WASHINGTON — As the new chairman of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Rick Darling plans to draw on his 25 years of retail, wholesale, merchandising and supply chain management experience to expand the organization’s international footprint and raise the industry’s profile on Capitol Hill.
Darling, president of LF USA, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Li & Fung Ltd., is steering the trade and lobbying association, which has 365 members representing 700 brands, at a critical time for apparel and footwear firms facing soaring raw material and labor prices that are squeezing margins and forcing companies to restrategize in a new era of inflation.
“We are at a tipping point,” said Darling in an interview. “We were going through a long-term deflationary period, which is where most of the people in this industry have been for 30 years and now are in an inflationary environment, and there are very few of us who remember what it was like to be in an inflationary environment.”
He said manufacturers will feel the impact of that turn this year.
“We will begin to set a new course of being able to work in an inflationary environment over the next 20 years potentially, and at least for the foreseeable future,” Darling said.
While he believes retail sales will remain “fairly strong” this year, the cost side of the equation will be a “work in progress.”
“I don’t think anyone has an easy answer,” Darling said, referring to soaring cotton prices, which have been more than $2 a pound on key indexes this year, and rising labor costs in China, which are continuing to pressure companies to find cheaper alternatives.
“One of my challenges will be to increase [AAFA’s] profile as an international leader of the apparel and footwear industries,” said Darling. “I think we do that through real discussions with our partners overseas and partners here in an attempt to get input and feedback from our members as well as their supply bases overseas.”
Darling will work with Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of AAFA, to help steer the association and main players in the industry through the turbulent times.
“Rick’s got a presence all over the globe,” said Burke. “Having a chairman like Rick who has stature in the U.S. and Asia enhances our ability” to broaden the association’s reach internationally.
Darling and Burke said the association’s educational programs have been successful and will be an area of focus and expansion. One particularly successful AAFA program focuses on the Restricted Substances List, which identifies regulations and laws restricting chemicals and other substances in products. AAFA has held the seminar five times in China, twice in India and once in Vietnam over the last two years.
Darling said he also would like to increase industry visibility on Capitol Hill.
“We believe we need to reposition ourselves so that Congress has a better understanding of who we are, the scope and the power of our economic footprint in the U.S. and the number of people involved and touched by policies, not only in the U.S., but globally,” he added.