Garment District Hothouse
By ERIC WILSON
“I’M going to have fun walking down the hall yelling, ‘Bibhu! Bibhu!’ ” said Waris Ahluwalia, the designer of the jewelry collection House of Waris, on his first day in his new office at 209 West 38th Street in the heart of the garment district last Tuesday. Bibhu Mohapatra, an evening-wear designer, had moved into a space down the hall a week earlier, from where he could wave hello. “Bibhu!” This has the potential to get annoying.
Their new offices, along with those of 10 other designers, are part of an initiative to help emerging fashion businesses grow in New York City — but that also seems determined to test the adage about what proximity breeds. It is a called a “fashion business incubator,” offering below-market rents (starting at $1,500 a month) and mentoring to a group selected by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And it looks much like a shopping mall, with glass-fronted showrooms on either side of a grand aisle, where designers can create or sell or promote their collections, and retailers can visit all of them conveniently.
But as an experiment, the most intriguing results may lie in how they relate to the neighborhood, which has been declining as a center of fashion manufacturing for decades. Much of the current debate between landlords and designers about saving the district relates to the perceived importance of being close to their suppliers.
“The amount of time we save, even if it’s running out for a zipper, is incredible,” said Mr. Mohapatra, who had wanted to move his showroom from the Upper West Side, but found rents in the range of $4,500 for similar spaces. Some of the other participating designers said that they, too, were drawn to the convenience.
Prabal Gurung, who works in a shoebox apartment downtown, used to show his clothes at the home of his better-to-do publicist, but she wanted her living room back, thank you. Joel Diaz and Christina LaPens, the couple behind Jolibe, shared a live-work space nearby, but two young children made that situation a nightmare.
Mr. Ahluwalia said he, too, used to work far, far away, “up in the mountains, upstate.” He was in a town house on East 81st Street.