How COVID-19 has shifted US apparel companies’ sourcing strategies?

The article is available HERE (need Just-Style subscription)

Key findings

First, more US apparel companies prioritize consolidating their existing sourcing base than diversification during the pandemic. Nearly half of the top 30 US apparel companies we examined explicitly say they either sourced from fewer countries or worked with fewer vendors in 2020 than 2017-2019 before the pandemic. In comparison, only about one-third of respondents say they were sourcing from more countries in 2020 than two years.

Second, the desire to form a closer relationship with key vendors and ensure social and environmental compliance are the two primary factors behind US apparel companies’ consolidation strategy. In a time of uncertainty like the pandemic, apparel companies are leaning more heavily on suppliers that have proven reliable, capable, and flexible. Working closely with the suppliers and building an efficient and trust-based supply chain also play a central role in US fashion companies’ COVID-mitigation strategies. Meanwhile, with social and environmental compliance becoming increasingly crucial in apparel sourcing today, companies are cutting ties with vendors that are not adhering to government mandates and proprietary codes of conduct. Notably, US apparel companies’ higher expectations for sustainability as well as social and environmental compliance may have resulted in a smaller pool of qualified suppliers.

Third, the desire to steer away from China and reduce sourcing risks are the two main drivers behind US fashion companies’ recent sourcing diversification strategy. US apparel companies mostly moved their sourcing orders from China to China’s competitors in Asia instead of expanding “near-sourcing. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see US apparel companies keep a relatively diverse sourcing base to control various sourcing risks in the current business setting.

Fourth, the content analysis further reveals that US fashion brands and retailers commit to sourcing and supply chain innovation in response to COVID-19 and the new business environment. Some specific sourcing strategies are noteworthy:

  • Work with “super vendors,” i.e., vertically integrated suppliers that can execute multiple steps in the supply chain or those with production facilities in numerous countries.
  • Optimize supply chain process to improve speed to market.
  • Adjust fabric and textile raw material sourcing base, although the specific strategies vary from company to company.

By Emma Davis and Dr. Sheng Lu

How Is the Pandemic Changing the Global Fashion Industry?

Note: In the video “Textile” actually refers to “garment”

Related readings

Which Apparel Sourcing Factors Matter?

Key findings:

The apparel sourcing formula is getting ever more sophisticated today. US fashion brands and retailers consider a wide range of factors when deciding where to source their products. The long list of sourcing factors includes #1 Capacity, #2 Price & tariff, #3 Stability, #4 Sustainability, and #5 Quality (see the table below).

When evaluating the world’s top 27 largest apparel supplying countries’ performance,  no souring destination appears to be perfect. In general, fashion brands and retailers have many choices for sourcing destinations that can meet their demand for production capacity, price point, and quality. However, fashion companies face much more limited options when seeking an apparel sourcing destination with a stable financial and political environment and a strong sustainability record.

When we compare the trade volume and the performance against the five primary sourcing factors:

  • Apparel sourcing today is no longer a “winner takes all” game. Notably, the factor “Capacity” is suggested to have limited impacts on the value of apparel imports from a particular sourcing destination.
  • Apparel sourcing is not merely about “competing on price” either--the impact of the factor “Price & tariff” on the pattern of apparel imports statistically is not significant.
  • Improving financial and political stability as well as product quality can help a country enhance its attractiveness as an apparel sourcing base. In particular, American and Asia-based fashion companies seem to give substantial weight to the factors of “Stability” and “Product quality” in their sourcing decisions.
  • Fashion companies’ current sourcing model does not always provide strong financial rewards for sustainability. Interestingly, the result indicates that a higher score for the factor “sustainability” does NOT result in more sourcing orders at the country level. Behind the result, fashion companies today likely consider sustainability and compliance at the vendor level rather than at the country level in their sourcing decisions. It is also likely that sustainability and compliance are treated more as pre-requisite or “bottom-line” criteria instead of a factor to determine the volume of the sourcing orders. 

In conclusion, fashion companies’ sourcing decisions seem to be more complicated and subtle than what is often described in public.

By Emma Davis and Sheng Lu

Further reading: Emma Davis & Sheng Lu (2021). Which apparel sourcing factors matter the most?. Just-Style.

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports: Key Trends (Updated: February 2021)

First, affected by the surge of COVID cases and consumers’ slowed spending, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 15.7% in December 2020, the worst performance since September 2020. Specifically, the value of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 shrank by 6.4% from November 2020 (seasonally adjusted), compared with an 8.8% growth from Aug to September, a 4.6% growth from September to October (seasonally adjusted), and a slight 0.3% decline from October to November (seasonally adjusted).

