about fair wages and working conditions, but this organization was her first real political action. “I felt like I was living in the 1960s!” she says.

After the 2008 recession hit and she lost many of her biggest clients, her business fell apart, forcing her to close operations and rethink her career yet again. That’s when she became involved with education, getting contracts with FIT and dreaming up the initial plans for Tx Institute. Fashion schools like Parsons and FIT offered comparable training, but in Cortes’s opinion, young designers were coming out of school with beautiful drawings and designs, but without the technical skills to actually produce them.

Crowds pass by Ebad Fabrics on 8th Avenue in Manhattan’s Garment District. (Photo by Jessica Bal).
Crowds pass by Ebad Fabrics on 8th Avenue in Manhattan’s Garment District. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

Through a professional association, Cortes met Lawrence Pizzi, a local designer who taught at FIT. The pair bonded instantly over what they perceived as a lack of technical skills among fashion school graduates.

“What’s lacking is the actual ability to make a full garment that is perfect,” Pizzi says. “Not a garment that looks like it’s from H&M, but a tailored and well-made garment.” Pizzi, now in his forties, honed his own skills as a young designer in Milan, learning how to make clothes “the old-fashioned way.”

Pizzi believed in Cortes’s vision for Tx Institute and started teaching workshops there on basic skills like sewing and patternmaking. Some of his students were fashion school kids wanting to bolster their skills, but many trickled in from other professions. There were doctors, a school principal, lawyers, and even a cafeteria worker. “I assumed they were all beginners,” Pizzi says, “and I’d go through all the steps.”

Cortes's Tx Institute was designed to revive clothing manufacturing in Manhattan. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)
Cortes’s Tx Institute was designed to revive clothing manufacturing in Manhattan. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)

One class guided students through the process of creating a pair of pants. “All the students who came back to see me after that workshop said that the pants they made in that class was the best pair of pants they ever had worn,” he says.

But Cortes wanted to go beyond teaching the world how to sew. She wanted to train young designers and entrepreneurs and have her studio serve as a place creative people could meet and learn from each other. Manufacturers could visit the space too, she thought, and use the machines to experiment with new production techniques. (Factories, being busy places with machines running at all hours of the day, are not ideal innovation labs.) “My vision was really to train the entrepreneurs, to be a resource center for factories, and to teach people to use the embroidery machines, the laser technology, the 3-D printing,” she says. “All of the tools that are going to create the clothing of the future.”

Manufacturing was at the heart of her mission. She wanted to train workers to operate the very machines that factories use, and then connect people with jobs at those factories. Her plans were an attempt to answer one of the Made in America movement’s biggest challenges: How do you find people who are willing to work factory jobs in America? If you could train people to perform complex and creative tasks on the latest industrial machines, she thought, you could prove to them that factory work doesn’t have to be monotonous.

Cortes poured all her energy into making her West 39th Street studio a thriving classroom. She trumpeted the school’s classes on social networks and convinced an unemployment agency to send her job hunters. The work soon consumed her and forced her to sacrifice relationships, sleep, a family, and time for herself. “I was really trying to pursue my dreams,” she says. “I was not letting go. But not having that balance, it cost me.”

Cortes's workshop in the Garment District. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)
Cortes’s workshop in the Garment District. (Photo by Madeline Cummings)

Worst of all, she knew the school wasn’t sustainable. At first, the Institute’s classes were full, but after a year, her money and her energy ran out. Though she had initially found students through her professional network and by promoting the Institute on social media, she struggled with spreading the word and signing up enough students to fill classes. “It was the lack of marketing that kept it from making it to ‘the next step,’” she says. The building owners, too, were reluctant to give her a long-term lease, which made the school seem unstable to potential financial partners.

When the stress of closure compounded, the only thing that kept her in a stable mental state was meditation; specifically, a type of prayer that emphasizes direct communication with god. Cortes had turned away from Catholicism for a time, but she started going to mass every day. In the days leading up to the Kickstarter campaign deadline, Cortes started packing and making plans for a new life in another city.

Pizzi, who spent many hours working with Cortes in the studio, had lost a colleague and a friend. “We were very much alike because we were both very energetic and positive,” he said several months after she left New York. “I just miss her energy, and that she understood me and I understood her.”

After shuttering the studio, Cortes moved to Houston to spend time with family and take a brief break from fashion. She left her studio, succumbing to the gentrification forces she had fought so hard against. Soon the area she loved might be a Garment District in name only, two words on a street sign, the historical inspiration behind a trendy small-plates restaurant called Fabrick.

A man works inside Glamour Designs on West 37th Street in Manhattan’s Garment District. (Photo by Jessica Bal).
A man works inside Glamour Designs on West 37th Street in Manhattan’s Garment District. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

Once she got to Texas, though, Cortes still couldn’t stop thinking about a way to keep teaching. She traveled to Mexico and Peru and came across communities of people manufacturing textiles and students wanting to learn the techniques she knew. She started scoping out potential partners, gave a lecture at a school in Puebla, Mexico, and planned a series of twenty-minute online workshops that would show how fiber and fabric could be made and transformed with machines.

Though the videos could be useful for those getting started in the fashion industry — young designers and production coordinators — she hopes they will be translated into other languages and reach a much wider audience than her in-person classes did. As married as she was to New York City, the so-called “fashion capital of the world,” she’s found comfort in her work teaching university students and in a renewed sense that the world needs more textile education.

“I strongly believe that American-made products are coming back,” she says. “These videos are really to show people out there that there are reasonable ways to manufacture. I want to introduce people to the idea of understanding how things are done, because a lot of people don’t understand how things are made.”