NEW YORK – They say one man's trash is another man's treasure, but no one was expecting this.
An unlikely top seller has emerged in a new line of official New York City apparel — not from the fire and police departments that have long enjoyed the spotlight, but rather from the agency that moves mountains of trash every day.
A fashionably grungy brown cap with the Sanitation Department's light blue logo is the new must-have item — even among celebrities — since the city launched the products last year. The collection is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's goal to profit from the city's official landmarks and logos.
"I'd wear that," said Tam Smail, a 33-year-old tourist from Edinburgh, Scotland, who tried on the cap while browsing for souvenirs at a Times Square shop. "It's a very popular look right now. You see it everywhere."
For years, agencies like the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York have sold souvenir T-shirts, sweat shirts, caps, mugs and toy vehicles. Sales generally hovered below $1 million annually, but surged to an all-time high of $28 million in the year after the Sept. 11 attacks when the city and its rescue workers gained worldwide fame. The collection drew retail sales of $20 million in 2006.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration realized the city was likely losing millions of dollars because City Hall lacked any sort of central licensing operation that could capitalize on the city's popularity and help eliminate unauthorized use of its logos.
Now, those responsibilities have been concentrated under one agency, NYC Marketing. The group has not only helped police seize counterfeit goods and crack down on illegal vendors, but created an entirely new apparel line with updated and hip designs.
Besides the Sanitation cap, which is being sold at Target stores nationwide, the trash department's line features T-shirts with a similar hipster aesthetic. The city's film and television agency has also produced some winners — sleek tees and loungewear stamped with its minimalist "Made in NY" logo. Macy's carried some of the merchandise last fall.
NYPD and FDNY gear are still selling strong, according to Lloyd Haymes, vice president of licensing for NYC Marketing.
But he said new apparel, like the gently frayed Sanitation cap and faded T-shirts with old-fashioned taxicabs across the chest, tap into a different consumer base that seems to be drawn to a more subtle, "authentic New York."
"There's a chance to make it this underground style brand, kind of like, 'You don't know how cool Sanitation is, but I do,'" Haymes said. "That's popular right now — it's just the right style at the right time."
One recent afternoon in midtown Manhattan, Haymes and a colleague from the marketing office passed by a young man sporting a Sean John jacket and the Sanitation hat.
The two city officials were giddy.
"We were high-fiving each other," Haymes said. "To see someone out on the street, wearing this stuff, is so cool."
The agency's marketing strategy includes one trick often used by high-end designers, who are known to promote their merchandise among Hollywood stars to generate buzz. NYC Marketing did exactly that with a list of celebrities, including Martin Scorsese, Nick Lachey, Liv Tyler, James Gandolfini and Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
It has paid off — a number of them have been photographed wearing or buying the items, which stimulates sales and elevates the status of the brands. Out of dozens of city agencies, officials are currently focusing on the seven they believe have the most marketing potential: FDNY, NYPD, Sanitation, Film, Transportation, Parks and the Taxi & Limousine Commission.
The Parks gear right now consists of a few shirts and a Central Park cap, but the next big thing in city fashion could be a line of Parks Department athletic wear.
Officials envision a major untapped market of Central Park runners and Prospect Park softball players, who may be interested in shorts, T-shirts and other sportswear featuring their favorite sports and neighborhood park logos and names.
The designs are created by manufacturers that submitted bids to the city. Marketing officials give them some direction as to how they view the city's agencies and brands, and the manufacturers propose the styles.