Before detailing New York City’s six new initiatives to boost the fashion industry, Deputy Mayor Robert Steel said Tuesday that Seventh Avenue has been a focus for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and remains a priority.

This story first appeared in the November 3, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s understandable given that the industry generates $55 billion in direct sales and another $15 billion in indirect spending related to fashion-connected events. With more than 900 fashion companies and more showrooms than any of its competitors, the apparel industry accounts for more than five percent of New York City’s workforce or 165,000 jobs.

But the $55 billion generated in direct sales does not capture the entire scope of the industry and the overall effect it has on New York’s economy. In addition, almost 600,000 out-of-town visitors come to New York each year for fashion-related events and spend about $15 billion.

“But like all industries today, because of this recession and structural changes, there are things going on and there are challenges for your industry,” Steel said. “Emerging international markets have the potential to outpace us over the longer term. Also, as is the case with lots of other parts of the economy, technology is reshaping the industry in many different ways. It’s forcing changes in business models on presentation, marketing and manufacturing. One example that you certainly know of is the effect of surging online sales on traditional distribution channels, and companies having to adjust to these developments in an increasingly complex and competitive environment.”

Acknowledging the importance of the industry, the Bloomberg administration has tried to take an active role in maintaining leadership and fostering growth, Steel said. “The mayor believes strongly that government cannot address these challenges on our own.”

With that in mind, city officials sought more feedback from fashion executives about the state of the industry via Fashion.NYC.2020, a yearlong study of challenges and opportunities. “So that we then could organize ourselves in line with your perspective,” Steel said.

The city’s Economic Development Corp. led the charge by surveying more than 500 fashion types. The upshot led to the city’s six initiatives — the NYC Fashion Fund and Institute, Project Pop-up, New York City Fashion Draft, fashion Campus NYC, New York City Fashion fellows and Designer as Entrepreneur. Each will drum up business on a long-term basis and include networking opportunities.

“We believe these six initiatives, which basically came from the ideas you gave us, will allow New York City to build upon our competitive advantages and maintain our status quo as the fashion capital,” Steel said.

As for how involved the mayor was in the development of this inaugural program, Steel said, “He’s always getting updates and wants to be kept up. Just last week he was at the opening of the Ralph Lauren store. It is an industry that he knows is important to New York in a lot of ways, both because of the direct effect as well as the indirect effect because of hotel rooms and the image of New York being at the forefront.”

What this business-minded program bodes for local manufacturing is uncertain. Steel told WWD, “There are different aspects of the fashion industry and some are more mobile than others…manufacturing is a challenge, but I think we’ve seen some success in terms of some production staying in Manhattan and some production moving to the other boroughs, too. There are places in Brooklyn where we’re seeing some production. I think the goal is for us to be aware of this and to keep as much of the production as we can by recognizing the reality of a situation.”

But Steel did not sound sold on the prediction of some industry observers that domestic manufacturing is about to see an uptick. “I can think of two or three examples where we see that happening, but we’re going to have to be realistic and work hard to keep it and it will be a key focus of the administration,” he said. “When you listen to the people at EDC, it’s just not for the fashion industry, it’s for lots of industries where we’re really working hard to make New York a place where we can also have a manufacturing sector.”

And how closely will his boss be keeping tabs on the program’s progress? Steel said, “When you know Mayor Bloomberg, he’s a big measurement person. He will want to understand how are we seeing success.”

The stakes are considerable. “If we’re not seen as the leader, then we lose the hotel rooms, the restaurants,” he said. “It’s an expansive perspective that we have to take to recognize the overall effect. It also does more than that. It also put the city on the front foot of lots of people’s minds.”

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