Cover Feature

Garment District Alliance Honors History With Big Button Sculpture

Photo courtesy of Alexandre Ayer/Diversity Pictures LLC

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Council Member Erik Bottcher, DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, SBS Commissioner Kevin D. Kim & more community members joined Garment District Alliance for a special ribbon-cutting ceremony

The Garment District Alliance (GDA) unveiled its new Big Button sculpture in the heart of the Garment District, on Seventh “Fashion” Avenue at 39th Street, replacing what had been an information kiosk with a new public art installation. The Big Button sculpture pays homage to the neighborhood’s storied history while using colors and materials that evoke the hustle and bustle of today’s modern Midtown Manhattan neighborhood.

Like its namesake industry, the Garment District has played an important part in shaping New York City into what it is today. Driven by the grit and entrepreneurship of immigrant workers who came to New York in waves throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the garment industry became the backbone of the city’s industrial labor force. When the Garment District neighborhood was established in the 1920s as a dedicated home for the industry, overcoming immigrant discrimination and inhumane working conditions, the area quickly skyrocketed to become the beating heart of the apparel world. Today, the Garment District remains the home of American fashion, as well as other entrepreneurial industries that help to fuel the creative energy of the neighborhood.

Celebrating this neighborhood with the Big Button sculpture, the GDA marked the momentous occasion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, which featured music by Diverse Concert Artists. New York City leaders and members of the Garment District community gathered for the event, including Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Council Member Erik Bottcher, New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Kevin D. Kim, President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) CaSandra Diggs and President of the Kaufman Organization and Vice Chairman of the Garment District Alliance Board of Directors Steve Kaufman.

“We’re thrilled to unveil the newly designed Big Button sculpture, which sits prominently in the heart of our neighborhood and serves as a welcoming symbol of the Garment District for New Yorkers and visitors,” said Barbara A. Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance. “This is a significant moment for the Garment District, and I’m so proud to celebrate this incredible public art installation with the community and the individuals who helped bring this new vision to life.”

Designed by Local Projects and Urban Art Projects (UAP) the new version of the Big Button is supported by a “thread” element that further articulates its pop-art concept. The sculpture is 28 feet tall with a 15-foot diameter aluminum button and 32-foot brushed stainless-steel needle, creating a dynamic experience for pedestrians, while improving sight lines and enhancing pedestrian flow on Seventh Avenue.

An original kiosk structure was removed to make way for the new sculpture. Built in the 1970s through a public-private fashion industry initiative, the kiosk operated as an industry information center for over a decade. Like the new sculpture, the kiosk lived in the public and private realms, sitting partially on the city sidewalk and partially on the Seventh Avenue plaza of 1411 Broadway, which today is managed by Hines.

When the Garment District Alliance was formed in 1993, it was given permission by the adjacent property and the City of New York to renovate the structure and rededicate its use as a business-to-business fashion industry resource center and information kiosk staffed by the BID. The renovation, which concluded in 1996, included the addition of a distinctive rooftop button and needle sculpture designed by James Biber, then of Pentagram Architects, which became an instant icon for the neighborhood.

“What is so gratifying is that the iconic Big Button remains, even as it changes color, changes support and even changes use,” said James Biber, principal of Biber Architects. “It has moved from a curiosity to a meaningful icon of the city, reminding us of a time when racks of clothing clogged the streets and the Garment District produced nearly ¾ of all women’s and children’s apparel in the United States. We are honored to have started a tradition, planting an iconic marker in the center of the Garment District. Symbols matter, history matters, and we hope that never changes.”

Twenty years later, in 2017, GDA engaged Local Projects, the experiential design firm, to explore content and design concepts for the kiosk’s future. Interviews and workshops were held with stakeholders, including GDA staff and board members, business owners, fashion industry professionals, landlords, city officials and representatives from Manhattan Community Board 5. Through this process, it was concluded that, while a physical kiosk was no longer necessary due to the growing ubiquity of personal mobile devices, the Big Button is a beloved neighborhood icon that should remain and be enhanced as a pop art sculpture and placemaking amenity. GDA intended to reuse the original sculpture, but structural damage made it necessary to fabricate a new Big Button, which created opportunities to explore a contemporary interpretation of the beloved classic, using new materials and colors.

“We want to encourage visitors to pause and be curious about the history of the neighborhood, so the new design contains nods to the district’s past, present and future. The magical thread draws its strength from the passion and ingenuity that form the fabric of our great city,” said Nathan Adkisson, creative director at Local Projects. With its similarity to the NYC taxicab, the button’s bright yellow feels at home amid the hustle and bustle of this busy midtown neighborhood. It is also reminiscent of the NYC subway icon which adds another layer of symbolism that references the history of this working neighborhood.

In 2018, GDA selected UAP, an international design-build firm that brings works of art to life in public spaces, to head the new sculpture design development and fabrication team that also included Technical Artistry on lighting, as well as Theta Structural Engineering Consulting and McLaren on engineering.

“UAP is proud to have been a guiding force in the reimagining of this iconic artwork,” said Susan Kosor, senior project manager at UAP. “After a five-year process – including design, engineering, fabrication and coordination with multiple city agencies and stakeholders – we are thrilled to see the freestanding, yellow button come to life.”

Hines welcomed the new installation and provided technical assistance and support to ensure the new sculpture would blend seamlessly with the plaza.

“For years, the Big Button structure marked the Garment District’s status as the fashion capital of the world. Hines is proud to play a part in making sure this symbol will be a permanent installation for future generations and is committed to implementing public art throughout its portfolio to create lively and inviting streetscapes,” said Jason Alderman, senior managing director and head of the New York office of Hines.

The Garment District Alliance also worked closely with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) throughout the development of the new Big Button.

“DOT is excited to celebrate the unveiling of the newly designed Big Button sculpture, an iconic symbol of the Garment District’s history,” said NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez. “We are proud to have worked closely with the Garment District on this elegant redesign of public space that will improve sight lines and enhance pedestrian flow and safety.”

The new Big Button sculpture is the Garment District’s first permanent public art installation. Previous temporary installations by the Garment District Alliance have included work by Chakaia Booker, Kang Muxiang, Del Geist and Patricia Leighton, among other prominent artists from around the world.

The Garment District is home to diverse business sectors from technology to hospitality and includes thousands of people working in the creative economy, including fine and performing artists, designers, architects, photographers and more than a hundred theaters, galleries, performance spaces and studios.