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AAFA CEO on Alibaba Innovation Award, Fashion Industry Challenges in 2020

The American Apparel & Footwear Association this week named Alibaba Group its 2020 “Retail Innovator of the Year.” The influential industry group handed out its American Image Awards virtually this year to respect Covid-related social-distancing norms. Ahead of the AAFA’s annual awards gala, we talked with its CEO, Steve Lamar, about how the U.S. apparel and footwear sector is faring in the wake of the pandemic, the growing importance of global markets for U.S. brands and more.

WATCH: Innovation in fashion at Alibaba.

2020 has been an unprecedented year for the retail industry. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing AAFA members this year?

2020 ushered in shocking Covid-19 health and economic crises; and with those came unparalleled hurdles for the industry across trade, supply chain and manufacturing, and brand protection – all of the areas we represent for our membership. When it rains, it pours, and that was the case as the industry mobilized on an unprecedented, global scale to tackle many challenges that cropped up and evolved on a near-continuous basis – protecting workers and consumers, managing severe liquidity shocks, addressing endless and shifting supply chain disruptions, pivoting to make items of personal protective equipment, and more. And as so many of us sheltered in place and at home, it brought unique challenges and opportunities for how we work as well as with regard to e-commerce, as your readers well know.

Since March, AAFA has hosted more than 50 coronavirus policy calls with our membership, where we address all facets of the Covid-19 fallout and how to recover together.

For example, AAFA has been pushing for tariff relief, tariff deferral, more robust stimulus measures to support the industry, including paycheck protection and trade credit insurance. We have developed shared guidelines to support companies manufacturing Personal Protective Equipment and for retailers as they navigated (and re-navigate) store re-openings domestically and factory re-openings globally. We found ourselves on a different front-line where we needed a series of new tailored industry resources. These can all be accessed from AAFA’s Covid-19 Resource Center at aafaglobal.org/COVID19.

New opportunities are cropping up left and right. The initial opportunity was the pivot to manufacturing of PPE for medical workers, and cloth face coverings for everyone across all professions and industries.

Most recently, we’ve found that our membership and stakeholders can gather together with more ease as we focus on virtual events/learning. This has been an unexpected benefit; meetings like our August 2020 Global Supply Chain and Trade Conference with record turnout gave us all confidence that we can move the needle forward on the challenges we face in the global value chain – from more-sustainable supply chains to improved worker safety around the globe.

The AAFA American Image Awards has a long tradition of honoring the movers and shakers of the retail industry. What made you pick Alibaba as your “Retail Innovator of the Year?”

Retail is facing a confluence of social and economic impacts that require profound transformation. It is an expectation of right time, right place, right product – and right now! This demand is global and continues to accelerate. Against this backdrop, Alibaba is driving the digitization of the retail value chain and the innovation necessary for business and consumers to come together in a meaningful way. A global leader of online and mobile commerce, Alibaba is providing businesses with the technology infrastructure, marketing data, and social interaction to build the future of commerce. AAFA is honored to present Alibaba with its 2020 Retail Innovator of the Year award.

WATCH: CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin introduces Alibaba Group at the AAFA American Image Awards.

We know that the AAFA American Image Awards have been a star-studded extravaganza for the U.S. retail industry for years. Could you tell us more about the awards? What makes this year’s event so special?

Owned and operated by the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the American Image Awards has a 40-year legacy of honoring people and companies who have exemplified leadership, excellence and outstanding achievement in all sectors of the apparel and footwear industry — including design, manufacturing and retail. The awards have a dual purpose of recognizing inspirational and innovative leadership while supporting a charity beneficiary to sustain the future growth of our industry. Under the auspices of our theme, “Celebrating Fashion’s Future,” the American Image Awards is a unique cross-section of influencers celebrating creativity while drawing attention to key public policy impacts on fashion and design. AAFA is proud to team with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Foundation for the fourth consecutive year as our exclusive beneficiary. The 2020 awards are incredibly special. The global pandemic has dramatically impacted our industry and our communities, and this auspicious group will be celebrated for their accomplishments as well as global leaders propelling the industry forward at this incredibly difficult time.

With everyone looking for ways to find growth at such a critical time, how important are international markets for the U.S. apparel and footwear sectors?

They are vital. Let’s start with the fact that 96% of the people on the planet who wear clothes and shoes live outside the United States. That’s a lot of people who are looking for the latest fashions.  While it is true that some markets – the U.S. and EU – have traditionally been larger opportunities due to their market size, that is rapidly changing as countries that were not traditionally seen as big markets have now emerged.  Of course, the classic example is China, which – because of the sheer number of people and their rapidly increasing buying power – is now a top market for apparel and footwear globally. 

Can you talk specifically about the China opportunity for U.S. apparel and footwear brands? What’s appealing about it, and where are the “sweet spots” for penetration and growth? Anecdotally, what is it about these American brands that the Chinese consumers like?

Chinese love authenticity, and that is what American brands have to offer. They also want to tap into the experience or lifestyle that those U.S. brands offer. What’s incredible is that this consumer strength – long established in tier-one cities – is starting to manifest it strongly in tier-two and tier-three cities as well as consumers in those locales become more sophisticated and develop greater buying power.

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