The substantial drop of U.S. apparel imports in December 2020 also altered the recovery trajectory. Overall, the outlook of US apparel imports in 2021 is hopeful but remains far from uncertain.

Second, supporting the findings of some recent studies, data suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers continue to reduce their “China exposure” in 2020. For example, both the HHI index and market concentration ratios (CR3 and CR5) suggest that apparel sourcing orders are gradually moving from China to other Asian countries. Measured by value, only 23.7% of U.S. apparel imports came from China in 2020, a new record low in the past ten years (was 29.7% in 2019 and 33% in 2018).

However, China’s apparel exports to the US lost more market shares from 2018-2019 than 2019-2020–it seems the impact of the trade war is more significant than the COVID.

The latest data confirms the concerns that some non-economic factors negatively affect China’s prospect as an apparel sourcing destination. For example, the reported forced labor issue related to Xinjiang, China, and a series of actions taken by the U.S. government (such as the CBP withhold release orders) have significantly affected U.S. cotton apparel imports from China. Measured by value, only 15.4% of U.S. cotton apparel came from China in 2020, compared with 22.2% in 2019 and 28% back in 2017. While China’s total textile and apparel exports to the US dropped by 30.7% in 2020, China’s cotton textiles and cotton apparel exports to the US went down more sharply by nearly 40%.

Third, despite Covid-19, Asia as a whole remains the single largest source of apparel for the U.S. market. Other than China, Vietnam (19.6% in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019), ASEAN (32.3% in 2020 and vs. 27.4% in 2019), Bangladesh (8.2% in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019), and Cambodia (4.4% in 2020 vs. 3.2% in 2019) all gain additional market shares in 2020 from a year ago.

Fourth, due to seasonal factors, around 21% of U.S. apparel imports came from the Western Hemisphere in December 2020. Notably, to fulfill consumers’ last-minute holiday orders, which require faster speed to market, U.S. fashion companies typically do relatively more near-sourcing from September to December. In comparison, U.S. fashion companies place more sourcing orders with Asian suppliers from June to late September/early October.

However, no clear evidence suggests that U.S. fashion brands and retailers have been giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere because of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China tariff war. In 2020, 9.6% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from USMCA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

by Sheng Lu

Sourcing Strategy Comparison: EU VS. US Fashion Companies—Comments from Students in FASH455

“Hugo Boss’s sourcing strategies are relatively different from fashion brands and retailers in the US. Hugo Boss’s self-owned production facilities are all located in Europe, and they follow the general trend of Eastern Europe being responsible for mass production items and Western Europe being responsible for more of the fine craftsmanship/made-to-measure items. Hugo Boss’s production distribution, which is 53% in Europe, 40% occurs in Asia, 6% in Africa, and 1% in the Americas, is much more diverse than the production distribution of the United States’ T&A industry, which heavily relies on Asian suppliers. It is indicative of a strong regional supply chain in Europe, and because the regional supply chain in the Americas is not as strong due to complicated trade agreements and lack of production capacity, many fashion brands and retailers heavily depend on overseas production from Asian countries. “

“I think that EU’s sourcing strategies are different from the U.S.’s sourcing strategy in the sense that it is kept within Europe. In the U.S., they are currently trying to bring the sourcing supply chain back to the Western Hemisphere, but it is very difficult for fashion brands to concede when sourcing is cheaper in Asia, and there is not enough labor who are trained for the work that they need. Over at the EU, with everything kept within the organization, it is a lot easier to find factories within different countries without reducing GDP since it is kept within the organization.”

“I think that one of the biggest differences between EU and US fashion brand’s sourcing strategies is the fact that there is a much higher luxury or high-end apparel market in the EU. Since they produce mostly luxury apparel products, they naturally place a lot more emphasis on the quality of their products being made rather than the quantity and speed of production. Since the US is more fast-fashion heavy, we do a lot more outsourcing of production so retailer’s are able to produce as many clothes as possible within a short period of time at a very low cost which is simply not achievable in many US clothing factories.”

“Hugo Boss pays close attention to where they are sourcing from and where each of their products should be made within their 4 production facilities. This stuck out to me because I don’t know how many US fashion brands have their own production facilities. I know a lot of brands outsource to countries like China and Bangladesh to factories who are also making clothing for many different brands.”

EU has developed countries as well as developing countries, unlike the US. Western EU countries like Italy, France, UK and Germany are developed and focus more so on textile production. Whereas developing countries in the EU like Poland and Hungary focus more heavily on apparel manufacturing. In addition, unlike the US, the developed countries in EU also produce apparel exports, of high level, luxury goods.”

