Written by: Nicole Lau
Photography by: Elisa Deljanin Padula
Janet Rodriguez’s main concern is economic equity. For her, it is a personal issue. As a born and raised New Yorker, every neighborhood Janet has lived in has been gentrified, starting with Lincoln Center. It was a neighborhood once called San Juan Hill that was known for its lively jazz joints and the filming of West Side Story. She moved to Williamsburg, “when it was an awful place to be poor,” before it became the cultural oasis it is today. In the 1960s, she moved to the working-class neighborhood of East Harlem then to West Harlem where she currently resides.
Redevelopment never truly benefits the people with roots in the community. They might get jobs in maintenance or entry level positions in the service sector but entrepreneurs of color who are long term residents of the community do not experience economic gains from their neighborhood’s rising value. The increasing rents and economic distress result in business closures and discourage entrepreneurs from starting new businesses.
Janet knows that redevelopment is inevitable, but what she can change is the narrative around it by being a part of it in a thoughtful way. She responded by creating SoHarlem, an incubator that provides creative micro enterprises with space, a workforce, and guidance.
TAILORED FOR THE COMMUNITY
SoHarlem’s mission in the simplest terms is to support racial equity and the economic development of the Harlem community. However, the work they do is anything but simple.
Janet believes that the days of starting a fashion house with your own studio, staff, and equipment is no longer feasible because of the high costs. SoHarlem mitigates the financial burden by encouraging the sharing of resources, costs, and expertise. The five Designers in Residence who are part of the Designer’s Studio program have access to SoHarlem’s facilities and services. During their stay, the designers build their collections from sketch to construction.
As part of Designer’s Studio, the Designers in Residence participate in the Made to Measure program, offering custom-made couture designs to the public because the clothes on the racks of department stores don’t accommodate different body types. The Designers in Residence create custom pieces for special occasions- weddings, galas, graduations, anniversaries, and everyday wear such as work pants, for people who can’t find their size in a retail store. The program is unique because most factories only work business to business. The Made to Measure program allows SoHarlem to provide a direct to consumer service which also helps increase their earned income.
However, SoHarlem is more than an incubator and manufacturing facility. Janet’s decision to establish SoHarlem as a nonprofit exemplifies her vision for transforming the manufacturing model while cultivating a workforce pipeline of seamstresses and pattern makers to sustain the fashion industry for future generations of creatives.
SoHarlem developed a 12 week Garment Construction Training program for students to learn fabric sourcing, sewing, draping, garment construction, and stitch embroidery from seasoned tailors, pattern-makers, and seamstresses. After completing the 12 week course, top trainees have the opportunity to participate in a yearlong Design Studio Apprenticeship to support the projects coming from the Made to Measure program.
One of the instructors who works with the trainees is Henry Smith. Henry specializes in men’s tailoring and works on costumes for Broadway shows. Last summer, he designed the suits for The Iceman Cometh. Since joining SoHarlem, Henry has been an important figure in the organization’s growth. More recently, young men of color have taken an interest in garment construction. Seeing another man of color working in the industry is a great role model for the aspiring designers.
How people learn of SoHarlem and become involved in the organization- whether as a student wanting to explore a career as a seamstress, an industry veteran eager to pass along her skills, an emerging designer in need of a tech pack, or a client looking for a custom piece- comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes it is through Janet’s network, the relationships she established from her career in the Arts, or publicity from public programs such as literary salons that SoHarlem hosts on their floor. But other times, it through a more organic, grassroots approach. A seamstress who has worked in the Garment District for 20 or 30 years start teaching for the first time and loves it so much that she tells someone else and that person knows another person, producing a snowball effect. People walking on the street see SoHarlem’s window display, ring their bell, and are welcomed into their workspace.
SoHarlem embodies what a true community organization is: Open, inclusive, and working towards fulfilling their neighborhood’s needs and aspirations.
A CHAMPION FOR THE ARTS
“I was trained as an artist but I acknowledged early in life that I was not ever going to survive as a painter,” says Janet. “But that did not mean I didn’t want to work in the arts.” Instead, Janet dedicated her career serving artists, championing and advocating for them.
In the 1980s, Columbia University started a new graduate program in arts administration which was interdisciplinary between Columbia School of the Arts, Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School, and the School of Journalism, exactly what is needed to run an arts organization. Janet was one of the 13 people accepted into the program out of 200. It was an opportunity to bring together the different aspects of the Arts she was interested in while providing her with the skills needed to launch her career. And her career took off.
