Last year I wrote a big piece for Refinery29 on Joann Kim. It was called, “The Last Millennial in the Garment District,” and told the story of one woman’s struggle to keep her father’s factory going in the face of high rents and fickle consumers. We say we want “Made in America” but we don’t want to pay the price it takes to do so.
I came away from that article with a huge amount of respect for Joann. She’s fierce and fashionable and hustling to make it. And now my respect for her has gone up even higher, because she has set out to save the Garment District. Not with policy, grants, or pontificating, but with a new private fashion label she’s launched last month, updownacross.
updownacross has the look and feel of a luxury label with a just right price point. It’s for those who want quality, sweatshop-free, made-in-NYC, grownup designs but have found them out of reach – until now. Think a cold-shoulder slip dress for $160, perfect pleated crepe trousers for $110, and a blush bomber jacket for $170, all made in the Garment District, by women, in a women-owned and run factory. Hallelujah. I tried on her sleeveless shirt dress and fell in love.
A second-generation garment manufacturer, Joann’s father, Johnny, is a master patternmaker, with 30 years of experience owning and managing garment factories. With a background in marketing and event planning, Joann has spent the past few years bringing what can be a hopelessly out-of-touch industry into the new millennium with smart digital marketing strategies.
New York Garment District has many challenges. One is the boom and bust work cycles. Sewers work 80-hour weeks ahead of New York Fashion Week, work some more as wholesale orders come in, and have nothing to do in between, necessitating short-term layoffs.
Second, fashion made in the Garment District is too expensive for most consumers. After you factor in high rent, limited runs by emerging designers, and the additional resale price tacked on by boutiques and departments stores, you’re looking at $700 for a simple dress.
But Joann is in a unique position to tackle these challenges, with a direct-to-consumer, online retail store selling covetable clothing made from deadstock fabric right in her own factory during those inevitable lulls in business. The look is clean, minimal, utilitarian, masculine, bold, urban, and architectural.
By combining the direct-to-consumer and wholesale business models, updownacross will function completely outside the traditional industry model of showing six months prior to the season, because who shops like that? Each month starting July 1st, Joann will release five to eight styles (for five complete looks) online, so customers can snatch them up immediately. It’s sort of like fast fashion (stupidly affordable) but not (better for the environment, ethical, well-made).
Vertical integration, low prices, steady employment for sewers, quality garments with a focus on subtle details, Made in America, online shopping on demand – updownacross has all these things.
“My ultimate passion and goal is to alter the fashion industry to be more accessible to US manufacturers and US designers, particularly those emerging in the ready-to-wear and contemporary market,” Joann Kim told me. “The kind of people I hang out with – managers, designers, producers, directors, owners, mothers, creators, entrepreneurs – admire Celine and Marni, Sacai and Alexander Wang but can’t afford the steep prices. They end up shopping at Zara because it’s close enough, cheap enough, nice enough. Because I own part of the supply chain plus have experience working in digital marketing, I can give them something better.”
updownacross is not for the delicate, the dilettante, the dabbler. It’s for the confident urban creative who is hustling her way to the top. She’s successful enough to have good taste and an abundance of events and meetings at which to deploy it, but not quite successful enough to spend $600 on a pair of trousers. The updownacross woman (don’t call her a girl) works hard for her money, and when that money is spent on clothes, she wants it to be well spent without buyer’s remorse.
Her next release is on August 15th, so sign up for the newsletter at the bottom of the website.