By  on September 30, 2003

NEW YORK — So what should he do? That’s the question spurred by Mayor Bloomberg’s recent pledges of allegiance to the apparel industry — or at least the jobs he hopes it can create. The mayor’s goal is to rebuild New York City’s manufacturing base and that, naturally, includes apparel, where it once dominated the country but has since been surpassed by the greater Los Angeles area. Bloomberg is battling the tide of a declining sector, with apparel industry employment in Manhattan alone falling 4.8 percent to 58,877 last year from 2001 levels.

But, Bloomberg said recently, New York City’s apparel industry still employs 150,000 people overall and generates $35 billion in revenues annually. Jones Apparel Group alone employs 1,600-plus people in New York City, not counting those it will add to the payroll once its acquisition of Kasper A.S.L. is wrapped up later this year. Liz Claiborne is another major employer, with 1,000 staffers here.

Bloomberg’s aim is both to keep jobs in the city and create new ones by trying to get people to pump more money into the business (even though, as he claimed, it’s a “terrible” one to invest in).

And he’s trying. Within the space of less than a week earlier this month, the mayor hosted two private events — both in the name of fashion. The first was an afternoon bash at Gracie Mansion to celebrate 7th on Sixth’s 10th anniversary. The second was a more intimate dinner at his own home announcing the establishment of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund to grant awards of up to $100,000 to at least two designers annually, beginning next September.

In addition to hosting a few parties and talking up the industry, Bloomberg has shown his solidarity firsthand. Peter Arnold, executive director of the CFDA, said, “It’s great that he came to the CFDA Awards, and he stayed through the whole thing. He wants to help, and he wants to be seen helping.”

WWD took an informal poll to find out what those in the industry think should be done. Helping unestablished designers, offering discount cards for out-of-state travelers and extending hours for late-night shopping are some of the ideas being tossed around by designers, executives, consultants and fashion editors, who were only too happy to provide Mayor Bloomberg with some advice.Donna Karan
“We’ve been looking at the negative for so long, but out of all that negativity, look at what comes out — a solution. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than working with young designers, and it is this collective of when we all get together that makes a difference. That’s the good news, that there’s going to be a breakthrough.

“The mayor being a businessman, he has been very clear and said that it is the businesses that will grow our city. He sees that the people who are making the money will be the ones giving back to the city, and it’s that growth that will improve education. That’s the most important aspect today, I feel, which is to improve education.”

Nicole Miller
“We’re underappreciated. We employ all these people but we’re not taken seriously. We need good newspaper articles addressing how important the business is. The apparel industry is thought of as kind of frivolous and fluffy. We’re not treated like any of the big intellectual endeavors like Wall Street.

“But the mayor’s been terrific. He’s done a great job of showing a lot of support for the garment center. He’s given us a sign of recognition.”

Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive officer, Bergdorf Goodman
“This is a global problem. Look at Levi’s. It’s a terrible pill to lose jobs. The industry is consolidating and it’s tied to the global economy. It’s a tough thing, it’s hard to say what the mayor should do. But he could do something about all the parades down Fifth Avenue and all the street fairs up and down the avenues and side streets. You can’t get here, [to Bergdorf’s] It clogs up Midtown.”

Oleg Cassini
“In a perfect world, we would give all our work to American workers. The dilemma is we’re getting excellent work overseas. American manufacturers can’t compete in a weak economy unless there’s an incentive. If a proportionate amount of work, say 50 percent, had to be done here that would shelter the interest of the American worker. What they have in Europe is an artisanal class of people that does not exist here.“This is a very difficult business to invest in. Originally, they were family businesses that sustained the entire family. That’s no more. Even an intelligent man like the mayor won’t be able to solve any of this. He may tell people, ‘Do this and that.’ but no one will want to.”

Norma Kamali
“Perhaps we need a New York City shopping card that visitors to New York can get with the purchase of tickets. The New York City shopping card will allow visitors discounts increasing with the quantity purchased. All store participants can post the card at the counter.

“In addition, we should have fashion shows for the public to attend at the Javits Center, with booths for every New York City store to sell a selection of their products to shoppers at a discount. The shoppers get to know all the brands and shop away, and then are inspired to continue to shop with the favorite brands.

“This show can be held twice a year and bring people from all over the country to a less intimidating forum and show. Everyone must participate if they are selling in New York City including new up-and-coming designers. Costs for the center and the booths need to be negotiated carefully to make it affordable for all.

“Unfortunately, fashion is out of fashion and New York City is suffering from the backlash of this trend. We need to be creative to make the customer want the experience because it is fun and easy. The time when people really have to shop is after work, or even later in areas where restaurants and nightlife exist. Sundays obviously are great. But a campaign is needed to let people know so that it’s worth opening during those hours.”

Peter Arnold
“We want to be mindful of our industry here in the city. We’re asking questions like how can we capture that outflux of labor, especially focusing on the more skilled labor that designers need to have close at hand. We want to retain these jobs if we can.

“We’ve also talked about creating a center for American fashion here in New York, a space that would be symbolic of the industry, and in a more profound way than the tents, which are here twice a year, but something instead more permanent.”Glenda Bailey, editor in chief, Harper’s Bazaar
“One initiative I think we should lobby for is to move New York’s tax-free week to Fashion Week, to maximize the focus on the city and the fashion industry. It will also be important to encourage the next generation of new designers to attend FIT and Parsons through enhanced national high school recruitment drives. Additionally, at spring graduation, the fashion committee could host a joint fashion show for both schools to highlight the wealth of talent coming out of New York schools and better enable the industry to pick the brightest and best.”

Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates
“He’s right and he’s late. It’s good that we still have design studios in New York City, which can develop fashion to be sold here, but too much of the product is made offshore. Having a quick response to fashion trends could revive fashion excitement, because stores can then quickly replenish fast-selling items [when they’re produced locally.]”

However, keeping fashion jobs in the city will require funds and “constant pounding on the table.”

Roberta Myers, editor in chief, Elle
“I’m excited that Mayor Bloomberg wants to help the apparel industry, and would love it if he could help the magazine industry too, so let’s have a publishing task force as well. But I think tax breaks on the clothes help — that’s been efficient in getting people into the stores. And any support he can give to the schools — high school on up — for the creative arts, obviously that helps fashion.”

Sam Ramani, vice president of Contrepoint Industries, which employs half of its 24 workers here.
“It’s so expensive, overhead kills you, talent is scarce, especially in these times. We have lived past 9/11, we’re moving on, good things have happened, but nothing incredible. We did lose something. It’s hard to get back that old life, but we will.

“Get business rolling. The more you expand, the more people you need.”Kate Betts, editor, Time Style & Design
“The only thing I can think of is helping the shows, and helping the younger designers. Establishing grants that they could apply for would be a great thing. I also don’t think there’s a big enough connection between the students in the fashion schools and the shows themselves. Give the students more visibility and access and importance during Fashion Week, and connect them more directly to Seventh Avenue.”

David Granger, editor in chief, Esquire
“New York is preeminent in all the glamorous industries — film, television, theater, sports, politics, music — and style and design and creativity go hand-in-hand with them all. It is absolutely imperative that we leverage the power of those businesses to drive a new level of creativity and excitement in the apparel industry. The mayor’s commission has to be the nexus, the point at which all that energy comes together and reinvigorates fashion and style in America.”

Barbara Randall, FCBID executive director
“We’re sort of at a crossroads. Is the city going to try to do something to retain production or not?”

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