New York Companies Keep Calm and Carry On

Rosemary Feitelberg
·9 min read

A more novel approach is the most important one for some fashion companies that are trying to extend their reach after what has been a challenging year for many.

Once buzzing with commuters, rolling racks with the latest fashions and speeding bike messengers, Manhattan’s Garment District slowed to a lull last year as work from home orders were extended and self isolation became a national pastime. As the vaccine rollout in the U.S. is expanding to non-senior citizens, more residents are spending more time outdoors and in select cases are returning to their offices.

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Gianpaolo Blower, who runs the New York-based company that his father Paul started in 1982, returned to the firm’s West 38th Street office a few months ago. “The way that we differentiate ourselves for better or for worse, because of course at moments like this there is also a big risk, is the fact that we have a showroom that is about 5,000 square feet. It’s a beautiful space that we have fought really hard to keep. A month ago we renewed our lease for five more years,” he said.

Paolo Blower is committed to the area and its clients welcome the chance to go there, since the majority of brands have not reopened their showrooms. Macy’s Inc., for example, is not asking its corporate employees to return until the fall, a company spokeswoman said Thursday. While the bulk of Garment District fashion-related companies are soldiering on remotely, the neighborhood is springing back a bit.

Current occupancy rates for the Garment District will not be available until next week, according to Barbara Blair, executive director of the Garment District Alliance. After seeing a steep decline in foot traffic last year, the neighborhood has been showing signs of vibrancy. Pedestrian counts are up to about 43 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels, Blair said. “Also, we see many more people on the streets. As a subway user, [there are] many more people on the subway.”

Statistics about the area’s jobs are expected from the U.S. Department of Labor in July. Aware that fashion has really taken a hit due to the pandemic, a spokesman for the 34th Street Partnership and the Bryant Park Partnership said that current occupancy rates were not immediately available Thursday.

The Partnership for New York City surveyed major employers from Feb. 24 to March 8 to estimate how long Manhattan’s one million office workers will continue to work remotely. The takeaways were that nearly half of companies are looking at a September return for their workforce, most will continue to work remotely part-time, returning workers will use public transportation and business travel is expected to permanently drop off.

Another indication of how millions will be more inclined to do business via Zoom rather than fly for in-person meetings is the Global Trade Association’s expectation that a full business travel recovery won’t happen before 2025. As enticement, some travel-related businesses are cooking up creative perks for travelers. The Virgin Hotel in the Flatiron District is planning to create a Swingers crazy golf outpost. Players will find miniature golf with gourmet street food, cocktails and a live DJ. Another location is planned for Washington, D.C., in June, thanks to $20 million in follow-on funding from Cain International.

But back in New York, only 10 percent of office workers had returned to their workplaces as of early March, a statistic that had remain unchanged since October, according to the Partnership for New York City. Further stalling the city’s already beleaguered ecosystem is the fact that larger employers are bringing back workers to their offices at a slower rate. Only 8 percent have returned to the office at companies with more than 1,000 workers.

While many office workers’ mantra of when-are-we-going-back has changed to are-we-ever-going-back, several fashion businesses reopened months ago in adherence with the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 safety guidelines. In addition to players like ABG and Prabal Gurung, smaller companies like Chiara Boni and the Fo.ri showroom, which represents Seventy Venezia, among other labels, reopened for in-person market appointments and virtual ones. Digital meet-ups required investing in additional equipment for both companies, according to a company spokeswoman. That is also the case with the luxury handbag collection Maria Oliver, which is based on Lexington Avenue.

At Paolo Blower, the top-floor space at 102 West 38th Street is where the company started in late 1982. Gianpaolo Blower heads up the New York office and his sister Victoria helms the Prato, Italy, one to ensure that fabric development can be monitored on the mill-side. (The company also opened a downtown Los Angeles showroom last year to accommodate the growing business with Vince, A.L.C., St. John Knits and other West Coast companies.)

