After building a career in fashion, Jeffry Aronsson LLM ’79 wants to use fashion to rebuild a city

When Jeffry Aronsson LLM ’79 was an NYU Law applicant in 1978, he received a call from the Law School’s admissions office, very close to the deadline, with worrisome news: The school had not yet received his transcript. Aronsson got on a plane from his hometown of Detroit to New York, found his way to the admissions office, encountered the dean of admissions just as she was leaving for the day, and handed her his transcript.

Jeffry Aronsson
Jeffry Aronsson LLM '79

He approached this admissions obstacle, Aronsson says, as he does all others in his life: “If you set your mind to it, you can find a way to overcome anything, as long as it is done correctly, and with integrity.” Aronsson brought that attitude to bear on a career that has included leading fashion companies Oscar de la Renta Ltd., Marc Jacobs International, and Donna Karan International—and now, rebuilding his struggling hometown.

As a Tax LLM student, Aronsson says, he learned that resourceful thinking is crucial to success in the legal field. “What’s so inspiring about the law, particularly tax law, is that no one can ever know all the law. What's important is to discover the gaps or gray areas. It’s those gray areas that are playgrounds for creativity; albeit with caution,” Aronsson says. “At NYU, I learned to apply my creative tendencies without ever before having thought of myself as creative.”

Aronsson initially put his new transactional tax law skills to practice as an associate at a small firm with a securities and tax law practice, before deciding to hang out his own shingle. One day, in 1989, an accountant contacted him on behalf of a client who needed a transactional lawyer. The client was fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

Describing his first meeting with de la Renta, Aronsson says. “I could see him eying me up and down in my polyester plaids and my Lands’ End shirt with my initials on the pocket, and he’s standing there very sartorial and elegant. He asks me, ‘So, Mr. Aronsson, how many fashion clients do you have?’ I said none. He says, ‘Well, how many trademark licenses have you written?’ I said none. He says, ‘Well, what makes you think you can do anything for me?’ I said, ‘Well, Mr. de la Renta, all I can tell you is that my training as a tax lawyer required me to get the business of my client into my nervous system, and where others see challenges or problems, I see solutions.”

After several years of working with de la Renta as a client, Aronsson was asked by the designer to join the fashion label as the full-time CEO. Aronsson was charged with turning around the company’s finances, and under Aronsson’s leadership, the label improved production and delivery, paid off debt, and scaled the size of the business. “It was really a good workout,” Aronsson says.

“He’s a person who is eager to learn and grow through challenges… and he’s a very genuine person, and that comes through in everything he does,” says Karen Brenner, executive director of Law and Business Initiatives at NYU Stern, who has brought Aronsson in as a frequent guest lecturer in her course on the Law and Business of Corporate Governance. “It’s very clear when he talks to students… those are the qualities that students find appealing about his approach to leadership.” 

After nine years at Oscar de la Renta, Aronsson became CEO first of Marc Jacobs International, then of Donna Karan International. In 2006, Aronsson started his own company, the Aronsson Group, a consulting and investment firm specializing in luxury consumer products, services, and retail. 

Although Aronsson has made his career in New York, he says that he still feels connected to his Detroit roots. His family has lived in Detroit since the 19th century, and he grew up working in his family’s restaurant there. Last June, Aronsson found an opportunity to contribute to his hometown’s recovery from its bankruptcy crisis when he received a call from Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, asking him to meet to discuss how to build entrepreneurship in the city. As he spoke to the mayor, Aronsson was struck with an idea: What if Detroit could be transformed into a hub for serving the $2.5 trillion fashion, luxury and apparel industry?

The fashion industry’s supply chain is spread throughout the world, Aronsson points out, which can result in slow responses to fast-moving market trends. Since Detroit has the land and infrastructure required for innovative industrial production, it would be the perfect place, Aronsson says, to create a socially responsible, end-to-end, fully integrated supply chain on one large campus to serve the global fashion industry.  

Aronsson is now working with the Detroit mayor’s office to make his vision into a reality. The initiative, named “Project Treadwing,” requires buy-in from major retail companies; Aronsson is using his connections from his many years of experience in the industry to try to bring key industry leaders on board. Most recently, Aronsson brought a biannual meeting of the international top supply chain leadership team of one of the world’s largest brand and retailer holding companies to Detroit, where he presented his idea to the conference which also included presentations by the Mayor and other local leadership groups. While still in its early stages, Aronsson’s Detroit project has received coverage from the New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily, and Crain’s Detroit Business.

“I just feel very lucky,” Aronsson says, “the idea came spontaneously and it was an idea I never would have had if the mayor hadn’t asked me to consider his question for supporting the city’s creative culture entrepreneurship.”

Posted June 22, 2018