6 New Yorkers On 9/11 And Fashion's Resiliency 20 Years Later

A look back on the anniversary.

Originally Published: 
Collage of Victor Glemaud, Aya Kanai, and JoAni Johnson

On the morning of September 11, 2001, New York City’s fashion industry woke up ready for a day of runway shows and star-studded parties. Instead, by 8:46 a.m., it found itself bearing witness to horrific tragedy as the first of two planes struck the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, followed by a second shortly thereafter. The terrorist attacks, which left 2,977 people dead, altered life as it was previously known and left the city a different — though no less resilient — place.

Communities banded together to support their grieving neighbors, businesses were buoyed by the loyalty of locals, and slowly, the city regained its footing.

New York Fashion Week even resumed the following week — albeit somberly, with quiet showroom presentations taking the place of splashy runway festivities. In a show of solidarity, Carolina Herrera opened her headquarters for nearly a dozen up-and-coming designers to show their collections, with several of the names — Rebecca Taylor, Peter Som, Maria Cornejo — going on to build celebrated labels in the years following.

Below, read the accounts of six longtime New Yorkers in the fashion industry about their memories of 9/11 and the strength, determination, and spirit of the communities that helped the city rebuild.

Victor Glemaud, Designer

“I remember it very, very, very vividly because it was Fashion Week and I was working for [the public relations firm] KCD. The night before was the Marc Jacobs show and it looked like it was going to storm all day long. We were like, ‘Is the show going to happen?’ It was on a pier on 14th Street. Eventually, the skies opened up, and then it was beautiful and the show ended up happening. The next morning, I was going back to the office in a taxi and my mother calls me and she's like, 'Where are you?' And I said, 'I'm late to go to work.' And she said, 'Something hit the World Trade Center. I want to see where you are.' I was like, 'Oh no, no. I'm fine. It's not a problem.' And then I crossed Sixth Avenue and looked down and I could see smoke. And by the time I get to the office, the second [plane had hit] and people were outside, people were crying. I think we understood what was going on.

KCD at the time was in the Milk building on 14th street and we could look to the Twin Towers and we saw them falling. And then the phone lines went dead. Eventually, I used a payphone to get in contact with my mother, and the next morning, I walked from my apartment [in the East Village] to my family's house in Queens. I was like, ‘I need to just not be alone.’

I still own all the pieces that I was wearing: black Converse sneakers, a black Kostas Murkudis t-shirt, black trousers — I still own everything. I wear the trousers occasionally, because I can still fit into them. And those sneakers I've never gotten rid of. They still have mud on them. I'm not a nostalgic or sentimental person when it comes to clothes — I don't really keep things — but those I still own. They’re very much a marker in time.

I just think about the fashion community and how people supported one another in small ways. Smaller brands banded together to figure things out. Larger brands offered showrooms and space and other things. It was people who professionally are competitive, but when a catastrophe happens, we came together and that was really unique and special.

I just remember everyone checking in on other people as news spread of family members and firefighters and other service people who passed away or who became ill shortly thereafter. It was several years of living in the aftermath of that. It was hard. It was extremely hard, actually. But there’s that phrase, ‘New York Tough.’

To me, New York is about creating something. And what you put into it, sometimes, is what you get out of it. It is a very hard city to live in. It's not easy. But I like the pace. I like how I can create and come up with something, whether it's a collection or business idea, and you can make things happen in New York.”

Eva Zuckerman, Creative Director & Co-Founder Of Eva Fehren

“It is hard to forget 9/11 and the feelings I had that day. I was a freshman in college, and it was my first week at The Cooper Union. I was in my dorm on Third Avenue, and I remember hearing my now-husband Dimitri (then my new college BFF) telling my roommates not to wake me — that I would be too upset. I jumped out of bed and looked out my window and saw the second plane crash into the towers. Our college dorm had an unobstructed view of the Twin Towers, and I remember feeling like the world was ending as I watched my home being attacked.

None of our phones worked, and I started wandering the streets in tears desperately trying to reach my family. Strangers reached out, lending support and offering their phones so that we could make calls to our loved ones. I gathered all of my friends, most of them 18-year-old newcomers to New York City, and we walked to the safest place I could think of: my house on Bank Street in the West Village. My mother took in a dozen college students and comforted us as we tried to make sense of what had happened.

As traumatic as the experience was, I was struck by the kindness of New Yorkers. In the weeks that passed, people joined together to offer help and emotional support. I remember feeling like everyone I passed on the street was a friend, offering a loving glance and feeling like we were all quietly telling each other, ‘It will be ok. We are in this together.’

