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Last Wednesday morning, a small clique of New York’s reigning power players gathered in the Meatpacking District offices of Diane von Furstenberg for the type of breakfast meeting that shapes cities, literally and figuratively. Terry J. Lundgren of Macy’s and Lew Frankfort of Coach were there, along with Andrew Rosen of Theory, Vera Wang, Anna Wintour, Hearst Magazine’s Michael Clinton and the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Steven Kolb.
Presiding over the elegant conclave was New York’s head macher-in-charge — at least for the next 37 days, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He had brought along his cultural affairs commissioner, Kate Levin, as well as Daniel Doctoroff, chief executive officer of Bloomberg LP.
The high-powered powwow was engineered to discuss plans — and build support — for the Culture Shed, the ballyhooed arts center that is meant to become the new home of New York Fashion Week once it’s completed around 2017. The striking structure will serve as an anchor of the ambitious Hudson Yards development on the West Side of Manhattan, currently under construction and set to become a marquee capstone of Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure at City Hall, which comes to a close next month.
Bloomberg’s presence at the huddle and his lobbying to move fashion week to the Culture Shed — to which he has dedicated $50 million in city funds — were emblematic of the cozy relationship he has cultivated with certain factions of the fashion industry during his time as mayor. More broadly, through the city’s Economic Development Corporation, he has launched numerous initiatives to boost the fashion sector and he’s been front-and-center at countless industry events over the years, from kicking off the very first Fashion’s Night Out in a Queens mall with Michael Kors to rubbing elbows with Miley Cyrus at Fashion Group International’s most recent Night of Stars.
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“Oscar de la Renta — who campaigned for me in the Dominican community three times in a row — he was at my house last night. He and his wife are very close personal friends,” recounted Bloomberg in a valedictory interview with WWD. “I have lots of friends in the fashion business. The guy who just retired from running Saks, Steve Sadove, is a really good guy. Terry Lundgren and his wife [Tina] are golfing partners of my girlfriend [Diana Taylor] and I. We will sit with them at the [Macy’s Thanksgiving Day] parade. But the night before, we will [see] all the balloons and then we always go out together to dinner and he brings his daughters along and I bring my daughters.”
As he talked, Bloomberg nibbled on what looked like potato chips that he had placed neatly in a small mound on a drab conference table, which was situated on a small stage overlooking his open-plan “bullpen” at City Hall. The mayor, with an estimated fortune of $31 billion, works here in a cramped cubicle amongst his top lieutenants, including all the deputy mayors of New York. An aide later insisted the alleged potato chips must have been some kind of healthy snack — no doubt without saturated fats.
Bloomberg’s embrace of the fashion industry is predicated on the personal and practical, economic and aesthetic, he explained. “Fashion has a number of things. One, there’s a business answer: $72 billion worth of [wholesale] business, it generates a couple of billion dollars worth of tax revenue, employs 180,000 people in the city,” rattled off the mayor. “Then there is the psychological contribution. People want to be in fashion. Not working in it, but to be au courant, if you will. They take great pride in it. They envision themselves. You see yourself in a woman’s magazine and you think that if you bought that dress you’ll look like her. No you won’t, I hate to break that to you, but nevertheless. So I think the fashion industry’s contribution — everyone focuses on the economics — but to me it has always been more that it provides the pizzazz and interest [to a city]. It’s like cultural institutions and parks — these are all things that differentiate a city from cement. And the fashion industry has done that. Fashion is an expression of culture.”
In at least that respect, even Paris has nothing on New York, in Bloomberg’s estimation. “We have 900 fashion houses here. Double the number of Paris,” he boasted — and that fashionable sheen to the hustle and bustle of New York is what attracts all sorts of people to this megalopolis, and keeps them here. “If we are ahead in fashion, that’s going to get a bunch of people to move here and stay here and who will then contribute in whatever their specialties are, whether it’s philanthropists that help or doctors who treat or businesspeople that create jobs or publishers that inform. It all fits together.”
Fashion is a crucial element in the life of the city, enmeshed with, and complementing, the worlds of finance, media, technology and diplomacy. Together they create the seductive complexion of New York that beckons strivers the world over. “In each of these industries, New York has some real advantages — scale. And if you are ahead in one, you help the others,” observed Bloomberg. “If intellectual capital is what your business needs to survive, or what turns you on in terms of day-to-day living, then New York is where you want to be. We aren’t the lowest-priced place, we aren’t the place with the greatest space, we aren’t the place that has the least regulation. But if you need the best and the brightest to work in your business, or to be your friends and neighbors, this is where it is.”
