I wrote this for Refinery29 last month. I’m quite proud of it and hope you enjoy reading it!
Joann Kim starts her day at 6 a.m. at her dad’s home in Flushing, Queens. She and her boyfriend Luca, a handsome Italian with an undercut and tattoos, take the 7:24 LIRR train together to Penn Station, and walk five blocks to the Garment District. They pick up $1 pastries from a Chinese bakery nearby, kiss goodbye, and by 8 a.m., Kim takes an elevator to the 17th floor, where a quiet garment factory awaits.
She is is the manager at Johnny’s Fashion Studio, a sample and development factory in the Garment District that does work for cutting edge designers and well-known brands alike. With 250 samples a month being turned out of Johnny’s, it’s not entirely unlikely that you’re wearing an item that Kim helped develop.
By Pratt Institute’s count, in 2012, there were a little over 300 factories hidden throughout the upper levels of the Garment District. The owners of these factories are, almost without exception, older men and women from China, India, and Korea in their 50s and 60s who speak little English. Designers find these factories mainly through word of mouth, and hesitate to talk about or publicize the work that factories provide for them.
Kim is an anomaly among her peers in the industry: she’s well-educated, bilingual, tech-savvy, and boasts a background in both the NYC art and foodie worlds. She’s the daughter of the factory’s namesake, Johnny, a second-generation patternmaker who’s been in the business for 30 years. She’s also, at 31, part of the Millennial generation, though she disputes that term. “That generation that everyone is always saying is lazy? I work too hard to be a Millennial!” she says. Compared to the other, older factory managers, Kim is jarringly young and cool, with heeled ankle boots, a gold nose ring, tattoos, and ombré hair.
But, despite all this, Kim is struggling with the exact same issues as every other factory in the Garment District. In the 1960s, the Garment District made 95% of clothing sold in the United States and employed 200,000 people. Now, it makes 3% and employs about 21,000 people. Even as New York becomes more of a global fashion destination, factories within its city limits continue to close up shop.
Johnny’s is the kind of factory that makes New York Fashion Week possible. But, you could see Kim’s role as demeaning — she makes the salary of a barista and spends her entire day garrisoned in a dingy space, while her friends run restaurants, direct and produce videos, and head up brand management for large companies.
Or, you could see it as inspiring. Because in an industry rocked by cataclysmic changes and helmed by tired and sclerotic managers, Kim — young, bright, hungry, and innovative — could be the garment industry’s best chance to survive and thrive.