Friday, May 24

Because cleaning this shirt costs $6 in New York City

There’s an extravagant level of cleanliness just behind an unmarked door in a corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

This is the home of Kingbridge’s huge new cleaning facility, which opened in January 2020. This is where a meticulous, labour-intensive process takes place, which Aviles says is necessary for clothes to be cleaned properly.

He learned the trade when he was 5, when his mother Victoria, who still helps run the decades-old family business, dressed him in a suit and took him to work on Saturdays. He offered customers hot chocolate in the winter and lemonade in the summer, and soon learned to iron his own shirts.

Today, workers pile dirty shirts – undignified with faded collars, chipped buttons and sweat stains – into a huge bin to be manually sorted by color and condition. Then they pop them in a wet or dry washer or clean them by hand if the situation is dire.

Each item is then inspected to ensure it does not require a second cleaning. If all goes well, workers place the shirts in a loudly whirring dryer, positioned next to giant exhaust fans that funnel the steam. If the machine detects a risk of shrinkage, it will suddenly stop and throw open the door to let in cooler air.

An employee and a machine then work in concert to ensure that each shirt’s collar is pressed and that the cuffs are ironed. The machine rotates the shirts every few seconds, in a perfectly synchronized waltz. The hot air is blown through the sleeves of the t-shirt giving, for a few seconds, the impression that it has come to life.

Two workers then inspect each garment and use irons suspended on strings from the ceiling to remove any remaining creases. Another employee, known as a packer, tucks plastic fasteners under the collar to keep it rigid, wraps the shirt around a hanger and then wraps it in a clothing cover, which Mr. Aviles hopes customers keep on to avoid the dust accumulation.

None of this is cheap.

Professional clothing maintenance was one of the first things to do when the pandemic hit and most New Yorkers were suddenly sequestered in their apartments. Virtually overnight, Kingbridge Cleaners & Tailors saw its business collapse, down 93% from the previous year.

Mr. Aviles didn’t take a salary for about two years, when the entire industry basically shut down. Kingbridge’s sales are still about 15% lower than 2019, he said, as many office workers spend at least part of the week in sweatshirts rather than suits.

Running a cleaning business in 2023, he said, means that “even if we’re not making money, if we can break even, then we’ll stay ahead.”

Try to maintain that optimism even when a customer complains about a stubborn stain and he gives you a discount or refund.

He sees cleaners around him go bankrupt by keeping prices the same for years and losing too much money too quickly. However, Mr Aviles was careful not to raise prices too much: a washed shirt costs the customer about 10% more today than before the pandemic.

For Mr. Aviles, it’s easy to feel wistful for the days when working New Yorkers visited the cleaner once a week or more. He knows that money is tight and that keeping clothes perfectly clean and ironed isn’t always a top priority. But he wants those close to him to know that it’s worth keeping their closets fresh.

“It’s less expensive to maintain your wardrobe, and do it properly,” she said, “than to go out and buy disposable fashion.”

Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrea Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development of Gabriele Gianordoli AND Aliza Aufrichtig.