“It seems that in the EU the main focus is quality and social standards for these fashion brands and production. In the US, promoting local economic growth seems to be more of the focus of the free trade agreements. Sourcing for HUGO BOSS at least has strategically chosen factories where they can ensure quality checks and know how to conditions are. In the US, outside of the region, it seems that there are a lot of brands who do not know their secondary producers…”

“As the EU is more focused on production in high end markets than is the US, they (EU fashion companies) source more high-end quality fabrics. Progress has been made through technological advances, as the HUGO BOSS group developed the “smart factory” to further improve the quality of their fabrics and recognize any potential flaws before production. This stood out to me as a major difference, considering the US focuses on producing more fast-fashion goods and prioritizes high productivity overall quality garments. Also, they are more careful in their selection of suppliers and strive to build more long-term relationships with their suppliers. In comparision, most US fashion companies just try to produce as cheap and fast as possible through a short-term transctional-based importer-vendor relationship.”

“I think the sourcing strategies are similar to the U.S. in the fact that they source from various countries, creating this sense of “Made in the World.” However, there are differences as well. HUGO BOSS uses their own production facilities in addition to sourcing from other countries which is something we do not see often in the US. In fact, most brands and retailers in the US do not have their own production facilities or vertical supply chain, but instead source from overseas. Additionally, HUGO BOSS carefully selects their suppliers and immediately focus on social responsibility. US sourcing strategies seem to emphsis more on finding a factory with the lowest labor costs. EU brands and retailers, on the other hand, test their suppliers with test orders before selecting them as a supplier for the brand, and immediately develop social responsibility practices, such as trainings and building relationships. In the US, brands and retailers tend to focus on social responsibility in response to bad press and typically do so by a top-down approach.”

“The sourcing strategy in the Europe cares more about social impact. Retailers and brands there promote and educate their suppliers to be sustainable and take over their social responsibility. Another one is the European fashion retailers and brands are more likely to locate their product facilities within the Europe. Since the Europe does have a relatively stable and complete supply chain, the retailers and brands are able to saving transportation cost and expand the lead time. Third, the technology becomes an important factors for retailers and brands to consider. They are attempting to utilize technology to enhance the performance and their production process. “

“Hugo Boss strives to be the most desirable fashion and lifestyle brand in the premium sector. This shows in their emphasis on design, comfort, fit, and durability, as well as being mindful of their social and environmental impacts. They maintain long term relationships with a careful selection of suppliers, demand social compliance, and stay up to date with their “smart factory” aka AIs to speed up production and quality. They also source heavily from Asia, but also developed countries such as Italy and Germany. These values and practices are manifested in American brands, however, I believe we aren’t as extensive with sourcing from developed countries (such as Italy). From what I have learned thus far, it seems we source from countries close by and/or developing, but not so much mingling with luxury known countries, such as France or Italy (and if we do, the prices are expensive, and American customers don’t want to pay higher prices). We (US), too, source heavily from Asia, because it is cheap, and still focus internally on our own country when it comes to being more competitive in technological advancements. American and EU consumers alike value transparency in the clothing brands they buy from, and American brands are mindful of this, too. I would say we are more alike than different.”

[Please feel free to critique the comments above and join our online discussion]

Related readings

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: June 2020)

The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened further in April 2020. Specifically:

  1. Unusually but not surprisingly, the value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 44.5% in April 2020 from a year ago. Between January and April 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 19.6% year over year, which has been much worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).

2. As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by a new record of 59.0% in April 2020 compared with a year ago (and -46.4% drop year to date). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 22% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first four months of 2020).

3. For the second month in a row, Vietnam surpassed China and ranked the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in April 2020. China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market remained as low as 18.2% in April 2020 (was 30% in 2019), although it slightly recovered from only 11% in March 2020. With U.S.-China relations at a new low, there have been more intensified discussions on how to move the entire textile and apparel supply chain out of China and diversify apparel sourcing from the Asia region as a whole. However, as China itself has grown into one of the world’s largest apparel consumption markets, there is little doubt that China will remain a critical player for apparel sourcing, especially for the “China for China” business model.

4. Continuing the trend emerged in recent years, China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (19.7% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.8% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first four months of 2020, still only 9.4% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (down from 10.3% in 2019) and 4.1% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

5. As a reflection of weak demand, the unit price of U.S. apparel imports was lower in the first four months of 2020 (price index =102.1) compared with 2019 (price index =104.7).  Imports from China have seen the most notable price decrease so far (price index =71.5 YTD in 2020 vs. 83.5 in 2019).

by Dr. Sheng Lu

New Reports: Time for Change & State of Fashion 2020 (Coronavirus update)

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The study was conducted based on a survey of 116 sourcing executives from fashion retailers and brands predominantly in North America and Western Europe between April 14 and April 22, 2020.

