Refugee risks everything on NYC’s garment industry — one $350 sweatshirt at a time

By | November 13, 2020

An Eritrean refugee is again risking everything for a new future — launching a casual street wear line with a “Made in New York” guarantee.

“Hopefully this galvanizes people and inspires others to make clothing right here in New York,” said designer Áwet Woldegebriel, who has invested his life savings in a high-priced brand that debuts at a pop-up shop on Lafayette Street in Soho on Saturday.

Woldegebriel, 28, sought U.S. asylum from the oppressive Eritrean regime in 2000 and moved to Manhattan four years ago. He moonlights as a fashion designer while holding a day job as officer of philanthropy at the United Nations.

Memories of his father working as a tailor in his war-torn home country spurred his new passion.

“I have a special place in my heart for people in the garment industry because of my father,” said Woldegebriel.

He named his brand “Awet” for the same reason that he himself was given that name by his tailor father.

Áwet means victory in his native language, Tigrinya, and Woldegebriel was born the same month his homeland gained independence.

He’s hoping his new line will be a win not only for him, but for the local garment industry and its workers, who have struggled to remain in New York despite the pandemic.

“One thing I know about New Yorkers and people in the garment industry, they’re victorious,” he explained of the name.

The U.N. worker has teamed up with two local garment manufacturers, including Apparel Production Inc. on E 39th Street, which opened its doors in 1949.

On a recent tour of Apparel Production’s factory, some two-dozen workers labored over the hum of sewing machine.

There are now 40 workers employed there, compared to the 1970s payroll of over 100.

But CEO Teddy Sadaka believes local brands can help revive the garment industry.

“We need clients like [Woldegebriel] to survive,” said Sadaka.

“It’s a struggle. Every day is a challenge because more brands decide to go overseas to get more markup and you’re dead,” he said.

Sadaka acknowledged that local production can’t compete on price with cheap, often exploitative overseas labor.

“It’s a shame that I have to admit that I don’t know where the future lies,” he said.

“We need commitment from brands and consumers to support it.”

The Áwet line will also use locally-made packaging, boxes, stickers, tissue paper and environmentally-friendly garment bags.

The gear will also have tags that say “Made in New York” — along with its steep ticket prices.

Black cozy sweatpants and sweatshirts embroidered with the words “Áwet” will retail for over $ 350 at 199 Lafayette Street on Saturday.

Woldegebriel hopes the eye-popping price tag won’t deter potential buyers.

“It’s about the pride of New Yorkers and I hope people realize this is about continuing this amazing tradition in New York,” Woldegebriel said.

“More than about creating a brand, it’s about creating a movement,” he said.

“The minute these institutions are gone then this brand will be gone as well.”

He said a portion of the proceeds will go towards helping people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Living | New York Post