9/11 was my first experience wearing a mask all day, every day. Because of our proximity to the towers, we were required to cover our faces for a few weeks after that horrible day. I remember praying that the worst was behind us as we made our way back to classes and tried to settle into what should have been a time of excitement and learning.

I was blown away by the passion and bravery of the front-line workers during 9/11. I felt embraced by my community, not only the students and teachers that I was surrounded by, but felt so much love from other New Yorkers. People congregated at Union Square for a prayer vigil a few days after 9/11, and we all held each other and cried. The collective hope and sadness were powerful. It was a time to spread warmth and compassion and band together in strength.

I know that people from New York get a bad rap for their toughness and attitude, but the people I encountered in the weeks after 9/11 were filled with resilience, love, compassion, and kindness. I feel proud to be part of this community, to be born and raised here, and my love for NYC has only grown over the years as a result.

[When the pandemic hit the city last spring,] there was an eerie familiarity about the weeks that followed the shutdown. Our neighbors pulled together and supported the frontline workers, and I felt part of a community that really stood by one another. There was also a hollow emptiness to the streets, and the feeling of the unknown was palpable in the same way. During the shutdown and 9/11, I found myself wandering the desolate streets thinking ‘I love you, New York.’”

Jennifer Gandia, Co-Owner Of Greenwich St. Jewelers

“My parents opened the store in 1976, so they had just celebrated 25 years at the original location, [one block south of the World Trade Center], right before the attacks on 9/11. When I was a kid, I used to come and work in the store on summer breaks or Christmas breaks, and I always loved coming to this neighborhood because it was so vibrant at the time. Obviously, you had the towers, but it was the finance district so banks and insurance companies and lots of really big corporations had their headquarters down here. And what you had on the ground was an ecosystem of small businesses, everything from retail to dry cleaners and repairmen and tons of restaurants. There were no chain stores or chain restaurants, really. One of my favorite things to do then was go into the Trade Center on errands because they had a mall in the basement and I wanted to peek around. It just felt like home to me.

My sister and I took over the business from our parents about a decade ago, and we probably wouldn't have done that if it weren't for 9/11. After the attacks, the store was closed for 10 months, and once they reopened, the neighborhood was still incredibly desolate. Ground Zero was an open site for many years so the first five years were really critical and very lean. I had been working for NARS as their PR manager, but I thought I would come and help my parents for a little while and help them get back on their feet.

When my parents had the business before the attacks, you had enough clientele in a 10-block radius to run a business, but afterward, that wasn't true any longer. So we were forced to really embrace things that we hadn't considered before. We were one of the first independent jewelers in the country to have a website up, and we did e-comm really early. We started digital marketing when it was so cheap and nobody was doing it. It was adapt or die, and we wanted to survive, we wanted to keep going.

When my parents opened the store, they were young kids — they were in their 20s and they decided to really take a big risk. They're Puerto Rican immigrants and they opened this tiny little store in this neighborhood that they thought could help them build a better life. [After 9/11], they just thought, 'We want to stay in the neighborhood that's been so good to us.' And I think that time was kind of a rude awakening that we were not coming back to the same neighborhood.

But one of the things that I can say about our family is that we are definitely survivors. Immigrants and immigrant families just keep going, and so we didn't stop to think, ‘Have we make a mistake? Should we try to get out of the neighborhood and go somewhere else?' We thought, 'Ok, we've just got to make this work. What do we need to do to make this work? And that's what we did. My sister came with her finance expertise, I had marketing, my father was a master jeweler. We never thought about leaving. We always felt like this neighborhood was home, and you don't leave your home. You stay and you make it work — and that's what we did and that's what we've been doing for the past 20 years.”

Aya Kanai, Head Of Content & Creator Partnerships At Pinterest

“I graduated college in 2000 and spent the year after that traveling around the U.S. and Canada in an Airstream trailer that some friends and I had converted for a sort of international art book project. On September 11, we were in Ohio, and when I woke up and heard the news, I quickly was trying to figure out how to get back to New York. I’m born and raised in New York City, so my parents were there. They had a landline, so their house had sort of become this switchboard where all of our friends and family would call their house in order to get in touch with other people and make sure that their loved ones were ok.

At a certain point I got on a train and was able to make it back to New York City. I remember very vividly riding into Grand Central Station and being in this train car by myself and being super scared, but I knew that I needed to get back to where my family was. It just so happened that my family was in the place where nobody wanted to be.

My boyfriend at the time lived on Sixth Avenue in the West Village, and everyone was standing in the middle of the street, and you could see directly downtown to all the events that were occurring. It was an extremely traumatic time.