She started working at, and eventually running, arts organizations including the Association of Hispanic Arts, Aaron Davis Hall, and the Whitney Museum. At the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, Janet did a feasibility study on the importance of the Schomburg having a Cultural Center. Three years later, the Culture Center was built and is now called the Langston Hughes Cultural Center. As a consultant for the New York Philharmonic, Janet worked on the Music Assistance Fund, a program designed to diversify orchestras in the country. She even headed to South Appalachia for two years to join the Kentucky Arts Council as the Program Director for the Arts and was responsible for managing the artist fellows.
Of all her remarkable work experiences, she credits the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as being the most influential in building SoHarlem. For 8 years, she was the arts and culture specialist but was also exposed to other focus areas that the Foundation funded, which were the environment, education, and animal welfare, because the head of the foundation at the time required staff to work across other specialties besides their own.
“It was a good way of working because you’re not siloed into thinking about just your world,” explains Janet. “It was a learning curve for me, learning all these new areas, but it really helped me when I started SoHarlem because I didn’t have the mindset of – ‘Oh I’m just going to work with a group of artists’- no, I’m going to be in a community that has other issues that I need to pay attention to. It prepared me for what I am doing now.”
THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOHARLEM
In 2004, Janet opened a shop around the corner from where she lived on St. Nicholas and 145th Street called Straight Out of Harlem. It was her creative outlet. Janet’s niece ran the shop during the week while Janet served as the Vice President of the JP Morgan Chase Global Philanthropy Group. During the five years it was in operation, she sold the work of more than 250 local, regional, and international artists from Africa and Central America who created functional and wearable art. It was a full shop that stocked home goods, accessories, and apparel items including quilts, jewelry, and one of a kind jackets. Straight Out of Harlem was more than a retail store, it addressed the broader needs of the community by producing public programs, exhibitions, and salons that explored contemporary issues.
Despite the shop becoming an integral part of the Harlem community, Janet kept wondering, “why am I buying stuff from other countries when we have [artisans] right here. We have so many artisans right here.”
One day, the Principle of Janus Property Company, a real estate developer focused on the creative redevelopment of properties in East, Central and West Harlem, stopped by the shop.
“He really fell in love with it. We spent a year talking about what he was trying to do in this district and how important he felt it was to include creatives, that whole piece of the world which is very much part of Harlem,” explains Janet.
Janet told the developer she wasn’t interested in opening another shop. While she learned a great deal from opening and operating a retail store, she admittedly didn’t think she was cut out for it. What she wanted was a place where people could make their own things and have more control over the production and the selling of their products.
When SoHarlem opened, they were an incubator that housed a variety of creative micro enterprises. They worked with women who were formerly incarcerated and taught them how to handcraft bags. The thousands of bags they created over two years were made from textiles donated by mills. There were jewelry makers, leather smiths, aromatherapists, and a fitness trainer who all shared space on the floor. SoHarlem eventually morphed into fashion because that was the biggest demand from the different artisans coming through the door.
A FUTURE FOR THE GARMENT INDUSTRY
Growing up, Janet’s mother would tell her, “don’t you dare become a seamstress,” because the pay was low and the work was laborious. Janet’s mother was a seamstress from the Dominican Republic and she worked in the Garment District her entire life making wedding and cocktail dresses. Her cautionary words were not uncommon to what most seamstresses told their kids. Sewing was just a job to help their children move up the economic ladder.
In the garment industry today, there is a shortage of seamstresses and pattern makers as the current workforce ages out without a younger generation filling their positions. While news articles describe New York City’s garment industry as a declining sector whose heyday has passed, Janet sees this as a real opportunity to change the mindset and culture of what it means to be in manufacturing.
“I could never be a seamstress because I don’t have the patience,” says Janet. “I do think it takes a very special person that has the patience and the dexterity to work at a sewing machine. It is a skill, a really high skill, that should be compensated as such.”
It comes down to education: Educating the public to why a garment made at SoHarlem is priced higher than fast fashion companies. The association that the public often makes between garment work and the sweatshop needs to change. It also requires educating the younger generation of the opportunities in the garment trade.
“You have to acknowledge that not everyone is going to college. Some people want to work with their hands and they don’t know that this is an option,” says Janet. “I don’t think people are exposed to it because we’ve been so removed from manufacturing.”
For Janet, helping people realize their dreams and working with young people who are filled with so much hope has been the most rewarding aspect of running SoHarlem, “especially when you are a little older and jaded like me,” adds Janet.
Those are the moments when Janet tells herself, this is why I do this.