In NYC It’s ‘Survival of Fittest for Fashion Brands’

More fashion designers work in New York City than anywhere else in the country and a lot is at stake for the thousands of people either furloughed or laid off.

Felicia Lynch started a dream job last November as an assistant knitwear designer for a luxury brand working in lower Manhattan before the coronavirus pandemic took full swing in New York’s fashion capital and tossed her off the payroll.

Now, the 23-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology graduate, whose resume includes an internship in Milan and a study abroad program in London, isn’t sure whether she’ll get her job back.

“We are all worried,” said Lynch. “When things start to pick up, there won’t be entry level jobs.”

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Lynch is one of thousands of people either furloughed or laid off in the New York City fashion world reeling from the financial fallout of the pandemic that caused sudden store closures as well as the cancellation of fashion events and orders amid social distancing and stay-at-home directives.

While fashion houses and stores remain dark, the out of work acknowledge the challenges ahead but still hope they can reinvent themselves as the fashion world contracts further and shoppers may look to stay closer to home.

A lot is at stake. More fashion designers work in New York City than anywhere else in the country. The metro area accounts for more than one in three of the nearly 19,000 fashion designers working in the U.S., according to a 2019 congressional report. New York City’s fashion industry employed about 4.4 % of the total private-sector and generated more than $11.4 billion in wages, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics’ quarterly Census of employment and wages report.

The timing of the stay-at-home orders happened as designers were shipping their spring merchandise. Now, spring designs are being returned, and future orders are canceled. This spells disaster for designers who paid to produce the merchandise and operate with very little cash cushion.

“The cash flow is challenging because they are sitting on inventory,” said Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which counts about 500 designers as members. “It’s all a domino effect. The stores have rents and leases, and it trickles down.“

The CFDA has joined with the Vogue Fashion Fund, set up after 9/11, to form the fundraising initiative, “A Common Thread” to raise money to help design houses of all sizes, as well as factories that produce the clothing. So far, it’s raised $4.1 million for grants and has received more than 800 applicants, Kolb said.

Well before the pandemic, the fashion industry was struggling with the disappearance of a slew of high-end stores, including Barneys New York and Henri Bendel, both of which supported young designers. Now, the pandemic is putting many other luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus further in peril, setting off a rippling effect throughout the industry.

Students at New York’s fashion colleges eager to pursue careers in the industry are now facing a grim employment outlook.

Michael Londrigan, assistant professor and advisor to the provost at LIM college in Manhattan, said all the internships for its fashion students were canceled through the summer. Those internships lead to permanent jobs, he added.

“They were counting on jobs after graduation so we are counseling as best as we can,” Londrigan said. But he added, “There’s a lot of creativity. The fashion industry is fairly resilient.”

Londrigran and Kolb say there will be new startups, similar to 2008 when flash sites launched during the financial collapse.

Lynch is not dismayed by department stores’ troubles; she feels online is the future of fashion. Right now, she’s working on her portfolio and is hoping to get a higher job title of associate designer.

Nyleah Ford, 26, who lives in Brooklyn, is doing freelance work in technical design, an extra gig she picked up before she was furloughed from a knitwear company in mid-April as she saw things turn sour.

“You can’t look for a (permanent) job,” said Ford, who had been with the knitwear company for a year. “I am going to focus on what I do have because I am lucky to have this.”

Ford hopes she’ll get her job back, but she worries about spending habits among customers. The sweaters sell for $150 to $250.

“I don’t think people are going to throw their money away,” she added.

Others are helping by making masks and other essential items while trying to reinvent themselves.

Laura Ciccarello, 35, was running sales for a Chinese factory that specialized in dresses. Though the factory was slowly reopening after the peak in the pandemic in China, once it spread to the U.S. she said the factory had no choice but to put her job on hold after all of its orders got canceled by retailers mid-March.

Ciccarello is updating her resume and portfolio while pairing up with a supplier for lounge wear she designed. She also teamed with another supplier to produce masks, gowns and gloves to sell to medical providers and restaurant chains. And she’s also using her political contacts to help bring back manufacturing to the U.S.

“This will be survival of the fittest for fashion brands, “ she added.

Derek Nye Lockwood, 51, has more than 25 years experience in tailoring for actors on Broadway and film, but started to focus more on his work as a tailor for celebrities for the past three years.

He recalls what happened when work disappeared after 9/11.

“People don’t want to dress up after a huge major bad thing,” he said. “I think it will take a year or two.”

Lockwood brought his sewing machine to his apartment in Spanish Harlem from his design studio in the garment district and is making masks for hospitals. He believes his skills as a sewer will be useful post-Coronavirus as he thinks there’ll be more attention to craftsmanship.

But right now, he feels good about filling an essential role.

“When I was going to school, I always asked myself what am I going to do when the end of the world happens?” he said. “Is my job really that important? Am I going to make a dress? No. I am going to make masks. Who knew? So I am important.”

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