Why it costs $6 to clean this shirt in New York

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

This is where the huge new Kingbridge cleaning facility is located, which opened in January 2020. This is where a tedious and labor-intensive process takes place, which Mr Aviles considers it necessary for clothes to be properly cleaned.

He learned the trade at age 5, when his mother, Victoria — who still helps run the decades-old family business — dressed him in a suit and took him to work the Saturday. He offers his customers hot chocolate in winter and lemonade in summer and quickly learns to iron shirts himself.

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

Each garment is then inspected to ensure it does not need a second cleaning. If all goes well, workers transport the shirts to a noisy dryer, set up next to giant exhaust fans that blow away the steam. If the machine detects a risk of shrinkage, it will suddenly stop and open its door to let in cooler air.

An employee and a machine then work together to ensure that the collar of each shirt is ironed and the cuffs are ironed. The machine spins the shirts every few seconds, in a perfectly synchronized waltz. Hot air is blown through the sleeves of the shirt, making it seem, for a few seconds, like it has come to life.

Two workers then inspect each garment and use hand irons suspended from ropes from the ceiling to remove any remaining wrinkles. Another employee, known as a packer, slips plastic ties under the collar to hold it rigid, wraps the shirt around a hanger then drapes it in a cover that Mr. Aviles hopes customers will keep to keep dust from getting. ‘accumulate.

None of this is cheap.

Professional clothing care was one of the first things to go when the pandemic hit and most New Yorkers were suddenly sequestered in their apartments. Virtually overnight, Kingbridge Cleaners & Tailors saw its business plummet, falling 93 percent from the previous year.

Mr. Aviles didn’t take a salary for about two years when the entire industry virtually shut down. Kingbridge’s sales are still about 15% lower than in 2019, he said, because 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 don’t make money, if we can break even, we’re staying ahead of the curve.”

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

He sees the cleaning companies around him going bankrupt by keeping their prices the same for years and losing too much money too quickly. Nevertheless, Mr. Aviles has been careful not to raise his prices too much: a washed shirt now costs the customer about 10% more than before the pandemic.

For Mr. Aviles, it’s easy to feel nostalgic about the days when working New Yorkers went to their cleaners once a week or more. He knows money is tight and keeping clothes perfectly clean and ironed isn’t always a top priority. But he wants his neighbors to know it’s worth it to keep their closets fresh.

“It’s cheaper to maintain your wardrobe and do it properly,” he said, “than to go out and buy disposable clothes.”

Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrew Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development by Gabriel Gianordoli And Aliza Aufrichtig.