The inside of One to 13 studios in Midtown might be any fashion enthusiast's dream. The large studio is packed with dresses, shirts and skirts, each draped over anything that can support it until a pair of hands can take over. Around 15 women are spread across the large room, eyeballing every piece of fabric they touch. Some are looping the delicate material into a sewing machine. Others are cutting pieces down to the perfect length. Attention to detail is critical: the final results might be seen on a red carpet or an A-list celebrity.
“This is a very difficult job,” Nay Huang, the studio’s general manager, told Gothamist. The technique is unique, she explained. “You need, like, over five years or 10 years experience to learn this skill.”
The women making the garments aren’t the designers – but they are the ones who make the sketches on paper reality. Huang and seven other women patternmakers have just been featured in “Invisible Seams,” a short documentary about their patternmaking skills. The film, released on Vimeo in May, was directed by documentary filmmaker Jia Li and produced by Jodie Chan, vice president of marketing and communications at fashion label Carolina Herrera.
During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City saw an uptick in violence against Asian people. One figure from the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force shows the number of anti-Asian incidents reported in the subway alone increased by 233% from 2020 to 2021. “Invisible Seams,” which shows how eight women who work in the garment district build community through their shared experiences, is one example among a wave of Asian artists who are responding by bringing to light real stories of resilience.
“I've noticed that a lot of people love to talk about the models and the designers and the glamorous part of the industry,” Chan said. “But often, you know, we don't really talk about the people who are actually making the clothes.”
“I think there's the misnomer that people behind the scenes are just sort of like minions, doing the work, and that all the creativity is like these designers," she said. "When, in actuality, that process is both sort of front of house and back of house.”
Chan had never made a film before, but said that after the shooting spree at three Atlanta spas in 2021, in which six Asian women were killed, she felt frustrated, sad, and hurt – and wanted to turn her anguish into action. Then she discovered “Spicy Village,” the documentary Li directed about a Chinatown noodle shop fighting to stay open during the pandemic. Chan reached out to Li about creating something similar about the fashion industry.
“When we think about ateliers in fashion, we often think about the people in Paris, and it's this very romanticized vision of fashion creation," Chan said. "But when we talk about Asian seamstresses, there's often this cliche of sweatshops and cheap labor, and the ladies that I work with are just as good as the European counterparts.”
Chan and Li said the perseverance the women displayed in coming to work each day during a pandemic, and during a time when it felt unsafe for Asian people, inspired them to continue making the film over a 16-month period.
“What really drew me to these women is they work in the garment district here — which is in Midtown Manhattan, where a lot of these crimes or violence has been happening — and they have to go to work every day,” Li said. “It's one of the first questions I've asked each of these women. And they all have different responses. Some of them are more affected than others. It's interesting to me how everyone sort of deals with it.”
That threat of violence continues to be a fact of life for these women and others like them. In June, a Florida woman allegedly attacked four Asian women in Manhattan with pepper spray and yelled racist comments at them. That woman was indicted on hate crime charges in July.
Chan and Li say they created their short film to make the point that the Asian community is populated by real stories, and not just gruesome news headlines.
“People don't see Asian women,” Chan said. “They find them invisible. They don't know their stories. They don't know their lives, and therefore they think it's okay to push them aside in the subway or spit at them, or spew racist hate at them. Part of the objective of this film is to show people who they are and the fact that they have passions, they have families, and they have their own stories.”
They aren’t the only ones producing work that elevates everyday people. Artist Bianca Romero, who is half Korean, has been fighting to literally take up space and attract awareness with her large-scale murals. She was born and raised in New York City, and said that when she began seeing stories about attacks targeting Asian women, she couldn’t stand by.
By making murals, Romero said, “you're taking up space, you're making a statement, that's very public. I just felt like I had to do something.”
Her best known work – “Spread Love, Stop Asian Hate” – hovers on the side of a Chinese Church on Delancey and Eldridge.The mural depicts real people that Romero has encountered in her life, each holding a bouquet of flowers. The process of spearheading a large, politically driven piece wasn’t easy, she explained.
“Honestly, a lot of curators literally told me they don't have space for that,” Romero said. “They don't want anything political. And the sad thing, too, is that a lot of Asian business owners didn't want anything that would draw attention to them. It's just very, very deeply ingrained in the culture, which is why I felt like I needed to do something to kind of break that cycle.”
“I can't imagine being a kid right now, feeling not safe and feeling not seen or not heard,” Romero said. “So I just started searching for a wall to create this mural.”
Li, Chan, and Romero all say they know making art won’t completely change everything. But they see it as a first step in creating space for empathy.
“We've seen a lot of responses online about ‘thank you for highlighting this,’” Li said. “‘Thank you for talking about this — we have so many relatives or mothers who have worked in the garment industry that I've never had anything made about them.’”