What does the fashion industry want from the next president? The answer is simple: leadership.
This story first appeared in the November 3, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
From the economy and taxes to trade and international affairs, an informal WWD survey of 25 industry executives found they all felt the 44th president — whether it’s Sens. Barack Obama or John McCain —– must quickly develop a plan to get the country out of the ongoing economic crisis as well as possess the strength of character and determination to reinvigorate America’s role as world leader.
And if all the above wasn’t enough, those contacted also had their favorite issues, from education to energy, terrorism to gay rights.
“Our new president needs to make America a good global citizen again,” said William L. McComb, chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc. “As I travel the world, people I meet express how something has gone terribly wrong with this country…and they see economic mess, coupled with the stalemate in the Middle East, as proof points. Our country and our industry need a president that will truly provide leadership — asking for sacrifice from every American and refocusing on investing in the future — alternative energy sources and infrastructure. This president will inherit one of the toughest turnaround stories ever written. We need courage and bold thinking.”
The vast majority of those interviewed said they thought the right man for the job was Obama, whom they thought during the campaign had demonstrated more leadership and acumen to lead the country out of the financial storm and put the nation back on the right track than his Republican rival, McCain.
“The next president must instill the necessary confidence that positive change is in the air, that it’s OK to invest and spend again, and that feeling good will make us look good,” said Kenneth Cole. “We all know the economy is fragile and there is no time for a ‘dress rehearsal.’”
As for which candidate best fills that bill, Cole said, “The candidate who’s passionate, inspiring and young enough for the task ahead, and whose second-in-command hasn’t spent time trying to see Russia from her bedroom window.”
Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is rooting for Obama to win because “if he wins, it will mean that the people got engaged.”
“When people are engaged in this country, anything can happen,” she said. “America is the country of opportunities, of dreams. We all got too selfish, lazy and short-termed. We need a macroapproach, a strategy, a plan. I would hope he will surround himself with the smartest people and I would hope he makes us all work. Together we can do it, but we all must sacrifice a bit.”
Bud Konheim, president and ceo of Nicole Miller, said he hasn’t decided if we will contribute to what he expects to be an Obama landslide, or whether he will take a little polish off that by going for McCain. Either way, he expects Obama to help prop up the economy and the apparel industry.
“This is a time when America needs to feel good,” Konheim said. “The thing about Obama is he’ll make people feel good and America is all about feeling good. He’s comfortable and confident, and that is the key to the entire financial solution here. Once he wins Nov. 4, everyone will remember that we’re in America. We’re all going to be fine. We don’t have to worry about the stock market. We still have jobs. He’s the guy.”
Vera Wang said Obama “is a man of our times…he is extremely modern…he has tremendous energy and has got an intellect that I respect a great deal.”
The designer said she expects Obama to “work it all out” to help business “and hopefully he will unite our country because I think it’s time. It would be good if we all came together.”
Donna Karan agreed, saying the presidential race is “not even a question — Obama.”
“I think what he will do is inspire,” she said. “I think he has the intelligence and the passion and the understanding of our culture and what tomorrow will be. I think this is an enormous wake-up call that has happened and it’s a huge, huge undertaking that he is taking on.”
As for how Obama may help the fashion business, Karan said, “He believes in looking at the talent and looking at what we as a nation can offer…when you think of New York, what are its core strengths — the fashion industry and the financial industry. You can’t help but acknowledge that. I just got back from Dubai and Abu Dhabi and I think there is such respect and desire to think about the future and not about the past. I think [the Obamas] symbolize how to think about tomorrow. There’s no question he is the desired one.”
Behnaz Sarafpour said, “I hope that the next president can take steps toward improving our economy. That will help the country as a whole and in turn the fashion industry, which is a field particularly vulnerable to the state of the economy. I think Sen. Obama seems most in touch with the idea that supporting education and investing in development of alternative fuel sources will be most helpful in the long term for improving our economy.”
Economic issues were seen as key by most retailers and vendors.
“The next president must be a clear leader with a sound plan for the future of this country,” said Ed Bucciarelli, ceo and president of Henri Bendel. “We are currently in a rough period economically and it is imperative that our new president take charge of that situation, make our economy viable once again and restore confidence in the U.S. both here at home and internationally. In regard to the fashion industry, it is important that our next president understands the value of American fashion and what it means and can mean to our economy, and to our image abroad. A partnership and an open dialogue between the new administration and industry leaders is needed so that key issues that effect this industry are not only heard but acted upon.”
Josie Natori, ceo of Natori Co., said it’s been “tough” deciding between the two candidates.
“I’m not for raising taxes, so I guess I’m for McCain,” said Natori. “I’ll be happy to see this election behind us because it will allow us to move on in this financial crisis. I really believe it’s a cycle, and I feel we are in a down cycle and need a correction. Obviously, we need a candidate who will lead us out of this crisis, someone who will be able to execute the bailout and repair strength in different sectors of the country. We need someone who will repair consumer confidence and get people back in the stores.”
Guido Campello, vice president of branding and innovation at Cosabella, said his decision will be based on “an ideology rather than the candidates themselves.”
“McCain definitely deserves respect and Obama is an incredible speaker, is worldly and has the Reagan affect,” Campello said. “But there are very different economic policies between both parties. It’s not the person who can determine economic policy, it’s the party and the team. What we want to see is a strong dollar because we produce in Italy. Everything is being made in euros and we’ve gotten crushed. The economic policy of the current administration has definitely affected the dollar, and we at Cosabella tie the candidate from the same [Republican] party to the decline. We want a president who will push our growth again, the growth of small businesses. I believe the Democratic candidate will promote small businesses and will boost a stronger dollar.”
