Mellány Sánchez Spotlights Garment Worker Stories During New York Fashion Week

Mellány Sánchez

It’s Fashion Week in New York, and despite all the hype around pop-ups, and runway shows, there is one show you must see by today, and that is Objects of Permanence, a ephemeral show at the Abrons Arts Center Underground Theater curated by creative director Mellány Sánchez.

Centered around the histories of Puerto Rican and migrant community labor forces in New York City’s garment industry, the show sees a different side of the industry, and drills into the trajectory of workers' often overlooked narratives.

It invites Emily Adams Bode Aujla from BODE; Christopher John Rogers; Tremaine Emory from Denim Tears; Elena Velez; Kim Shui; Rio Uribe from Gypsy Sport; Procell; Bárbara Sánchez-Kane from Sánchez-Kane; Willy Chavarria; and Maria Cornejo from Zero + Maria Cornejo to create imagined artifacts for an archive devoted to the life of a garment worker.

Sánchez talks us through the show in full detail. Objects of Permanence is on view through today, September 14, 2023. This installation marks the first collaboration between LES cultural institutions, the Tenement Museum and Abrons Arts Center.

Courtesy of Abrons Art Center

Q. What was the selection process like for choosing the artists/seamstress in the show?

The artists, past and current garment workers and contributors at large were all chosen because of their relationship to the story being told regarding the history of the Lower East Side neighborhood, migrant changemakers and community leaders, domestic manufacturing and local production, as well as those who also use garments and objects and conduits to tell stories.

Q. Have they shown in a gallery space before?

Most contributors featured are being shown in an exhibition and arts space for the first time.

Q. How's it feel to bring so many artists to the center to show for the first time?

It is an honor to create a space in a valued New York City institution like Abrons Arts Center and co-present it with Tenement Museum to honor the incredible legacies of migrant garment workers who contributed to the development of our city as one of the world's fashion capitals. There are so many stories to tell and we captured a vignette, but as people have come to see the exhibition, we know this story is much larger and reaches a much larger audience than we ever thought possible.

Q. How did this idea come about? What were the initial thoughts?

The Lower East Side has had a significant role in establishing New York City as one of the world’s fashion capitals. Beginning in the mid 19th century, the neighborhood was an industrial hub for apparel manufacturing and a home to immigrant and migrant communities that worked in the garment industry. Post World War II, Puerto Ricans–many skillful in the sewing and needle trade–moved to this diverse neighborhood and acquired unionized garment factory jobs. Ramonita Saez Velez (1928–2013) was one such Lower East Side resident, seamstress, and matriarch, a figure whose innate style and community leadership drives Objects of Permanence, an exhibition celebrating garment industry trailblazers.

Ramonita’s storied possessions, on loan from the Tenement Museum’s exhibition The Saez Velez Family, inspired the assemblage of artifacts–historied and imagined–that explore garment worker stories. This exhibition features belongings collected from labor activists, mid 20th century garment workers, and historians which affirm the narrative value of tokens acquired and inherited; contributions from contemporary fashion designers that explore their roles as storytellers and examine the threads between artistry and domestic manufacturing; and commissioned works from Lower East Side archivists, videographers, and vintage collectors that provide frames through which to view the preservation of community stories.