AAFA’s American Image Awards Salute Wes Gordon, Lizanne Kindler, Carhartt and Allan Ellinger

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Instead of the standard, self-congratulatory acceptance speeches that are routine at many awards dinners, this year’s American Image Awards honorees were all about communal power.

Presented by the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Tuesday night’s seated dinner at Gotham Hall in New York City attracted a few hundred supporters. AAFA’s president and chief executive officer Steve Lamar set the tone with his welcoming remarks. He spoke of the collective strength that stems from our individual diversity and how he is looking forward to even stronger partnerships “as we fashion new extended producer responsibility mechanisms, negotiate smart trade programs, and scale circular solutions.”

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And the CFDA’s CEO Steven Kolb spoke of the upsides of the eight years of partnership between the CFDA and the AAFA, as well as this year’s award winners and the impact of recent scholarship. The event also is a chance to “reflect on the opportunities we’ve created together in partnership with the AAFA leadership,” he said.

The event’s emcee, Boston Globe Media’s Segun Oduolowu, was suited up by Todd Snyder, who was one of the designers in the crowd at Gotham Hall along with Cynthia Rowley, Michelle Ochs, Evan Hirsch and Dr. D’Wayne Edwards. Oduolowu appreciated the designer attire and showed off his modeling skills, which he had picked up as a college student.

Person of the Year recipient Lizanne Kindler, the KnitWell Group’s executive chair and chief executive officer, first saluted her family including an aunt Hanne Merriman, the former president of Garfinckel’s department stores. At the age of 11, the Danish-born Kindler spent a summer with her aunt, who was ahead of the take-a-child-to-work initiative. Thirty years later that passion for the industry is as strong as ever. But Kindler said “the opportunity to have a positive impact on people and the world around us through people” is what really motivates her. “When we bring people together and fuel diverse talent, we really bring the magic out in this amazing industry that we all love to be in,” she said.

Similarly, Kindler has had a magic touch financially on the brands that she oversees, according to her presenter, Sycamore Partners’ cofounder and managing director Stefan Kaluzny. He described meeting her 12 years ago to discuss buying Talbots together, “a company that had been left for dead.” Subsequently, Kindler and the team she assembled there turned Talbots from losing $50 million a year to making $150 million a year within 18 months. Kindler then led the business to seven years of consecutive growth, despite what was then described as “the retail Armageddon,” Kaluzny said. At the end of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, Kindler steered the acquisition of Ann Taylor, Loft and Lane Bryant — three bankrupt brands that were verging on liquidation and had lost $400 million that year, he said. Last year Kindler and her team generated a $350 million profit. In January, KnitWell added Chico’s, White House Black Market and Soma to its $6 billion portfolio.

Wes Gordon was also all about teamwork in describing how he has “the greatest job in the world” as creative director of Carolina Herrera. He praised the company’s founder, who gave him the opportunity, and enthused about president Emilie Rubinfeld, designers, patternmakers and other contributors. Gordon recalled how years ago his mother and father, a former Big 10 football player, had given him their “absolute unwavering support,” after he had gone to them with his arms full of sketches and dresses and said, “This is what I want to do.”

The designer also thanked his husband Paul for being there for “all of the struggles with impostor syndrome, anxiety, sleepless nights and trying to transition a legacy brand in America — something that unfortunately this town does not have a great history of,” he said.

Gordon also spoke of the need for a greater purpose, telling the crowd, “All of us in this room make stuff and the world has a lot of stuff. So the policy that I try to uphold and I hope that you do too is that if we’re lucky enough to dream up something, watch it come to life and be put into the world, we all have an obligation to make sure that it’s something great, beautiful and something that needs to be. Because we don’t need more stuff.”

Gordon added that something that he tries to fight for every day with every dress he makes “is the idea that pretty and beautiful are frivolous or weak. They’re the opposite. I think beauty is strength and strength is beauty,” he said. “We can’t control a lot. I start my day looking at the news and it’s bleak. If there’s an opportunity to infuse a little bit of joy, color and sunshine in someone’s life with the small things that we can control whether it’s a shoe, a dress, handbag or makeup… I’m not saying it’s going to cure cancer or save the world. But sometimes you need joy to fight the darkness,” Gordon said. “That’s why I believe now more than ever in the power of beauty and beautiful things.”

Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner for MMG Advisors, received the Trailblazer Award, but he sees himself in another light. Ellinger said he has gone through life privately and professionally as a problem solver and connector, and he recognized the opportunity to put his idea of community to the test nearly 20 years ago. “Our nation was suffering from back-to-back climate disasters brought on by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, which left many of our fellow Americans on the Gulf Coast with little more than the clothes that clung to their bodies,” he said.

Well aware of an excess inventory of apparel and home goods that the industry was sitting on “as it always does,” Ellinger said, “Those with the inventory wanted to put the inventory to work to help others. I simply had to do something to bring the two sides together and to figure out how to get the product to where it was needed.”

After calling on 40 or so colleagues and friends to rally the community, Ellinger orchestrated a range of products, services, media coverage, money and anything else that might help those in need. “No one said, ‘No.’ Everyone was on board…pro bono,” he said, adding that Fashion Delivers transpired from that and demonstrated the power of a transparent community with $6 million worth of products shipped for disaster relief within the first 12 months and then saw annual growth for several years.

After merging with a children’s charity in 2014, three years later that combined entity was renamed Delivering Good. Today the organization provides nearly $175 million annually to people in need and helps restore their dignity. “I truly believe at the heart of every community lies the spirit of generosity,” Ellinger said. “Giving is not really an act. It’s a commitment to help others.”

Accepting the Company of the Year award, Carharrt’s senior vice president of global product supply and operations Danilo Amoretty was also focused on values. The honor coincides with the brand’s 135-year anniversary and its ideology to “Respect the Past, While Walking Bravely Into the Future.” Amoretty, who was introduced by Tapestry’s CEO and Coach brand president Todd Kahn, spoke of the hardworking consumers who wear Carhartt on the job. To cater to them, he said, the company strives to continue to innovate its workwear with quality gear, enduring values, and sustainable practices to protect the planet for future generations.

Sustainability was a recurring theme especially with Global Fashion Agenda’s CEO Federica Marchionni, who accepted the Eco-Steward of the Year award on behalf of her organization. She urged attendees to take preventive measures now to improve environmentalism in the industry.

Earlier in the program Ferrara Manufacturing’s chief operating officer Gabrielle Ferrara spoke of how her family’s company is committed to local production. It is among the companies that has benefited from CFDA Foundation funds that were generated from the annual AAFA Awards.

While introducing Ferrara on stage, Ralph Lauren Corp.’s chief global impact and communications officer Katie Ioanilli saluted the work there too. Ferrera encouraged attendees to come see the company’s new multimillion-dollar manufacturing facility in Manhattan where it manufactures U.S. Olympic uniforms, many of Ralph Lauren’s top-shelf products and military uniforms among other items.

As the event’s on-stage proceedings drew to a close, Oduolowu encouraged guests to linger for the post-dinner open bar. While honorees and dozens of guests posed on the stage for a parting group photo, many of the other attendees appeared to have heeded his advice.

Launch Gallery: AAFA American Image Awards 2024

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