An office just north of Canal Street in New York City's gritty Chinatown district is a well-kept secret of top fashion designers. It's where Nancy Caton and her 15-person shop sew small-run designer pieces for the likes of Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade.
Caton is a member of a rare breed: New York apparel makers who have defied skyrocketing New York rents and cheap overseas labor to carve a place for themselves in the brutally competitive world of garment manufacturing.
WORLD OF COMPETITION. "Today, Chinese manufacturers are not only fast, they are high quality and are at par with Italian manufacturers and at a much lower price point," says Tim Gunn, chairman of the fashion department at Parsons School of Design.
Those global trends are reflected in New York State Labor Dept. statistics: In 1990, some 90,000 people worked in the local industry. Today, the figure has shrunk to just 27,000.
But being located in the Big Apple also has its perks: Not only are big-name designers easily accessible but high-end stores like Barneys are close at hand. Many of those designers face problems when buyers from large department stores place orders for, say, just 10 items of a certain line. Those are the moments when designers turn to Caton to fill those smaller orders.
FASHION AND FOLLY. Top designers also have relied on Caton to help make samples for specific projects. For instance, hip discount carrier Song Airlines, a business unit of Delta (DAL), approached Kate Spade to design uniforms for its flight attendants. Spade turned to Caton to make the first samples, which were approved and sent on for mass production.
After working for New York labels Tahari and Kate Spade, Caton started her outfit, Nancy Whiskey & the Sewing Factory, with an initial investment of $10,000. Caton says even though the orders have poured in ever since she opened for business, it still took three years before she was breaking even. High-fashion manufacturing requires fine skills and craftsmanship, she explains, with labor costs accounting for at least 60% of her total costs.
Another problem, as Caton came to realize, was that she had been trying to service the entire fashion-design spectrum. For instance, she was thrilled when orders for very high-end haute couture started trickling in. Then she discovered the downside. "Couture requires fine needlework and, at times, detailed bead work," Caton explains, "and one piece might take a week to finish."
TAILORED BUSINESS. She made a strategic decision to give up couture clients and focus instead on designers' smaller orders and samples. Sales in 2004 came to $170,000 -- and this year's figure will likely hit $500,000, she estimates.
Meanwhile, her client list has grown from just 1 to more than 40. It's clear that Caton might be a secret to the outside world, but to fashion designers she has become a go-to person for special situations.