Workers making clothing is an unusual sight in Midtown in 2018.
“We have 175 people on payroll, and then our sort of tentacles go way out through our sales reps, our global distributors, our merchandisers,” said Lida Orzeck, the co-founder and CEO of lingerie company Hanky Panky.
Gale Epstein and Orzeck founded Hanky Panky 40 years ago. They have been based in a space on Park Avenue South for almost as long.
Their top seller: thongs. The lingerie is manufactured in Queens. They admit they could make more money moving production overseas.
“If your aim is purely financial, that probably would be the right thing to do,” Orzeck. “But we have so many other reasons for keeping the business here.”
Those reasons include everything from maintaining quality control to keeping so many local people employed.
But they say they had to be especially disciplined to succeed in the city.
“We never borrowed huge sums of money so we were never in debt,” one employee said. “I would say if you want longevity, to grow naturally.”
New York City is still the hub of the intimate apparel industry. But most manufacturing no longer takes place here because of high labor and real estate costs.
“These large brands have moved to China,” said Cora Harrington, the founder of The Lingerie Addict blog. “A lot of our design jobs, a lot of our lace factories, a lot of the sewing factories are based in China.”
Manhattan was once a major location for the Garment Industry. It was there where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down in 1911, killing 146 workers in one of the deadliest industrial disasters in United States history.
In 1950, there were nearly 350,000 garment manufacturing jobs in the city; by 2010, that number was fewer than 25,000.
The decline is keenly felt in the Garment District, where fewer than 2,500 people now work in the industry — less than half the number employed 25 years ago.
Monica Wesley is a Parsons School of Design graduate who launched her lingerie company Uye Surana Lingerie in 2013. She also is based in Manhattan, locating her production facility not far from the Garment District in Tribeca to be close to her vendors, her customers, and her vision for her business.
“We would probably have to go more of a wholesale route in order to meet the quantities that you would need to work with China,” she said.
But Uye Surana Lingerie and Hanky Panky intend to stay in the city.
Two lingerie companies keeping alive a long history of manufacturers that can say their products were made in New York.