Stephen Lamar

In the chaos of Washington, D.C., impeachment reigns, trade and other wars simmer and President Trump’s governing style keeps everyone on their toes and logged on to Twitter.

It now falls to Stephen Lamar, 57, the newly minted president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, to not just make sense of it all, but to arm wrestle bureaucrats and cajole lawmakers to try to shape regulations policy in a way that works for fashion — or at least limits the damage. 

The job is something like “fashion ambassador” and it’s a post Lamar has spent more than two decades preparing for as he worked in various roles in the AAFA’s policy apparatus. 

But now he has to exist fully in two worlds — the c-suite in fashion and the halls of power in Washington — and translate each to the other as he takes over the top job, previously held by Rick Helfenbein.

That’s a lot of translating to do. The AAFA has 300 members representing about 1,000 brands and including apparel, footwear and travel goods companies as well as their suppliers and service providers. 

“We take these individual voices of our members and we aggregate them,” Lamar said. “They can provide information to us so it’s not about a particular company, but it’s about the industry. And then we amplify that voice.”

While he said the AAFA — which has 15 employees and is adding more positions — punches above its weight, there’s more the industry could do in Washington. The concerns of fashion importers and retailers sometimes struggle to be heard even though the industry accounts for $400 billion in retail sales. 

Lamar pointed to the people who work in fashion in the U.S., handling design, marketing, sales and other functions and said they should have more political clout.

“There are these 4 million Americans that helped you get dressed this morning,” he said. “And you don’t realize that necessarily because you see the label that says, ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Vietnam.’”

To hammer home the importance of the fashion industry, the AAFA works across three main areas — brand protection, supply chain and manufacturing and trade. 

But given the nuances of the policy world, many of the big issues the AAFA is working cut across each area in one way or another.

And that puts Lamar at the center of it all.

“I have a lot of background in Washington on the policy side, so there’s no doubt I’ll still be involved in that, but we have an incredible policy team that will be doing that on a day-to-day basis, and I think I’ll be providing a lot of the thought leadership and trying to channel what I’m hearing from the c-suite into specific actions that either turn into policies or turn into regulations or even regulation.”

Right now, the white hot of the spotlight is on trade with many questions still lingering even as Trump prepares to sign the so-called Phase One deal with China this week that should help stop the tit-for-tat escalation of the trade war and lay the groundwork for further negotiations.  

“[Trade] is still the number-one item that ceo’s or other industry executives, really at all levels of the organizations, want to talk about,” Lamar said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about when the tariffs will come off, if they’ll come off, if they’ll come back on. Can we get the underlying tariffs off? That is clearly a top priority that politicians in Washington, the policymakers in Washington and that the industry is working on.” 

But the trade war and tariffs are still just part of the picture. 

The AAFA — like almost every fashion company — is working more on sustainability, looking at how the industry as a whole can rally behind the movement. 

“The work on sustainability isn’t really in reaction to what’s coming out of Washington, it’s really in reaction to what we’re seeing on our planet,” Lamar said. “That’s where the industry is looking at it — what should the industry be doing first to minimize the harmful impact, then to have a neutral impact and then have a positive impact.”

It’s an issue that will also eventually start to play out in a regulatory context as well. The Federal Trade Commission, for instance, has a say in how brands can describe their goods as eco-friendly or produced with recycled content.

Another big theme playing out both in fashion and Washington is technology. 

“A lot of times, people look at our industry and they don’t see an industry that is a high-tech industry, which always surprises me,” Lamar said, pointing to the industry’s work in artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and new materials.

Engaging more in the issue of technology today is a play for both the present and the future.

“There’s no question that technology is interwoven in our industry and the ramifications of that technology are going to probably be some big issues that we’re going to have to deal with whether it’s privacy issues or whether it’s how can you use technology to make it easier for the consumer.”

While fashion races to use technology, Lamar and the AAFA are looking to the laws on the books and asking, “Are the regulations updated enough to allow the industry to exist unencumbered using that technology?”

Sustainability and technology are examples of issues that will outlast the Trump administration — whether it goes on for another year or another five.

When pressed on Trump and the impact of his policies on the fashion industry, Lamar is measured, befitting someone who needs to stay on speaking terms with both the fashion industry and the administration. 

Lamar noted that Trump has “pursued some very definite objectives” and that some of what’s come out of his administration are things that “a lot of people would find very positive.” These include cutting back on regulations, updating the trade agreement connecting the U.S., Mexico and Canada, which is expected to receive final approval.

“Trade agreements used to pass through Congress by the skin of their teeth, now this is a new normal, they’re passing with overwhelming bipartisan majorities,” Lamar said. “That’s a good thing because we shouldn’t be fighting over trade.”

At the same time, Lamar said Trump’s active use of tariffs has hurt some of the President’s own constituencies, for instance making it harder for U.S. manufacturers to invest given increased costs a the border. 

Higher tariffs — particularly against China — have also caused huge disruptions in global supply chains and sent companies scurrying for new production centers. 

Tariffs might be the trade tool fashion importers love to hate, but they’ve also woken up the world in many ways, taking the issue of trade out of the backroom policy debate and putting it on the front page. 

“The silver lining of the trade war is now many more members of Congress, many more Congressional staffers, many more people even in the United States know what tariffs are,” Lamar said. “Tariff is now more in their lexicon and they understand more — not enough, but more — that those tariffs have an impact on products.”

And that’s helped drive engagement in fashion with more executives wanting to go to Washington to tell the industry’s story.  

“More people in the industry have found a voice as they have felt that the policies coming out of Washington are existential,” he said.

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