For the Fashion Industry, the Catwalk Leads to Brooklyn

Designer Nanette Lepore plans to relocate to the Navy Yard, following in the footsteps of Lafayette 148

Designer Lepore, whose manufacturing operations have been in Manhattan's garment district, will continue to maintain a small space there (Photo via Instagram)

Nanette Lepore, a fashion designer who grew her business in Manhattan’s garment district, is relocating most of her business to Brooklyn, it was announced this week. Lepore’s company has signed a five-year lease for 5,000 sq. ft. of space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a place of increasingly varied businesses in tech and manufacturing.

“It’s exhilarating to join such a diverse group of innovators, from fashion to art, food and film,” said Lepore in a statement announcing the move. While many companies have been migrating across the East River to take advantage of lower rents, Brooklyn’s collaborative potential was a draw in Lepore’s case, she told the Wall Street Journal. “It wasn’t just the cost that got me to the Navy Yards,” she said. “We’re working in a place with paper makers, artists, jewelry makers and all the food people on the main floor.”

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New arrivals on a page from Nanette Lepore’s website

Lepore’s move follows the decision by another renowned women’s fashion brand, Lafayette 148, to move this year from Soho to nearly 100,000 sq. ft. at the Yard. Both companies will be moving into Building 77, which has undergone a $185 million conversion that turned the WWII-era structure into a modern, light-manufacturing hub with 1 million sq. ft. of space. David Ehrenberg, CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., said at a Brooklyn real-estate conference last month that the building “was 85% full at the ribbon-cutting and will be 100% by summer.”

The Navy Yard, which houses everything from coffee roasters to robotics makers, is developing a similarly diverse roster in fashion and garment manufacturing. Among its tenants are Catbird, a jewelry maker; Justin Paul, a luxury handbag maker; and Crye Precision, which produces military garb including body armor.

The rise of fashion in the Navy Yard parallels its growth farther south in Brooklyn, where New York City plans to spend more than $50 million to create a garment hub in Sunset Park. Already more than 100 garment manufacturers operate in the neighborhood, including notable upstarts.

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Lepore retails her products in department stores as well as boutiques in New York and other cities

Lepore brings Brooklyn an upscale women’s-wear brand–dresses are typically priced from $300 to $600–that Vogue alternately described in one review as “folky” and “funky.” In assessing her 2018 spring ready-to-wear collection, Vogue opined, “This season, Nanette Lepore’s way of coping with the current harsh political realities was to embrace women’s sexuality. She cited Hollywood actresses from the 1930s, with their cheeky attitude and slinky attire to match.”

Indeed, Lepore, who lives in the West Village, seems well attuned to current events. Last fall, she launched a 10-piece holiday collection to benefit disaster-recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, with 20% of proceeds going to the cause. The same season, she announced her first foray into plus sizes. “The collection of dresses, skirts, tops, and bottoms is inspired by bohemian vibes and has a distinctive feminine fit,” said Refinery29.

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“As a visionary designer and bold female entrepreneur, Nanette Lepore is my kind of New York success story,” stated Alicia Glen, the city’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development, in the announcement of Lepore’s move, which Glen called “further demonstration that manufacturing and fashion are a true five-borough industry and a key component of the city’s economic future.”

Lepore’s company has made a point of keeping its manufacturing close to home. The move to the Navy Yard will allow the company to continue manufacturing nearly 80% of its products within the city, which will help provide sustainable, middle-class jobs. When recruiting tenants, Ehrenberg has said, the Yard’s management makes its choices partly cased on “jobs per square foot.”

All told, the Yard is in the midst of a $1 billion expansion, its largest since WWII, which will add more than 2 million sq. ft. of space and 10,000 new jobs by 2020, more than doubling employment there to more than 17,000 jobs.

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.