Earlier this month, the Design Trust for Public Space and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), launched madeinmidtown.org, an inside look at the Garment District, the heart of American fashion. Featuring videos, comics, maps, diagrams, and written profiles of people at every level of the fashion industry (including several pieces that have appeared on this site), our research shows what makes the Garment District essential to New York's fashion industry--and why it matters to all New Yorkers. Here, Made in Midtown's journalism fellow Tom Vanderbilt offers a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion world, and reveals how an industry inseparable from New York continues to thrive.
On the long, flat tables filling the center of the room are a series of large sheets of paper, each filled with intricately arranged geometric shapes that look like some grand puzzle. What's happening here at Paul Cavazza's factory is what allows customers to buy any piece of clothing in S, M, L, and XL and simultaneously answer a basic question of supply and demand: How much fabric does it take to make a garment?
Cavazza's business, called Create-a-Marker, actually covers marking and grading. "Marking" is the complex physical task of extracting as many pieces as possible out of a section of fabric. Manufacturers, he notes, make fabric orders and price garments based on an estimation of how many yards of fabric it will take to produce a garment, e.g. two yards for a little black dress or a pair of trousers. "Once we get into marking," says Cavazza, "every inch that I come down from the two yards is more profitability for the manufacturer." On the flipside, if the manufacturer has underestimated the amount of fabric needed, costs go up, and as Cavazza notes, "they can't go back to a store and ask, 'Hey, can we add $5 to that?' "
The other half of Cavazza's business is "grading," which is a little like cloning a garment in different sizes, turning the parent garment (say, a size 2) into a family of garments in every other size a retailer wants. The basic rules are standardized -- e.g., an added inch for each size increase -- but those figures disguise many complexities. One designer's size 8 is not necessarily another's (Cavazza points to a dress dummy from the early 1990s that is marked size 10 but which designers now consider a size 6). What's more, an error hardly apparent in size 6, for example, will be magnified at sizes 8, 10, or 12. And it's not merely a matter of adding raw scale; careful attention must be paid to things like pockets and repeating patterns in order to match the proportions and style of the original. "The whole thing about grading," says Cavazza, "is that if you take a look at size 8 and then 14, you're not changing the design. It just looks bigger." Which is to say, Cavazza's work is best when it is virtually imperceptible.
Cavazza, an FIT graduate, opened Create-a-Marker in 1997 as a third-generation participant in the garment industry (his grandparents, he notes, started with six sewing machines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II and ended up with 200). He seems to embody both the District's sense of tradition and the fashion industry's demand for new things. Cavazza admits he favors grading done the "old way," laid out on a table -- "you can see the whole pattern, lay it out, and understand how it fits" -- but he no longer uses the old manual Sunny Young grading machine, which the grader would use to hand-trace each size variation. While digitization is now the norm, Cavazza insists the human touch is still essential. There are many software programs offering "automatic marking," he says, but "not one system is out there that can beat a human."
While Cavazza says a rent increase at his former building on 38th Street (which now sits largely vacant, he notes) nearly forced him to close or merge the business, he happily reports his business actually grew 4% last year, even amidst the recession. While much of this owes to his client's loyalty, in a business where fit and relationships are key, Cavazza says there's another issue. "This is the only part of the business where you're going to walk in and see every type of garment, whether couture or t-shirts," he says. Whether it's a 150-piece gown for Chado Ralph Rucci or a simple lower-priced sundress, or an order for 10 units or 30,000 units, "you still need me," says Cavazza. "You still need to grade and mark."