Key findings:

First, the fashion industry’s sourcing operations have been hit hard by COVID-19

  • Sales revenues are expected to contract by 27 to 30 percent in 2020 year over year.
  • Jointed affected by store closures and supply disruptions, two-thirds of fashion sourcing executives expect a cut in sourcing volumes by at least 20 percent in 2020, while only 18 percent expect a smaller decline of between 5 and 20 percent.

Second, regarding fashion companies’ immediate response to COVID-19:

  • Most sourcing executives are adopting a mixed approach to managing existing orders through a combination of reducing the number of orders, reducing the quantities per order, and canceling finished-goods orders. Almost half of the respondents (49 percent) have canceled less than a quarter of their existing orders of finished goods, while 22 percent have not canceled any orders at all. In general, European fashion players are using cancellations less often than those from North America.
  • Most fashion retailers and brands (90 percent of respondents) are accepting shipping delays for at least some of their orders. Around two-fifths of respondents are accepting delays for more than half of their orders.

Third, fashion brands and retailers are taking measures to support critical supplier base:

  • Measures commonly taken by fashion companies include collaboration with factories in cost reduction, providing payment of raw material and fabrics, forward looking collaboration in research and development, or product design.
  • However, still, only 19 percent of respondents say they are providing pre-payment for sourcing orders.
  • Meanwhile, 45 percent of sourcing executives expecting more than half of their suppliers to be in the next six months.

Fourth, fashion companies are thinking about the “next normal” for apparel sourcing:

  • 76 percent of respondents believe that COVID-19 will accelerate flexibility and speed for apparel sourcing. This includes a high acceleration of more flexible product development with shorter lead times and smaller batch sizes in sourcing orders.
  • Achieving social and environmental sustainability in sourcing is becoming mainstream in the next normal. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on companies’ commitments to the safety of their customers, staff, and those working in the global value chain.
  • 74 percent of respondents anticipate that digitization of product development and sourcing processes will accelerate and 60 percent agree that on-demand production through (semi)-automation will be a key driver in enabling new business models.

Fifth, regarding fashion companies’ adjustment of sourcing destinations:

  • The report suggests “the trend to move volume out of China has been slowed slightly by COVID-19”, particularly because “the strong value chain integration in China that makes raw material access less disruption prone than the globally interconnected value chains that fashion production countries depend upon.”
  • South-East Asian sourcing markets have been less disrupted and are expected to gain share compared to the pre-COVID-19 five-year trend.
  • COVID-19 has led to a reversal of the medium-term trends in Bangladesh with about a third of sourcing executives expecting volume decreases.
  • 46 percent of sourcing executives indicated they expect the trend of “near-sourcing” to increase next year

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Key findings:

  • The fashion industry is just at the beginning of its struggle with COVID-19: 1) duration and ultimate severity of the pandemic remains unknown; 2) Stores and factory closures have significantly disrupted the supply chain; 3) consumers’ demand plummets.
  • The developing world, where most clothing is currently sourced from, will face the most hardship caused by COVID-19, namely Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Honduras, and Ethiopia. While developed nations could recover from COVID-19 relatively fast, these developing counties, especially the least developed ones (LDCs), may suffer from a more extended period of high unemployment, which means widespread hunger and disease.
  • COVID-19 will result in significant shifts in consumers’ preferences: 1) The pandemic will bring values around sustainability into sharp focus, intensifying discussions around materialism, over-consumption, and irresponsible business practices. 2) A significant drop in consumer spending on apparel will result in massive inventory build-ups. 3) Social distancing has highlighted the importance of digital channels more than ever and the lockdown has elevated digital as an urgent priority across the entire value chain.
  • The fashion industry will look very different in the post-Covid19 world. 1) The ensuing financial distress will spur industry consolidation to an extent significantly greater than that caused by the 2008 global financial crisis. 2) COVID-19 will turn fashion into an even more “winner-takes-all” industry. 3) Innovation will scaled-up along the entire fashion value chain. Regarding sourcing, it means “near sourcing” and “vendor integration.”

Summarized by Meera Kripalu (Honors student, Marketing and Fashion Merchandising double majors).

