Serial chief executive officer Jeffry Aronsson is bringing his industry expertise back to his hometown — Detroit — and is working with the city to set up a new kind of framework for fashion.
Aronsson left the city in 1978 to study taxation at New York University Law School, which turned him to law and eventually work with Oscar de la Renta, where he became ceo in the Nineties. He later landed ceo gigs at a succession of brands, including Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Emanuel Ungaro and Ralph Rucci, sharpening his brand building and, eventually, turnaround skills.
His work on Seventh Avenue gave him a reputation as an earnest, hard worker with a polite diplomatic touch — clearly he left the Midwest, but it never left him.
Now he’s going back, dreaming big dreams about what the city’s fashion future might be with the support of Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been working to revitalize the city that was once a white-hot center of manufacturing but fell into decay and became a symbol for urban blight.
“When I left, it was tragic,”Aronsson said. “Everything was dysfunctional, nothing worked, it was just a steady spiral of deterioration.”
But he said the city is turning the corner now, “making lemonade out of lemons” under Duggan, who has been working to draw Detroiters like Aronsson back to help.
The mayor inquired about setting up Detroit as a fashion hub, but Aronsson said his reply was along the lines of: “A garment district for the sake of a garment district doesn’t really make sense. Getting it done is as much an exercise of chasing cheap labor as anything else. I’d rather think about it as an apparel, fashion, luxury hub, which is a $2.5 trillion global market growing at at least 3 percent a year.”
That resonated and now Aronsson is leading a committee that will present a plan in February for what he described as “transforming Detroit into a globally desirable hub for the industry.”
The details are all still to be worked out. But Aronsson envisions a campus that might operate along the lines of a teaching hospital, perhaps taking advantage of the city’s College for Creative Studies and fostering the arts as well as trade skills, logistics and more.
The idea, in part, is to replicate the various practical skill sets that for years kept the New York Garment District humming — from sampling to production — but are starting to fade now.
However, he said he’s looking to build a more convenient center and one that reimagines the role of labor, defining it as something more than a cost center that needs to be cut.
And the hub needs to pull its own weight and work on its own.
“We cannot consider this to be a successful initiative unless there’s a self-sustainability that comes along with it,” Aronsson said.