Galloons and Gimps: An Accidental Stroll through the Garment District

The store’s awning sign simply reads “Zipper,” piquing my interest. Pressing my face to the display window confirms my hunch: an entire store of zippers: every shape, size, and style hanging neatly and disembodied.

This would be exotic almost anywhere else, but I am in the heart of New York’s Garment District, where such a sight is not just expected but indeed, integral. I walk down the block newly attuned to the shops lining the cross-streets, and I discover a subculture dedicated to an industry that touches, quite literally, every one of us.

“Industry,” while accurate, doesn’t feel quite right here among all these complementary shops with people doing things by hand. “Craft” feels like a more snug fit.

Miju Sewing, Lauren’s Trimming, a lace shop. A bit farther along, I spy the Garment Wear Arcade, a store of notions and shoulder pads, and of course fabric sellers galore. I chuckle at the punning “Stitch Bar and Lounge.” This small world of thread, buttons, braid, and leather catches me off guard with signs like “buttons, zippers, passementerie.”

Passementerie? So mundane this sign, it could have read “Soda and Cigarettes.” I can’t help myself; I slide out of the sidewalk flow of pedestrians into a nook and pull up Wiki on my phone. Turns out it is the art of making elaborate edging or trimming. Even a cursory dip into this term reveals wonderful, arcane terms. “Styles of passementerie include the tassel, fringes (applied, as opposed to integral), ornamental cords, galloons, pompons, rosettes, and gimps…”

It’s tempting to step inside and casually say “Yeah, I just need to grab some galloons and gimps.” Knowing I could never pull that off, I continue my journey along the storefronts hemmed in between Manhattan’s avenues.

The visual feast feeds me with the polychromatic, the patterned, and the textural. The brightest bolts and flashiest rhinestones earn the prime show-off spots in the display window, where even on this sunny day, rows of small halogen lamps add extra pop to the effect. Colors swirl and swish, bolt upon bolt upon bolt. I reflexively take pictures of the walls of extravagant tassels.

Why all this energy and presentation facing the street? Eye-candy, no doubt, but do I understand this place correctly? The Garment District feels like where the (wholesale) shopper would go door to door to assemble the components of whatever line of apparel he/she will manufacture and sell.

Whole stores are dedicated to the small devices like buttons, clasps, fasteners that keep our clothes on (or allow them to be easily removed…). Whatever needs securing — from the most mundane waistband to an elegant evening gown’s hidden top hook — each could have started right here.

My midtown ramble gets me thinking about specialization, about vestiges of village habits meeting relentless globalization. I’m not naive enough to think the buyers load it up in carts piling ever higher; no, they touch, look, haggle (probably), buy and ship. But the intimate proximity of all these related, niche vendors is fascinating; it feels like a village whose citizens are the people from around the globe who clothe us.

Turns out that in its heyday, that was almost literally true. In 1910, an estimated 70% of all clothing worn by U.S. women originated right here in this enclave of tailors. In 1931, the Garment District boasted the largest concentration of garment makers in the world.

But, that was a century ago. My mind spins.

How has this place outlasted ruthless decentralization in supply chains? How can these merchants afford some of the most expensive rents in the world when the Internet, UPS, and a warehouse in rural South Carolina or Taiwan can presumably do exactly the same thing? Are the four “hot fix” trimmings shops I pass competing with each other or with dispersed, unseen businesses halfway around the globe?

It is not unusual for competitors to cluster for critical mass, like stores in malls, a theatre district, a string of auto dealers, art galleries, or restaurants. Those are all retail, but maybe the same market dynamic applies here? Perhaps buyers still flock to this district precisely because of the concentration? Or, maybe the apparel subculture still values handshakes and face-to-face dealings as purchasing and commerce elsewhere is now impersonal and technology-driven? It’s like a nonstop trade show.

The specialization fascinates me. I find it reassuring to see people plying a trade, going deep instead of broad. Putting their best out in the display windows backed up by thousands more items in inventory. I’m under no illusion these items are manufactured here; but they are aggregated, sorted, and hawked.

The tourist trade is not keeping these enterprises afloat, though one could knit together a totally cool one-day experience for the curious. The colors alone would reward the gawker’s gaze. Perhaps a walking tour all about the mechanics of clothing: “how do you make a buttonhole? Why are bra hooks so hard to unfasten with one hand?”

Happily, the City celebrates the garment trade heritage. Garment District banners on light poles and some large public art pieces reinforce the theme. Along Seventh Avenue (“Fashion Avenue”) a large bronze sculpture of a tailor in a yarmulke hunched over a sewing machine stands next to an enormous needle passing through a giant button.

This is good. For all its flash, dazzle, and fame, fashion come to our closets through the hard work of anonymous, uncelebrated workers. For decades, these buildings teemed with underpaid labor who could convert their skills into a meager living. No runway or trunk show ever buzzed with the names of the seamstresses or button-makers.

Yet, their work is in a way celebrated, not by name but by legacy. This colorful, lively village stitched into the heart of a great metropolis pays homage to custom, craftsmanship, and continuity.

Now, how many gimps did I say I needed?