Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — Throughout its 40-year existence, the American Apparel Manufacturers Associ-ation has keyed the theme of each annual meeting to a hot topic of the day, such as e-commerce, “imagineering” success or “Winning in Washington.”
This year’s meeting theme, “Honoring the Past, Planning for the Future” breaks the mold, and for good reason.
During the three-day session at Colonial Williamsburg, Va., the group’s board is expected to ratify plans to merge with Footwear Industries of America, forming the American Apparel and Footwear Association.
As if on cue, Congress last week passed a law that will provide incentives to make apparel in Caribbean Basin nations. The move, capping a seven-year drive by the AAMA, is expected to vastly increase U.S. companies’ sourcing from the region.
This measure, which also provides import perks for African-made apparel, is viewed by industry analysts as a watershed development that will further transform the American apparel industry’s manufacturing base.
“Our name change is fairly important, since it doesn’t show us as linked to manufacturing,” said James C. Jacobsen, vice chairman of Kellwood Co., who is concluding his one-year term as AAMA chairman.
The repositioned trade group, Jacobsen said, will focus on issues reflecting “the fact that the major U.S. apparel companies — and smaller ones, too — have moved away from manufacturing to be global marketing companies, just as the footwear industry did” in the Eighties.
The “honoring the past” portion of the meeting at the Williamsburg Lodge will honor all 40 past AAMA chairmen Thursday night at the posh Carter’s Grove Plantation, an antebellum mansion on land once owned by “King Carter,” the father of the American cotton industry.
In looking back over recent developments, Jacobsen and AAMA president Larry Martin said they are most pleased that the organization’s lobbying efforts helped win parity for Caribbean Basin makers with Mexican and Canadian apparel exporters under NAFTA.
They also noted the AAMA took the lead in creating a program that importers and retailers can use to certify that foreign apparel contractors do not operate sweatshops or violate labor and human rights laws.
The Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production program, set to begin operations next month, will be overseen by a board composed mainly of non-apparel-industry members.
Martin and Jacobsen candidly conceded another major goal set out last year has not come to fruition: convincing Wall Street that apparel firms are every bit as high tech and marketing-oriented as other consumer product makers.
The AAMA chairman will open Friday’s business session and likely will comment upon the opportunities afforded by passage of the Caribbean Basin-Africa legislation.
He will be followed by Carl Steidtmann, director and chief economist with Pricewater-houseCoopers, New York, who will discuss how apparel firms and retailers can re-orient their businesses from being “product and real-estate centric” to being driven by consumer demand.
Dovetailing with this presentation, Mike Fralix, industry services director of the Textile Clothing Technology Corp. of Cary, N.C., will present the latest research findings that could enable apparel makers to produce what amounts to clothing on demand for consumers.
Next up, Jeff Otis, president and chief operating officer of Toronto-based Grand National Apparel Inc., and the Canadian Apparel Federation’s immediate past president, and Alejandro Faes Noriega, president of Mexico’s apparel trade group, Camera Nacional de la Industria del Vestido, will discuss the outlook for apparel sales and manufacturing in their countries.
The outlook for apparel making and other businesses in the Caribbean Basin countries will be detailed by Donald Planty, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala who is the executive director of Caribbean Latin American Action.
Planty also will brief makers on the prospects for creating a Western Hemisphere free trade zone at the end of this decade — a goal President Clinton set during the mid-Nineties.
Wal-Mart’s plans for global expansion will be discussed by Lois Mikita, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of the world’s largest retailer.
Saturday’s business program will begin with a “changing of the guard” in which Jacobsen will present an overview of the past year’s accomplishments while the association’s goals for the coming year will be detailed by its incoming chairman, William Compton, chairman and ceo of Tropical Sportswear International, Tampa, Fla.
Kenneth H. (Buddy) MacKay Jr., President Clinton’s special envoy for the Americas, was a last-minute addition to the program.
Although MacKay’s office did not provide details about his presentation, it is expected he will focus on matters such as the new free-trade parity between Caribbean Basin apparel makers and Mexico’s.
MacKay will be followed by Robin Lewis, vice president of Fairchild’s Strategic Informa-tion Services, whose topic will be the “new economy” and how it affects apparel makers, suppliers and customers.
Peter Brown, president of Kurt Salmon Associates, will talk about the changed sourcing landscape in the next five years, and the effects retailing changes and e-commerce will have on American apparel companies.