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STYLE: Develop Indy's Susan Branco shifts focus to fashion

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Gabrielle Poshadlo

People sometimes ask me what business a business journal has publishing a style column. The easy an-swer is, “The Wall Street Journal does it, so why shouldn’t we?” but the real answer is, style is a giant business.

How big? Well, we don’t really know.

It’s the industry that employs about 175,000 people in New York City, according to the New York State Department of Labor, and generates an estimated $1.6 billion in tax revenue.

Granted, Indianapolis can’t hope for the same financial return from fashion as New York. But with the recent hire by Develop Indy (formerly Indianapolis Economic Development Inc.) of a fashion liaison, it appears the city of Indianapolis would like to find out how important fashion is to our economy.

Every time I buy a pair of shoes (or five) at Nordstrom, I’m helping to keep the lovely sales staff employed, but there’s more to the business than that. Beyond the retail realm, there are myriad jobs that come with a new textile mill or clothing manufacturer. Recent industry news hints that maybe Indianapolis could carve a niche there.

The Hat World expansion for example, reported June 10 on ibj.com, is poised to bring 571 new jobs to the area.

The Finish Line Inc. has similar growth possibilities, according to Scott Miller, president and CEO of Develop Indy, as does Izod’s IndyCar sponsorship. “[Fashion] can be a bigger sphere than what people here in the Midwest might think,” he said.

That’s where Susan Branco comes in. She is Develop Indy’s motorsports liaison, with a secondary focus in fashion. With this year’s Indianapolis 500 behind us, Branco is now focusing her energy on quantifying the city’s fashion industry and developing a strategy for growing it, something she says no one has attempted before. In order to make a case for developing the industry, she needs to know how many fashion jobs exist locally and what potential there are for new ones.

“We have to figure out how to use our resources to impact the greatest number of people,” Miller said.

Since the fashion scene in Indianapolis is rather spread out, Branco said it’s been a challenge identifying how many industry professionals are out there. I don’t have that exact number, either, but I believe there are enough to warrant the city’s attention. Not to mention the fashion students at the Art Institute, Purdue University and Indiana Business College (now Harrison College) who could be retained as local professionals if there were a place for them to work.

Should fashion be deemed a viable venture for Develop Indy, Branco’s ideas mimic city-assisted efforts in places like Chicago and New York.

“Every city with a good reputation in fashion seems to be home to a major retail headquarters or flagship store, and there are incentives we can offer companies to bring them here,” Branco said. “I have a few specific ones in mind.”

In the short term, she’s considering a city-sponsored web directory for local fashion professionals, similar to chicagofashionresource.com offered by the Chicago Mayor’s Office. The site would make it easy to find local designers, boutiques, manufacturers, events and industry news. But there’s no word yet on who would maintain the database. Chicago’s site is managed by a team of volunteers called the Mayor’s Fashion Council, but Develop Indy doesn’t have any plans to form such a group.

If Indianapolis were to have a site of its own, Miller says, Develop Indy is more likely to follow New York’s lead, where the city teams up with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to achieve its goals. The only problem is, Indianapolis doesn’t have an organization like CFDA … yet.

“If the private sector shows this is an area that could take off, then we’d be open to giving them public help,” Miller said.

From there, things could get really exciting. With city backing, a fashion council could approach private developers about incubator-like studio space (Branco keeps a running list of possible locations), grant money could be raised for growing businesses, and graduating students could have a place to turn for mentorship.

Now that the fashion scene has the city’s attention, it seems imperative to keep it. But that’s not just up to local boutiques and designers. Our city’s ability to attract big employers will have a lot to do with it.

Miller is optimistic. Indianapolis has a lot to offer large operations like clothing manufacturers, he said. Our Midwestern location, work ethic and cost of doing business are all incentives to move from somewhere as costly as New York.•

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If you’d like to share your own style ideas or know anyone who’s making waves in the fashion community, contact Gabrielle at gposhadlo@ibj.com. This column appears monthly.

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