Fast Company

New York, New York: If can make it there, I'll not make it elsewhere

Caroine Fu Traffic Cone Bag

Update 8 Aug 2009: The decline of New York's garment district courtesy of the New York Times

Start spreading the news, I'm investing today
I want to be a part of it - New York, New York
These vulturous CEOs, are going away
Banished from the heart of it - New York, New York

I wanna wake up in a city, that gets decent sleep
And find I'm part of the solution - not just making a heap

These big town blues, are melting away
I'll make a brand new start of it - in old USA
If I can make it there, I'll not make it elsewhere
It's up to us - New York, New York ...

Recently I became my own micro-manufacturing enterprise, part inspired by soft capitalism. 

My product, a special kind of bag, is being made - not in China for a bar of a song, but in the famous yet increasingly impoverished Garment District of New York City.

The base cost of my product: pretty high. The satisfaction of paying that much: priceless. 

It was not until I got to know the tireless and exacting seamstress who took on my project, that I reached this economic epiphany.

"This use to be the fashion capital of America," said Caroline, who's made clothes for some big names in couture including Calvin Klein, Baby Phat and Tracey Reese.

Like many immigrants, she worked her way up from scratch to supervising a large staff and knowing every computerized cutting machine in the business. Then, like thousands of others, she was laid off.

"The fashion companies shipped everything offshore, fired everyone - now look what's happened."

The "now look" she's referring to isn't the latest way to team a sarong with a business suit and get away with it.

It's the slump in the clothing sector; the very people who are meant to buy those clothes – the American public – just haven't got the money. According to Caroline, it's because companies are sending labor offshore, and commercial rents are become "luxury-condofied".

In a small, unluxe room in a rabbit warren of a building on 37th St, she sits among the bolts and bobbins of her trade, showing me photos of a dress she constructed for a first appearance by Hilary Clinton.

"I came here with no English and $300 in my pocket," she said. She waves away my probing for more "story".

"Every immigrant has a story," she insists.

Caroline's quote for my project is three, maybe four times higher than it would be if made in vast quantities offshore. In fact, a friend of mine showed me a highly constructed bag he got through his bike club, complete with club logo, zippers, compression straps and numerous pockets "for $6.50".

"I'm pretty sure they were made in New Jersey," he said. We conceded that if they were, someone poor seamstress was being paid in weak coffee and unbuttered bagels.

But if sweatshops still abound in the city, Caroline isn't spending time dwelling there.

"Every country has its situations. I just do the best I can, be honest, be reliable, be of service. The best thing you can do for this country is to do what Obama says – buy local, get things made local. Then people will have jobs, they will have money to buy food, clothes, make this economy stable."

That all sounds impressively logical. Did she read that somewhere? Caroline stabs her temple with a finger.

"No, I've just thought about this!"

She tells me she's making no money on my project – she simply wants to keep her talented understudy occupied -  she likes to support personal creative endeavours.

"Work on your own ideas. You get a high paid job, you lose it overnight. When you have your own business, your original thinking, you can make your own business. YOu can make your way."

I can't help relating this story whenever I show my bag. It's the verbal swing tag I have hanging off it (there's no swing tag - saving half a tree). When did you last feel excited and proud to pay a fair price rather than a cheap price for a job well done?

My customers "get it". Without the story it's another gadget. With the story, it's a contribution to society. I've sold all of the original batch in just ten days. 

Roll up your sleeve - what ideas have you got hiding up there? Make it in America - for everone's sake - and you will.

The Galfromdownunder Traffic Cone Bag A personal case study in soft capitalism

And a big shout out to:
Caroline Fu Design, 265 West 37 St, 10th Floor, Suite 10W, New York NY 10018
Email: Carolinefu32 at gmail.com, (917) 660-4673

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