Industry helps the needy

by Jean E. Palmieri

From WWD Issue 11/03/2010

Allan Ellinger’s most satisfying deal may be the one he helped engineer for the people of New Orleans.

Ellinger, the senior managing partner of MMG, an investment banking and strategic advisory firm, has created alliances between brands ranging from Oxford Industries Inc. and Arnold Brant to Tharanco Group and Greg Norman. But his efforts to link the apparel industry and the victims of Hurricane Katrina was another thing altogether.

It led to the creation of Fashion Delivers, which will hold its annual fund-raiser tonight at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan.

In the aftermath of the devastating 2005 storm, Ellinger received calls from manufacturers seeking to provide apparel to displaced residents. “They wanted to ship goods to New Orleans, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it,” he said. “Part of my job is solving problems, so I started making phone calls.”

Ellinger found that major relief agencies — the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross — were focused on providing food, water and medicine, not clothes. So he mobilized 30 owner-operators of large apparel firms and outlined what he believed would be a simple solution to get goods shipped to the city. A board was formed, consisting of men’s, women’s and home goods vendors, and Ellinger asked financial firms such as CIT Group Inc., HSBC and J.P. Morgan Chase for “money to prime the pump,” he said. “And we were able to start shipping merchandise within a month.”

Fashion Delivers has distributed more than $80 million of donated product in the past five years. It has worked to provide new apparel and home goods to Iowa flood victims and Operation Homefront, which provides emergency assistance to the families of those serving in the military. Its most recent project has been to aid the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, where its Fashion Delivers Hope initiative has provided more than $37 million in goods for the relief effort. Ellinger visited Haiti in May to ensure that the merchandise was being used for its proper purpose. 

Tonight’s fund-raiser will honor Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Sweney, executive vice president of women’s apparel for J.C. Penney Co. Inc., and Neil Cole, chief executive officer of Iconix Brand Group. Presenters will include Myron “Mike” Ullman 3rd, chairman and ceo of Penney’s, and Terry Lundgren, chairman, ceo and president of Macy’s Inc. Marty Staff, former ceo of JA Apparel and model Molly Sims will act as pledge masters for an interactive Text to Pledge fund-raising drive at the dinner. 

The event is a sellout with almost $1.5 million in ticket sales.

“We coordinate the contribution of new men’s, women’s and home product to the needy,” Ellinger said. “Our whole purpose is to raise product, not money.” 

In order to get product to those who need it, the organization has to pay shipping costs as well as the overhead to keep the organization running — overhead that Ellinger said is less than 2 percent of the value of the shipments.

Although disaster relief may get the most attention, Fashion Delivers also works to provide aid to those in need throughout the year. Donated product finds its way to the Ronald McDonald House, Women in Need, the Bowery Mission and many other organizations. Fashion Delivers works with a network of more than 1,200 local agencies across the U.S. to coordinate the delivery of excess product.

Among the 650-plus companies that support the group are: Aéropostale, American Apparel, Anne Klein, Armani Exchange, Calvin Klein, Capital Mercury Apparel, Converse, Forever 21, Hanesbrands Inc., Jones Group, Limited Brands, Macy’s, Michael Kors, Perry Ellis, Polo Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret.

Ellinger said companies that align themselves with Fashion Delivers benefit in several ways. First, it’s a worthy cause. Second, it eliminates the cost of warehousing excess inventory. Third, qualifying corporations can get a tax break for the value of the donated inventory. “It’s a very simple, transparent way of helping,” said Haresh Tharani, chairman of the Tharanco Group and a board member of Fashion Delivers. 

Despite the recession, Ellinger said there is plenty of inventory available in the market and fashion executives are eager to be involved. 

Michael Setola, president and ceo of the Greg Norman Collection and a founding member of the charity, said: “We’ve been very fortunate that our mission resonates with people.” The group’s challenge is to “make people realize there are needs everyday, not just during an epic disaster.”

Rick Darling, president of LF USA, a subsidiary of Li & Fung Ltd., said, “Fashion Delivers is truly a grassroots effort on the part of the industry to use our resources to help people in their time of need get their lives back together and boost their self-esteem. LF USA has been a founding member and believes Fashion Delivers aligns with our core values and those of our associates.” 

Ellinger hopes to expand the group’s reach beyond its roots in New York. “My dream is to have a chapter on the West Coast someday,” he said.