Fashion’s Part in the 40-Year Inflation High

It’s the war in Ukraine and gasoline and fuel oil prices that are pushing inflation to 40-year highs — but fashion is playing its part, too, logging increases that could ultimately shape the relationship between brand and consumer.

Apparel and footwear prices for the month rose 6.8 percent from a year ago, just slightly leading the 6.5 percent jump seen in the Labor Department’s reading of “core” inflation, or prices on all goods outside of the volatile food and energy sectors.

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Women’s apparel prices rose 6.5 percent, while men’s prices jumped 8.8 percent and footwear logged 6.6 percent gains.

The increase reflects the strong consumer bounce back from earlier in the pandemic, but also the COVID-19-fueled supply chain tangles that are tying up shipping and disrupting factories.

That all seemed like plenty of trouble for the world and the economy, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put extreme stress on a global economic system that was already straining.

Russia is a key energy producer and the war — and the attendant sanctions by the West — have helped push prices much higher. Gasoline prices are up 48 percent from a year ago while fuel oil is up 70 percent.

All of this hits fashion in a number of ways. Brands and retailers are paying to bring goods into the country and to consumers, just as shoppers find themselves awash in rising prices.

While Washington is moving to fight inflation and the Federal Reserve has started ratcheting up interest rates, Stephen Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, argued there’s more President Joseph Biden can do — and quickly.

Lamar pointed to the tariffs on China that were first imposed by President Donald Trump, but have lingered and are raising costs and prices for industries, like fashion, that produce goods there.

“The tariff cost is something the president can do very quickly, and he can do it on his own,” Lamar said, noting Biden has said he wants to use all tools at his disposal to bring inflation down. “If they want to use every tool in the toolbox to provide relief for U.S. consumers, they can remove this tariff burden.”

Through the end of March, the additional tariffs on China have amounted to $132 million and more than $55 billion of that has been collected during Biden’s presidency.

While the tariffs were presented as part of a tough-on-China approach by Trump, Lamar and importers argued that duties don’t punish other countries, but American firms bringing in goods from abroad.

However, China has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, making it perhaps a politically difficult time for Biden to take steps that, even in the Beltway echo chamber, could be seen as rewarding China.

But Lamar said ditching the duties would help bring prices down now.

“Removing tariffs is something the president can do before I finish this sentence,” Lamar said. “He doesn’t want to be seen as being weak on China, but that’s an argument that was defined by the last president. The last president wasn’t tough on China, he was tough on the American consumer. What they should be doing is putting the American consumer first, not a flawed economic reasoning that the last administration used.”

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