As for other issues, textile, apparel and accessories executives naturally feel trade policy should be near the top of the agenda.
Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said the next administration’s policies regarding China and trade enforcement are the top priorities. Johnson said NCTO would like to see the next administration ensure that imports of textiles and apparel from China are monitored and that the government initiates a dumping case if evidence supports it. NCTO would also like the new administration to file a World Trade Organization case against China for manipulating its currency. The domestic industry has charged that China undervalues its currency, which keeps the cost of imports low and puts U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Last week, Obama backed those goals.
NCTO would also like to see the government strengthen the Berry Amendment. NCTO is in favor of the next administration passing the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement and a renegotiation of the South Korea Free Trade Agreement, as well as support a separate negotiation for textiles in the Doha round.
“Sen. Obama has much more aggressive positions that are more in tune with the industry objectives,” Johnson said, but he added McCain is more supportive of the free trade agreements the association backs.
Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said, “The new president, we’re hopeful, will look at free trade as an opportunity not only for imported products but also for exported American-made products all over the world,” citing the pending Colombia free trade pact.
Business groups, including the AAFA, have strongly advocated for passage of the Colombian trade deal, arguing that country already has duty free access to the U.S. through an existing preferential trade deal and blocking a bilateral trade deal will only hurt U.S. exporters that would benefit the most from the elimination of duties. But the trade deal has stalled since several prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill oppose it because of persistent violence and assassinations against union activists in Colombia.
Burke also said apparel vendors are concerned about having a president that “really questions trade agreements based upon what he hears from groups opposing free trade, like labor groups.” He declined to say which candidate would better represent importers’ and apparel manufacturers’ interests.
“My only concern is that whoever sits in the White House gives us a fair shake on the importance of free trade and keeping markets open,” Burke said.
J. Berrye Worsham, ceo of Cotton Incorporated, said he’s looking for the next administration to steady economic conditions and help prevent the wild swings seen in the housing and energy markets, which have forced consumers to tighten their purse strings.
“Our sector is going to get crowded out whenever you have sustained rises in energy,” said Worsham. “It’s also the volatility as much as anything, not just the increases.”
Worsham is also hoping to see the implementation of trade policies that provide better access to foreign markets, noting the majority of U.S.-grown cotton is shipped overseas.
“We need markets open for us and that sometimes can be a problem,” he said. “We need to make sure that we can sell our product around the world. Also, whatever trade policies exist for the textile sector, or any other sectors along the chain, has got to be a fair policy and not cause damage to our industry.”
Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, which endorsed Obama early in his presidential bid, said the Democrat “would be the best candidate for working people, the best candidate for this country, without question.”
Obama earned the union’s support primarily through his positions on issues such as health care, retirement benefits, immigration reform, trade policies that support domestic industry and the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize (but which is opposed by many retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.). The union would specifically like to see the Colombia Free Trade Agreement defeated, or not brought up for a vote, and would like the next administration to expand the Berry Amendment, which currently requires the military to purchase uniforms domestically, to include other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.
Carole Hochman, chairman and design director of the Carole Hochman Design Group Inc., has been a “champion of Barack Obama for a year.”
“I’m doing everything I can to help this man win the election,” she said. “I’m even going to Florida to volunteer for his campaign. He is an inspiration and that is what is missing in this country. He understands how to move this country into the future.”
Glenn McMahon, ceo of St. John, said, “Beyond the apparel industry, I think the government needs to come clean with the American people. They have done a good job of scaring everyone about housing and the economy but never really explained what happened or how to fix it.”
For other fashion industry insiders, there are additional issues of importance.
Abe Chehebar, chairman and ceo of Accessory Network Group, said the biggest issue that faces the U.S. today is terrorism.
“A key asset that our new president has to have is the ability to keep the world safe and enable world markets to flourish and do business because commerce heals all wounds,” Chehebar said. “When people are working and coming home to a nice dinner and going out to the movies, they don’t worry about terrorism.”
Chehebar said the next president also needs to tackle challenges in the marketplace, specifically getting banks back on track to assist fledgling companies.
“People can’t borrow money and that’s a total stall in deal-making and acquisitions,” Chehebar said. “Without banks lending people money, everything comes to a standstill and that’s where we’re at right now, a standstill.”
But while Chehebar has a clear opinion on what our next president needs to do, he remains unsure of who that president should be.
“I like McCain’s position regarding how to deal with world politics and I like Obama’s position on how to deal with the economic crisis, so I’m kind of undecided,” Chehebar said. “I guess I’ll make the decision when I get into the voting booth.”
Michelle Smith, designer and founder of Milly, a New York contemporary line, chose Obama as “the more inspirational and thoughtful candidate.” Smith said the next president’s main responsibility is repairing the economy and reinvigorating the country with a positive message for the future and ending the divisive politics of recent years.
“We need to invest in education and infrastructure, and regain our leadership position and respect around the world,” said Smith, adding she would like to see a plan to reward domestic manufacturing and encourage job creation.
Then there is Simon Doonan, creative director, Barneys New York, who said, “I, as a gay man, would very much appreciate receiving the balance of my civil rights, inheritance rights, spousal rights…Since John McCain is unlikely to give two gay hoots about my gay civil rights, I’m going with the good-looking one. Apart from being the right candidate, Mr. Obama looks better in a suit, which can only be a good thing.”