Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — When the American Apparel & Footwear Association decided last fall to postpone its American Image Awards, the group said it hoped that by spring there would be some sign of an economic recovery to put attendees in a better mood.
The organizers guessed right. Many of the 400 apparel and retailing executives in attendance at the Wednesday night affair at the Sheraton New York Hotel said they had seen a pickup in business recently.
“There are signs that the economy is coming back and there is a reason for optimism,” said Terry Lundgren, president and chief merchandising officer of Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores. “This is a time to reposition and be ready to take advantage of the economy when it improves.”
One of his rivals, Brad Martin, chairman and chief executive of Birmingham, Ala.-based Saks Inc., concurred: “We indeed are seeing an uptick. Consumer sentiment is improving and product innovation and new styles are driving a rebound.”
The winners of this year’s women’s and men’s wear awards were also in an upbeat mood.
Elbert Hand, chairman and ceo of men’s resource Hartmarx Corp. of Chicago, said his suit reorder business was up 21 percent this year, a factor he attributed to the fading era of dot-com casual.
“The buzz on dressing up again is definitely happening,” he said.
While Hand had numbers to back up his assertion, fellow award winner John Pomerantz, chairman of New York’s Leslie Fay Co., said the return to dressy looks may not be coming to Seventh Avenue.
“My new ceo doesn’t even wear a tie,” he quipped, referring to W. John Short, who had assumed that role at Leslie Fay the morning of the awards ceremony.
Attendees also heard from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called the fashion business “one of the industries that preserves New York’s character.”
“We will make every effort to make sure that it’s easy to do business in New York City and to be profitable in New York City,” he said. “We are trying to be more business-friendly.”
Also honored at the event was Tracy Mullin, president and ceo of the Washington-based National Retail Federation, who accepted an award honoring the world’s retailers for their contributions to the Sept. 11 relief effort. The humanitarian award went to Gregory Sandfort, vice president and general merchandise manager for children’s apparel, furniture and toys at Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Sears Roebuck & Co. for his work at the group Kids In Distressed Situations.
Software provider SAP America Inc., a sponsor of the event, announced it would be making an $85,000 contribution to charities benefitting the relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.