Byline: Stuart Chirls

NEW YORK — J. Nicholas Hahn, president and chief executive officer of Cotton Incorporated, may have thought the days of singing for his supper were over.
But there he was Wednesday night, on giant video, belting out a soulful rendition of Cotton’s theme at the Sheraton New York, before the 850 people attending The Fashion Association’s American Image Awards. “The touch…the feel…the fabric of our liiiives…” he sang.
It wasn’t Richie Havens, and Hahn knew it. “If I sold cotton the way I sing, polyester would still be king,” he confessed afterward.
Hahn has been a bit better at getting others to sing the praises of cotton. As the driving force behind the “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign, Hahn has helped the fiber gain a nearly 60 percent share of the total apparel market, making cotton one of the great consumer marketing success stories. The TFA agreed, bestowing its Special Recognition Award on Hahn and inducting him into the Apparel Industry Hall of Fame, along with Robert Rockey Jr., president of Levi Strauss North America, as manufacturer of the year, and David Nichols, chairman and ceo of Mercantile Stores Co., retailer of the year. The dinner benefited the Clothing Bank/New Clothes for the Homeless, a New York-based program that collects and distributes clothes to needy individuals.
On a more serious note, Hahn acknowledged privately that Cotton still has work to do in women’s apparel, where its market share is still under 50 percent. “We can’t sleep at the switch. We’ve got to continue to be aggressive in order to grow our share,” he said.
Rockey acknowledged his fellow honoree, joking, “Looking at today’s cotton prices, Nick may have done his job too well.” But he was humbled, too. “I am honored to be recognized, but the real importance is the recognition of the companies that we represent that make it all possible, and that none of us can be successful without each other.”
Paul Charron, chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne, lauded Nichols. “David is a master of divining how a regional retailer should operate.”
In accepting his award, Nichols noted how Mercantile fosters entrepreneurship among its associates, helping to make 1996 “the largest single year of new-store additions in the history of the company.” He added that such growth is also a by-product of the symbiotic relationship of his company with its environs.
“The more our communities prosper, the better our opportunities to prosper with them. And, simply, being a good citizen within the community is the right thing to do.”
For Hahn, the evening was the capper of a day of double tribute. At luncheon Wednesday, Hahn accepted the Humanitarian of the Year award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Textile and Home Fashions Division. Surveying the cocktail-hour crush, Hahn had these tips for managing the doubleheader: “Get plenty of sleep the night before, and keep your notes straight.”
Accepting the award, Hahn reflected a sobering pragmatism when he recalled the events of the Holocaust which even today echo in Cambodia, Bosnia and central Africa. “We don’t have to love each other, or even like each other,” he said. “But we do have to respect one another, as people of goodwill.”