As the founder and former chief executive officer of the money-minting financial information firm Bloomberg LP, the mayor is especially sympathetic and attuned to the entrepreneurial spirit, said observers. Under his administration, New York has made a concerted effort to support new fashion businesses and attract talent here. In 2010, the city’s EDC launched an initiative under the banner “Fashion NYC 2020.” The effort includes a number of separate programs, with various partners, aimed at fostering fashion talent, in both design and management, and jump-starting independent fashion firms.
“The Economic Development Corporation, they deserve the real credit for all the economic stuff, reducing the impediments to get going and finding out how to get through the permitting process if you want to do a store — or connecting you to other people,” said Bloomberg of the city agency’s initiatives.
For example, the EDC’s “Fashion Campus” program, in partnership with Parsons The New School for Design, has drawn more than 550 participants to its educational forums over the past three years. In the “Fashion Draft” program, also operated with Parsons, 46 students have been selected from more than 500 applicants in the past two years to participate in high-level coaching through the recruitment process with leading New York-based fashion and retail companies.
Other components of Fashion NYC 2020 include the “Fashion Fellows” mentorship program for young professionals; “Design Entrepreneurs NYC,” which is a mini-MBA boot camp for independent fashion firms, and “Project Pop-Up,” a series of innovative, temporary retail concepts.
The EDC is close to unveiling a partnership with a financial firm that will launch its NYC Fashion Production Fund by the end of the year, said Eric Johnson, director of the EDC’s fashion and arts division. Seeded with $1 million from the EDC, matched by another $1 million from the corporate partner, the Fashion Production Fund will make loans of $50,000 to $300,000 to small designers to help cover the costs of fulfilling production orders. Those orders must be made by New York-based facilities, with the aim of growing young design businesses as well as the manufacturing base in the city.
“Especially under this administration, we have worked to come up with programs that aren’t just one-off fixes but rather an holistic, forward-looking strategy to help the fashion industry,” said Johnson.
Nurturing New York apparel makers is also the goal of the new Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, which was launched by the EDC and the CFDA in September. Spearheaded by Theory’s Rosen and with financial support from Ralph Lauren, Rag & Bone and Rue La La, the program will offer matching grants to factories that invest in upgraded equipment, new technology and worker training with the goal of modernizing New York’s production capabilities.
Additionally, the EDC is a partner with the CFDA in its Fashion Incubator program, which gives young designers a subsidized space to work from and professional development for two years to help grow their businesses. Bloomberg himself has visited the Incubator space in the Garment District.
For a former Republican and now Independent, Bloomberg has been largely protective of the zoning and regulations that protect apparel and accessories manufacturing in the “Special Garment Center District” on the West Side of Manhattan — although some observers say enforcement has been lax for area landlords that try to skirt the rules in order to bring in nonmanufacturing tenants. At one point, Bloomberg and the city considered amending the zoning laws, which led to protests in 2009 and 2010, with designers like Elie Tahari, Nanette Lepore and Yeohlee Teng taking to the streets along with public officials and garment workers. In the end, the city backed off and kept the laws, which date back to 1987, in place.
“You can’t just let unfettered capitalism decide who is going to use a piece of land. There are other things that you want to somehow or other include in it,” explained Bloomberg of his approach to zoning regulations. “If you don’t, you will not have certain industries here. Those seamstresses make Oscar de la Renta able to manufacture here and to be the fashion guru and to work with his customers. And if you didn’t, you’d start to see other places do that.”
He illustrated the point via his own wardrobe, opening his suit jacket to show off the label of Brooklyn’s own Martin Greenfield tailors, which operates in a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Bushwick that dates back more than 100 years. (It was previously the William P. Goldman suit company before Greenfield bought it in 1977 and changed the name.)
“I’ll tell you a great story,” said Bloomberg. “I get all my suits from [this] tailor in Brooklyn. Every suit. And they’re cheaper than Paul Stuart, where I used to get my clothing. [Bill] Clinton, Ray Kelly, Colin Powell, myself, Barack Obama, all get their suits there. You can get a cheaper suit, but my suits are all 10 years old. They last forever. I was out there the other day to get a new sport jacket and I come outside — and this is in a dumpy warehouse part of Brooklyn — and there’s a juice bar across the street and another fancy place. The whole neighborhood is changing. Now, someday someone’s going to come along and want to rip down that building. [Martin Greenfield] is going to have to have a loft building to make his clothing in. We want to protect that.”
In fact, Greenfield and his sons, Jay and Tod, own the manufacturing facility so they’re safe from the threat of gentrification that could potentially squeeze them out. The family employs 120 people there. “If we had to pay rent to be here, it would be a huge problem,” said Jay Greenfield. “It’s hugely important to have industry in the city. Job creation is key. It can’t all be real estate. Someone has to have a job and earn a living and pay taxes and raise children to make a city work.”