Established as the New York outpost is with brands like Tory Burch and Coach, the company has welcomed a new wave of brands and start-ups, due to the pandemic. “During the lockdown, a lot if people had time to reflect and to come up with new ideas to reinvent themselves. Right now we’re seeing this influx of new ideas being translated into smaller new ideas,” Gianpaolo Blower said.

Paolo Blower is working with about 12 new brands. That ideology is in line with his father Paolo’s belief that the company wants to cater to the smaller brands as if they were its most important client, because “we really don’t know what that brand is going to become.” Along with about 12 resources in Italy, the company has worked with Clarenson in the south of France for 20-plus years.

To try to capitalize on the athleisure market, one area that has fared well during the shutdown, the company has partnered with the Italian textile mill Miti and the Lake Como resource Serates that specializes in woven technical fabrics. On another front, Paolo Blower introduced Fabric Tap, a website application that is “essentially a glorified request form” for fabrics that allows for customers to provide a lot of details and useful information for extensive research to avoid a lot of the back-and-forth via email, Blower said.

Paolo Blower has also increased its accessories business by offering Spanish-made espadrilles and sandals, Spanish-made textile belts and Italian straw handbags.

Although sales dropped 35 percent last year, the company has made up for some of that lost ground in the past six months. As of Wednesday, Paolo Blower saw the first month-to-month increase compared to last year, Blower said. “That was incredibly encouraging,” he said, adding that many clients appreciate the opportunity to meet in person when so many other outlets are closed.

Fe Noel recently moved into a space in the Garment District. She declined to comment Thursday. Verdin Bridal New York is another relative newcomer to the neighborhood, having opened last fall. The Guadalajara-born designer Gustavo Nunez always dreamed of designing in New York City. “Keeping the Garment Center alive and thriving is one of my priorities so I made sure to work with local seamstresses. I already employ three full-time seamstresses and I’m planning to hire more as soon as the economy and the business in America picks up,” he said. “We follow all COVID-19 protocols and have remained healthy. We are launching a new collection without missing a beat.”

To adjust to the changing climate, Marc Bouwer has been doing rentals and selling a few sketches. To boost his company’s social media reach, the New York-based designer is also doing a custom piece for the Instagram canine sensation “Tika,” which has more than one million followers. President Paul Margolin said, “We are seriously excited to do something for Tika. We connected because she did a Shania [Twain] look [whom Bouwer has dressed through the years]. They sent the cutest measurement chart — all color-coded.”

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have relied on pivoting to keep going. Others have chosen to reposition their brands altogether. Fotini Copeland, who previously ran and created the Fotini collection, is launching a new business Monday. A few years back Copeland stopped producing her collection. At that time, she was spending 70 percent of her time in New York and would need to live there full-time due to the business’ success, but decided to return to Toronto due to a family medical situation.

On Monday, she will launch The Fotini Factor, a style consultancy firm that will offer pragmatic guidance for their professional and personal brand. “We talk a lot about the influencers of today. What I’ve tried to tell a lot of women that I’ve talked to in the past is, ‘You are the influencer. You are the influencer of your own brand.’ They really do want to invest in themselves. They just don’t have the education and tools to do so…we all have our insecurities of course. Also, you can’t avoid critiques and judgments. You just need to learn to manage the ones that matter.”

Copeland said she was already offering personal brand enhancement services to clients through trunk shows. Professionals looking to elevate their careers, women getting back into the dating arena and others with robust social schedules repeatedly sought her advice. Rather than just showing collections, she was becoming more of a consultant and adviser. That led her organically to creating TFF, which includes virtual closet cleanses, individual consultations and a “Refresh, Renew and Restore” program, small group seminars and other services. Her approach is more of “a fireside discussion” versus being a lecturer.

Last year Copeland published a book, “Alterations in Life: Finding My Way in Fashion,” which encapsulates some of her experiences in fashion and how being stylish doesn’t mean that you won’t be taken seriously. A launch event with 75 private clients at Saks Fifth Avenue was very well-received. The coronavirus crisis nixed the book tour plans, but Copeland is still planning to promote the book more.

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