There is an extravaganza of cleanliness to be found just behind an unmarked door in a corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
This is the home of Kingbridge’s massive new cleaning facility, which opened in January 2020. It’s where a fastidious, highly labor-intensive process takes place, one Mr. Aviles believes is necessary for clothing to be cleaned properly.
He learned the trade when he was 5 years old, when his mother, Victoria — who still helps run the decades-old family business — dressed him in a suit and brought him to work on Saturdays. He offered customers hot chocolate in the winter and lemonade in the summer, and soon learned to press shirts himself.
Today, workers pile dirty shirts — undignified with their faded collars, chipped buttons and sweat stains — in an enormous bin to be manually sorted by color and condition. They then tuck them into a massive wet or dry cleaning machine, or hand-clean them if the situation is dire.
Each garment is then inspected to ensure it doesn’t need a second cleaning. If all is well, workers whisk shirts into a loudly droning dryer, set up next to enormous exhaust fans that funnel out the steam. If the machine detects a risk of shrinkage, it will abruptly stop itself and fling its door open to let in cooler air.
An employee and a machine then work in concert to ensure that each shirt’s collar is ironed and cuffs are pressed. The machine rotates shirts out every few seconds, in a perfectly-timed waltz. Hot air is blasted through the shirt’s sleeves, giving the impression, for a few seconds, that it has burst to life.
Two workers next inspect each garment and use hand irons suspended on ropes from the ceiling to address any remaining creases. Another employee, known as a packager, tucks plastic fasteners under the collar to keep it stiff, wraps the shirt around a hanger and then drapes it in a garment cover, which Mr. Aviles hopes customers keep on to prevent dust from accumulating.
None of that comes cheap.
The professional upkeep of clothing was one of the first things to go when the pandemic hit and most New Yorkers were suddenly sequestered in their apartments. Practically overnight, Kingbridge Cleaners & Tailors saw its business plummet, dropping 93 percent from the previous year.
Mr. Aviles didn’t take a salary for about two years when the whole industry essentially shut down. Kingbridge’s sales are still about 15 percent lower than they were in 2019, he said, as many office workers spend at least part of the week in sweatshirts instead of suits.
Running a cleaning business in 2023, he said, means that “even though we’re not making money, if we can break even, then we’re staying ahead of the game.”
He tries to maintain that optimism even when a customer complains about a stubborn stain and he grants a discount or refund.
He sees cleaners around him going out of business by keeping their prices the same for years and losing too much money too quickly. Still, Mr. Aviles has been careful not to raise his prices too much: A laundered shirt costs the customer about 10 percent more today than it did before the pandemic.
For Mr. Aviles, it’s easy to feel wistful for the days when working New Yorkers might visit their cleaners once a week or more. He knows money is tight, and keeping clothes perfectly cleaned and pressed is not always a top priority. But he wants his neighbors to know that it’s worth it to keep their closets looking fresh.
“It’s less expensive to maintain your wardrobe, and do it properly,” he said, “than to go out and buy disposable fashion.”
Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrew Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development by Gabriel Gianordoli and Aliza Aufrichtig.