NEW YORK — With 88 years in the apparel industry between them, John Pomerantz and Elbert Hand — the respective recipients of this year’s women’s and men’s American Image Awards — have had plenty of time to ruminate about the various image problems the apparel industry faces: from boring retail assortments to the question of whether it’s necessary to wear a suit to work anymore.
But of all the image issues the industry faces, the one that seems to engage the two the most is how unappealing fashion jobs seem to newly minted MBAs and graduates of four-year business programs.
Their hope is that after the dot-com flameout and ensuing slowdown of the stock market, young people will think more seriously about starting careers in the apparel trade, particularly with investment banks looking to cut their workforces and big consulting companies slowing down their hiring.
“A lot may have changed in the last six months, but prior to this a lot of young people who went into business didn’t tend to think of this industry,” said Pomerantz, chairman and chief executive officer of The Leslie Fay Co. in an interview at his firm’s Manhattan showroom last week. “Now they are rethinking that. They can’t just go into finance.”
Pomerantz noted that at his alma mater, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in recent years only 5 percent of those graduating with a Masters in Business Administration planned to pursue careers in marketing. About 60 percent aimed to go into finance.
“That’s not going to happen anymore,” at least until boom times in the stock market return, he predicted.
Hand, chairman and ceo of men’s wear resource Hartmarx Corp., who joined Pomerantz for the interview, noted that his company only has about 10 MBAs on its payroll.
“In the last few years, we haven’t really recruited many people at that level,” he said, adding that the company thinks it might be more successful in attracting some in the year ahead.
Part of the reason that top business school graduates — such as those minted by his alma mater, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago — don’t think about joining the industry is that for all the attention lavished on big-name designers, the business doesn’t have a high enough profile among aspiring managers.
“Awareness has a lot to do with it,” said Hand. “I have daughters in the industry. I had ordered them not to go into it, but that is what they chose to do,” probably because his stories about it had made it familiar, he added.
A similar gravitational pull brought him and Pomerantz into the trade. Both were sons of prominent industry executives.
After finishing his program at Wharton in 1955, Pomerantz quickly went to work at Leslie Fay for his legendary father, Fred Pomerantz. Even then, it was clear that there was room in the apparel industry for a more analytical approach.
“I went to my dad and said, ‘OK, let me see your budget for next year. What do you plan to spend on advertising?”‘ Pomerantz said. “He looked at me like I was nuts, and said, ‘OK. You figure it out from now on.”‘
Hand said he had “absolutely no intention whatsoever of getting into the apparel industry,” after college. But during the height of the Berlin Crisis in 1961, he needed to find work quickly and took a job with the former knitwear manufacturer McGregor as a retail service representative.
While Hand didn’t go to work for his father, it was still an era of dynasties, when family tradition drew a steady stream of new talent into the industry.
Now that many companies, including Hartmarx, have clear policies against nepotism — that’s the reason Hand discouraged his daughters from joining the industry — it’s more important for the industry to market itself, the two executives said.
Hand said he believes forbidding nepotism is the best way to allow skilled managers to advance, and thus the best way for companies to retain them.
“I’ve seen people who were very talented and valuable to an organization leave because they knew there were two or three family members in contention for the job they ultimately wanted,” he said. “There are siblings in the industry that are very talented and if you had them working together they would produce something.+But you’ve got to make your own decisions and accept them.”
Pomerantz, who worked for his father for 31 years, acknowledged there were ups and downs to the family system. “When my father first made me president, everything I decided to do, he said, ‘You can’t do it,”‘ he said. “I told him I was turning 50 and he said, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”‘
Just as the small entrepreneurial fashion companies that ruled the industry when Pomerantz and Hand started grew into major public companies, so the local department stores joined forces into today’s massive chains. While some in the industry blame that retail consolidation — and specifically numbers-focused buyers — for inhibiting creativity in design, Hand said he doesn’t believe that buyers are to blame.
“When I started as a serviceman at Hecht’s, they had five branch stores and the merchants knew what was going on at each of them. They knew what the shirt tables looked like at each store,” he said. “They had a different scale than today, when you had — quote, unquote — better merchants.”
He said he believes department store executives are very aware of a need to spice up their assortments, but contended that advances in technology over the past few decades should make it possible for them to do that, even at chains with hundreds of stores.
“Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t have the information we have now,” he said. “That’s a phenomenon that I think allows you to merchandise at a different level.”
Pomerantz said apparel resources also have to accept part of the blame for staid retail assortments.
“The first thing is to make good product. If the product sells, you’re going to have fewer issues with markdowns,” he said. “Second is making sure the product is in the right stores. If it becomes a markdown game, as it always does, you want to have your goods in the stores that people are coming into. Which is hard, since buyers have to buy for all the stores, not just the top ones.”
For his part, Hand said he hoped that the end of the dot-com flameout and the strong run of casualwear in the workplace, would spell good news for the apparel business.
“The dot-com phenomenon was the definition of the New Economy that never existed,” he said. “They were the ones that pushed the casual dress code, who thought you could get by on anything and that some things didn’t matter anymore. Now things are swinging back. That has to be good for the industry, because people are going to be buying more and better clothing, more suits and neckties and women’s jackets.”
The American Apparel & Footwear Association will present awards to Pomerantz and Hand, as well as National Retail Federation president and ceo Tracy Mullin and Sears vice president and general merchandise manager Gregory Sandfort, at a March 20 ceremony at the Sheraton New York Hotel in Manhattan.