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NEW YORK — “Seventh Avenue? They should only prosper!”
So declared the late Edward I. Koch, former New York mayor, in a page-one story in WWD Dec. 7, 1978, during his first year in office.
“Seriously, the city is in no shape to tell businessmen how to conduct their business,” he stated, adding, “the [fashion] industry needed a more visible commitment from City Hall, and I have given it to them.”
A funeral for Koch, who died early Friday at age 88 from congestive heart failure, will be held Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, with burial at the Trinity Church cemetery. Koch, as mayor from 1978 to 1989, was part of a legacy of leaders who forged a connection between City Hall and New York’s fashion industry, then bustling all along Seventh Avenue.
Born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924, and a graduate of the City College of New York and the New York University School of Law, Koch revealed in 2008 that he had purchased a plot at the Trinity Church cemetery, after learning that the church permits Jews to be buried there. It is the only active cemetery left in Manhattan.
Koch led the city in and out of crisis and controversy with a flamboyant, gritty New York style that minced no words and generally reflected his liberal political philosophy. But he also crossed party lines. He weighed in on the advent of apparel and textile imports, which had started to become more prevalent during the Seventies. He said, “I advocated restricted imports when I was a congressman. The days of free trade are over. There has to be a quid pro quo. The U.S. is not a sugar daddy anymore.”
Taking a broader view and proving more prescient, Koch said, “I love this job because it’s exciting in the most exciting city in the world, and I’m going to stay here for 12 years…There’s a more ebullient attitude here. We’re building six hotels in Manhattan. We’re starting to work on the tawdry aspects of 42nd Street. We’ve reversed the job loss in the city.”
Asked to select his proudest accomplishment in his first year at City Hall, Koch said, “We are providing a better climate for essential jobs and profits — profits, I said, and that’s not a dirty word anymore.”
In August 1980, Koch came to the defense of Seventh Avenue in opposition to the proposed Sales Representatives Protection Act, which sought to limit companies’ ability to switch sales reps. Koch told Congress the legislation “would significantly alter the market system of one of New York City’s most important industries” and would have “seriously detrimental effects” on the city’s economy.
In February 1980, at a ceremony establishing a new Italian Trade Center in the city, Koch said, “The last time I celebrated the wonders of Italy was when Sophia Loren was here. This is almost as good.”
After an appeal from the fashion industry trying to stem the number of production jobs heading overseas, in 1987 Koch’s administration approved the Special Garment Overlay, which effectively secured 10 million square feet of space as incentive for domestic apparel companies.
In a 2001 interview shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the now former mayor said he was doing his part to support the city’s economic recovery: He went shopping at the Gap.
“I bought $87 worth of little girls’ clothes for my grandniece,” Koch said. “One of the items was on sale, $10 off, but everything else was full-price. I did it because I love my little grandniece and secondly to help the economy.”
Koch drew parallels between the challenges that the city faced in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and those of 1978, when he became mayor. It was during the previous administration of Abraham Beame that the city’s fiscal crisis became so dire that it was on the verge of bankruptcy, and some attribute Koch’s spirited governance to New York’s getting back onto its feet.
“The problem today is even greater than that of the Seventies,” Koch told WWD at the time. “It’s not just the reconstruction or the cost on our budget, it is the confidence that has been lost that could cause the ceo’s of big businesses to decide not to remain here, or not to come back if they’ve already taken temporary space elsewhere.”
Koch tipped his hat to then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his performance post-9/11, adding, “I believe if he displayed the same sensitivity that he’s displayed since Sept. 11 for the past eight years, he’d be leaving with people crying in the streets.”
In February 2009, as First Lady Michelle Obama made a splash wearing American designers to the inaugural balls, Koch told WWD he saw her potential on a grander scale.
“She has great credibility and wants to do public service,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that could create greater respect for her than this. People would look at her and say, ‘That’s wonderful. I’m going to do that, too.’”
But, Koch added, “We do not have a tradition of buying American products — it’s not jingoistic.”