I think that it was a catalyzing force for me to start thinking about, 'Ok, what do I really see as this next chapter of my life?' Because so many people tragically lost family members and it was a horrible day for New Yorkers and around the world. As a young person, I remember taking it as a moment to reassess what I was going to use my time in the world for.

As a young person growing up in New York, I was in and out of museums and parks. All of the cultural offerings that New York has were very much woven into my childhood. So, to me, it's natural for me to want to give that to [my daughter] as well. Professionally and personally, this idea of being in a place that provides so much inspiration has always made sense to me.

At the end of the day, the people who work in the fashion industry are really a small handful of people and I think that we all acknowledge that we're really lucky to work in this industry that is this weaving together of business and culture and creativity. And so I think that when moments like that happen, supporting each other through it becomes really apparent.”

Edie Machinist, Owner Of Vintage Store Edith Machinist

“September 11 happened when I was a senior in college, and it definitely had a major impact on my life. A lot of my fellow friends and students fled the city after they graduated, but some of us felt more [attached] to the city than ever before. You wanted to wrap your arms around this wounded city. I opened [my store, Edith Machinist] in the summer after 9/11 and downtown was a very fragile place at that time, there were a lot of empty storefronts. A lot of people had left. It was a very morose time in the city. I think it's hard for younger people to imagine, but it was a very sad time. And I wanted to be part of the reemerging, thriving, creative downtown in my own small way — that was one of the impetuses for opening.

I think a lot of people my age never thought we would see the city in that kind of place again. I always thought that would be the nadir of what I would see the city experience. But I ​​think in some ways, this pandemic has eclipsed 9/11, just in terms of the death toll and the economic devastation. I am struck by talking to people who lived through that period that a lot of those feelings that maybe we buried or hadn't processed from that period after 9/11 resurfaced during the pandemic of this last year and a half.

In much the same way, during the pandemic, a lot of people fled, but a lot of people also hunkered down and had that reaction of wanting to wrap their arms around the city. Much like there was after 9/11, there is an opportunity to rebuild and what excites me is there is a lot of entrepreneurship that's coming out of this pandemic period.

I think the resiliency and the need to rebuild is very much a part of the DNA of New York. And I do think there will be a place for physical brick-and-mortar going forward. New York is very unique in the States in that it's a walking city. A lot of people don't have cars, and so you wander, you explore, you find an interesting place to dive in or take a peek. You have this organic experience, and that's sort of the magic of New York. I think people are reclaiming those rituals of walking around and exploring and diving into places [as the city has reopened].

Sometimes I’ve thought, ‘Oh, if I had a business somewhere else, it would be so much easier.’ But having a business in New York, it makes you a strong business owner. My customers are very stylish, they know what they like, and they're not afraid to share their opinion. It really forces you to do your best and have the best line-up and be tight. The people that walk through the door are the best of the best. It’s stimulating in that way.”

JoAni Johnson, Model, Jewelry Designer, & Tea Blender

“September 11th, 2001 shook the foundation of our country. The events unearthed our vulnerability. As the smoke pervaded our air the sadness invaded our hearts. Our sense of security as a city and as a nation was brought into a distressing reality. Within a matter of minutes, we lost family, friends, coworkers, and clients. Our city came to a grinding halt and its people, after shaking off shock and terror, sprang into action. We pulled together, this catastrophe affected us all, we became one. Those who could assist did — the essential workers, some of whom I knew personally; the sales rep, who was a volunteer firefighter and called to the site to assist in rescue and recovery; my sister, a respiratory therapist who made residence in the hospital for a week to assist the injured. Those who could not help physically aided in whatever way they could lend support emotionally or financially. The weeks that followed showed the toughness that makes New York a very special city.

This event was a poignant reminder of the deep roots I have embedded in the soil of my city and its people. Being one of the few remaining native New Yorkers, each area of the city holds special memories for me and a reminder to treasure time spent in those spaces and places. How does the city inspire me? How can one not be inspired! There has always been some happening in New York in every segment and industry. The arts — theatre, music, dance — fashion, tech, food, business. You can find your interest and find some of the best of what that interest has to offer. The city evolves, grows, and changes just as time introduces innovation and development. For example, when I was growing up, cell phones weren’t in existence. There were pay phones on street corners where you dialed phone numbers that you had committed to memory!

New York is a walking city — you can start at the north and walk to the south and be educated, informed, and surprised by the many charms each neighborhood has to offer. The parks, the architecture, stopping for sustenance, and finding a new foodie offering that can amaze you, it’s just special and rewarding.

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