Six thousand businesses occupy the 350 buildings located between 41st and 35th Streets from Fifth to Ninth Avenues in New York City. This is Barbara Randall’s realm as President of the Garment District Alliance. Through her leadership and vision, Barbara seamlessly integrates a multitude of professional and public arenas, from the Mayor’s Office to real estate developers to fashion’s power players. She has led the revitalization of the Garment District into an area of burgeoning business beyond fashion. It’s a far cry from the times when there were no street lights or Starbucks. Parks, public art, side street lights, hotels, fashion stars and so much more are all thanks the work of Barbara and BID.
Please describe the Garment District today.
It’s one of the most dynamic areas in New York City, sharing the stage with Midtown Manhattan. I feel like the Garment District was a closed society for a long, long time and that is finally changing. It is really exciting place to be right now for the first time since 1987. We hit the tipping point and the change will continue to be dramatic from now on. Gentrification is a wonderful or terrible thing depending on which side you are on. On our side, it’s positive, exciting and rewarding to see change, growth and improvement.
Can you tell us a bit about your career before coming to the Garment District Alliance?
My first job was at the MOMA in Special Events, when the museum expanded for the first time. A highlight of my time there was “Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective”, one of New York’s first mega exhibits, and the museum’s first ticketed shows. There were events surrounding it from morning to midnight. Anybody who was anybody was there. After a brief stint at Airbus, I worked at Fashion Group International with Lenore Benson, and then, Margaret Hayes. The Business Improvement District was looking for a Director for the Garment District BID and hired me because I was familiar with the industry.
What was it like to suddenly find yourself working in public sector?
I crossed the road, the light changed, and boom! Coming out of marketing and events, I did not know anything about working in non-profit or working for elected officials. It was a wonderful opportunity all of a sudden working in an entirely new industry while staying connected to fashion.
What sparked the idea for founding BID in 1985? What were some of the initial challenges?
Property owners realized they better keep the city safe because all their assets were tied into the city. So, the city created BIDs (Business Improvement Districts), which were, condoned by state government to provide clean and safe programming, private security and more. The first BID was 14th, Bryant Park soon followed. In 1993, the Garment District BID was formed and it’s now the 5th largest BID neighborhood. New York neighborhoods thrived, and today, there are 70 BID’s!
What was the Garment District landscape like in the 1980’s? How has it changed since then?
In the 1980’s under Mayor Koch, the city was going to hell in a handbag. Services had been cut back, crime was thru the roof, and, even the streets were not being swept. It has changed dramatically – it’s night and day. We are proud to have had a huge and profound impact on city
What were some of the biggest challenges at the Garment District BID?
For years, the Special Garment District Overlay Zoning hindered economic development and tamped down improvement. This was a law from almost 30 years ago, under Koch, whereby 50% of the side street real estate was preserved for production. The goal was to maintain jobs and keep production here in NYC. Today, there is 4 1/2 million square feet zoned for production, yet on your busiest day 500,000 square feet used for production. What is the mechanism for saving jobs in that equation?
So, what changed and when?
It was a gradual change. Eventually, the city realized it was time to stop enforcing Garment District zoning and in the nineties, property owners began to subsidize the rents of factory buildings. Then, the 2005 re-zoning of Hudson Yards enabled property owners to convert buildings into residential or hotels in Garment District and between 8th and 9th Avenues. Slowly but surely, buildings started to become fully occupied. Today, we have the highest occupancy rates ever.
Improving the Garment District is no easy – or small task. We’d love to hear a bit more about your strategy and approach and how it has changed with time.
In the last five years, our messaging has changed 100%. We began re-thinking the Garment District as an ideal Midtown Manhattan location rather than fashion industry-centric. We started promoting and targeting businesses beyond fashion. Tech firms, business-to-business companies, graphic design firms, and creative companies are all moving into the area. We have over 30 hotels, which have brought tourists, street traffic and restaurants to the area. We are promoting the neighborhood as viable beyond fashion and business-to-business.
What are some BID accomplishments that are most visible to the city dweller?
Side street security lighting, public art, tables and chairs, plantings and our special food markets, to mention a few. Our next big project is to secure avenue lighting and our next focus: ground floor retail.
Do you think the area can maintain its history and energy while changing?
I do and I will tell you why. History is in the minds of people. New York is so wonderful that way. Almost anyone you talk to about the Garment District has a connection to it. They will say my mother, grandmother, godfather, uncle – all remember the area. The side streets are still so beautiful. If you look up, the loft buildings are exactly like Soho nobody is going to tear them down. That is the Garment District history and its not going anywhere.
Did you ever imagine there would be Fashion tours? How popular are the tours?
I did for this reason: people love fashion – high or low fashion every person is making some sort of statement. Michale Kaback leads the Walking Tour. He is a true “garmento” and tells anecdotal stories about the industry. People love it! They want to touch something that is real, especially these days.
Who decides which designers receive a star on the Fashion Walk of Fame?
Stars are always given by vote – not like in Hollywood where you can buy your star. There are only 24 designers on the Fashion Walk of Fame. In the beginning, we put together a committee Harold Koda, Valerie Steele, editors, buyers and asked them to put together a list of possible designers to be on the Walk of Fame. We sent that list to 100-150 leaders and asked them to vote. The industry is nominating you – it’s completely legitimate and no money passes hands. We ask ourselves: 100 years from now if you are walking down that walk, will those designers still be considered legitimate picks?