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It seems like an unlikely pairing, Vera Wang, renowned for her elegant upscale bridal designs, and Kohl’s, which caters to the masses with moderate prices.

Yet it’s been a successful, 10-year collaboration that evolved into an eclectic array of products under the Simply Vera Vera Wang label, something that didn’t go unnoticed at the annual NRF Foundation gala Sunday night at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan, held each year in conjunction with NRF’s “Big Show” convention and trade expo at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Among the 850 guests were Kohl’s chief executive officer Michelle Gass who received the National Retail Federation’s Visionary Award, and designer Wang who presented the award to Gass on the ballroom stage. Gass gave an inspirational speech covering transformation and advising the audience including the many students present to “take action, keep moving forward, change and evolve. Set a vision and be clear on purpose. Be courageous….When you take a punch — I’ve had a few — find your strength to come back with greater conviction.” Kohl’s has recently hit some rough patches and Gass was humble enough to acknowledge that. Yet she was recognized for spearheading innovations notably Kohl’s partnership with Amazon and invigorating Kohl’s stable of private brands and exclusives.

With Wang at her side, Gass was among the first of the many industry VIPs strutting down the “purple” carpet. Stopping to chat, Gass characterized Simply Vera as “our number-one exclusive brand.” Accounting for the brand’s longevity, Gass said, “It starts with the icon of Vera Wang. Then there’s real clarity. It’s very much lifestyle with an ath-leisure attitude. It’s very much about comfort, easy movement, layering, and base pants and leggings as the foundation,” Gass said, noting that Kohl’s got into the ath-leisure look well before other retailers and that Kohl’s is comfortable bringing designer names into its portfolio of exclusives. Is it risky since Kohl’s customers generally aren’t designer shoppers? Gass said no, the strategy works. “Bringing them in creates credibility” for Kohl’s. And for masses shopping Kohl’s, “We can create access to great fashion.”

Advocating retailing as a career, Ellen Davis, president of the NRF Foundation, told the gala crowd of 850, “There are too many young people who don’t know what’s available to them. We all believe that retail is a great place to start and a great place to grow.”

Karen Katz and Ellen Davis

Former Neiman Marcus Group ceo Karen Katz and NRF Foundation president Ellen Davis at the foundation’s gala.  Aurora Rose/WWD

The event raised a record $4 million to support the Foundation’s “Rise Up” industry-backed credentialing program, scholarships and educational efforts spotlighting opportunities in retailing.

Also honored were five executives who made NRF’s “List of People Shaping Retail’s Future.” They were Manny Chirico, chairman and ceo of PVH Corp.; Ann-Marie Campbell, executive vice president of The Home Depot, U.S. Stores; Philip Krim, cofounder/ceo of Casper; James Reinhart, cofounder/ceo of ThredUp, and Kerry Cooper, former president and coo of Rothy’s.

Demonstrating its commitment to students, the Foundation announced that LeAnn Percivill, a senior at Texas A&M University, was the top recipient of the 2020 “Next Generation Scholarship,” receiving a $25,000 scholarship, and that Cayley Creekmore, Shannon Foote, Anna Tiller and Woodley White from Georgia Southern University were the top team in the “Student Challenge” competition. Each was awarded a $5,000 scholarship.

Chris Baldwin and Matthew Shay

Christopher Baldwin, chairman and ceo of BJ’s Wholesale Club, and Matthew Shay, president and ceo of the NRF.  Aurora Rose/WWD