COVID-19 and U.S. Apparel Imports (Updated: May 2020)

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The latest statistics from the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) show that the negative impact of COVID-19 on U.S. apparel imports deepened in March 2020. Specifically:

  • The value of U.S. apparel imports sharply decreased by 14.8% in March 2020 from a year ago. Between January and March 2020, the value of U.S. apparel imports decreased by 12.1% year over year, which has been worse than the performance during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (down 11.8%).
  • As the first country took a hit by COVID-19, China’s apparel exports to the United States continue to deteriorate—its value decreased by as much as 52.4% in March 2020 compared with a year ago (and -43.1% drop year to date in 2020). This result is also worse than the official Chinese statistics, which reported an overall 20.6% drop in China’s apparel exports in the first quarter of 2020.

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  • For the first time in history, Vietnam surpassed China and became the top apparel supplier to the U.S. market in March 2020. Notably, China’s market shares in the U.S. apparel import market dropped to only 11% in March 2020 (and 18.3% year to date in 2020), a new record low in history (was 30% in 2019). However, it should be noted that long before COVID-19, U.S. fashion brands and retailers have begun to reduce their exposure to sourcing from China, especially since October 2019 due to concerns about the US-China tariff war.

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  • China’s lost market shares have been picked up mostly by other Asian suppliers, particularly Vietnam (18.9% YTD in 2020 vs. 16.2% in 2019) and Bangladesh (9.4% YTD in 2020 vs.7.1% in 2019). However, no clear evidence has suggested that U.S. fashion brands and retailers are giving more apparel sourcing orders to suppliers from the Western Hemisphere. In the first three months of 2020, still, only 10.3% of U.S. apparel imports came from CAFTA-DR members (no change from 2019) and 4.4% from NAFTA members (down from 4.5% in 2019).

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  • The unit price of U.S. apparel imports remains relatively stable. The price index (2010=100) in the first three months of 2020 was 103 compared with 104.7 in 2019. However, as a reflection of weak demand, the price index of U.S. apparel imports from China substantially dropped to 72.2 Year to Date in 2020 compared with 83.5 in 2019.

The discussion is closed for this post.

New Analysis: UK’s Apparel Sourcing Patterns under the Shadow of Brexit

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The full article is available HERE

Key findings:

First, mirroring the trend of aggregate market demand, the value of UK’s apparel imports has only grown marginally over the past decade. Specifically, between 2010 and 2018, the compound annual growth rate of UK’s apparel imports was close to zero, which was notably lower than 1.4% of the world average, the United States (1.9%), Japan (1.5%) and even the European Union as a whole (1.1%).

Second, UK’s fashion brands and retailers are gradually reducing imports from China and diversifying their sourcing base. Similar to other leading apparel import markets in the world, China was the largest apparel-sourcing destination for UK fashion companies, followed by Bangladesh, which enjoys duty-free access to the UK under EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Because of geographic proximity and the duty-free benefits under the Customs Union with the EU, Turkey was the third-largest apparel supplier to the UK.

Affected by a mix of factors ranging from the increasing cost pressures, intensified competition to serve the needs of speed-to-market better, the market shares of “Made in China” in the UK apparel import market had dropped significantly from its peak of 37.2% in 2010 to a record low of 21.4% in 2018. However, no single country has emerged to become the “next China” in the UK market. Notably, while China’s market shares decreased by 6.3 percentage points between 2015 and 2018, the next top 4 suppliers altogether were only able to gain 0.7 percentage points of additional market shares over the same period.

Third, despite Brexit, the trade and business ties between the UK and the rest of the EU for textile and apparel products are strengthening. Thanks to the regional supply chain, EU countries as a whole remain a critical source of apparel imports for UK fashion brands and apparel retailers. More than 33% of the UK’s apparel imports came from the EU region in 2018, a record high since 2010. On the other hand, the EU region also is the single largest export market for UK fashion companies.

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Fourth, the potential impacts of no-deal Brexit on UK fashion companies’ sourcing cost seem to be modest:

  • For products currently sourced from countries without a free trade agreement with the EU (such as China) and those Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) beneficiaries that enjoy non-zero preferential duty rates, the tariff rate in the no-deal Brexit scenario will be lower than the current level, as round 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free.
  • For products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under the GSP program (such as EBA beneficiary countries), their duty-free market access to the UK will remain unchanged according to the temporary tariff regime.
  • Products currently sourced from EU countries and Turkey will lose the duty-free benefits and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, because around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest.
  • Likewise, products currently sourced from countries that enjoy duty-free benefits under an EU free trade agreement could lose the duty-free treatment and be subject to the MFN tariff rate. However, as around 44% of tariff lines will be duty-free and the UK has signed several continuity trade agreements with some of these countries, the magnitude of tariff increase should be modest overall too. Additionally, these countries are minor sourcing bases for UK fashion companies.

 About the authors: Victoria Langro is an Honors student at the University of Delaware; and Dr. Sheng Lu is an Associate Professor in Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.