By  on September 13, 1994

WOONSOCKET, R.I. -- The way Richard Forte sees it, both the tight supply of cashmere and the rising price of the raw fiber will change the face of that business considerably over the next few years -- if they haven't done so already.

Forte, president and chief executive officer of Forte Cashmere Co., a veteran dehairer of raw cashmere and more recently a distributor of cashmere sweaters, said those two developments, along with a proliferation of what he calls "contaminated" cashmere apparel, are already having an impact in the cashmere market this year.

Cashmere apparel that has been contaminated is usually mislabeled as 100 percent cashmere, when, in fact, it contains wool and a blend of cashmere and mohair -- known in the trade as cashgora.

Among the changes Forte sees:

A disappearance of 100 percent Chinese cashmere sweaters from low-end retailers.

A more demanding retailer and consumer, who may have been stung by poor grades of cashmere.

A thinning out of the distributors of cashmere fiber, as well as those who spin, knit and weave it.

To stay in the cashmere game, 77-year-old FCC, the leading importer of raw cashmere in the U.S., has placed cashmere experts in the prime countries of origin: China, in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot, and Mongolia, in Ulan Bator. It also is building up enough inventory in raw cashmere and finished sweaters to meet retailer and mill needs, should a shortage develop. The company has had its own buyers for sweaters in China and Mongolia since 1991, the year it went into the sweater business. For raw fiber, FCC has had a buyer in China since 1990. With these safeguards, FCC has been educating its accounts about the quality problems it may find in the market.

"We're counting on Forte to keep supplying us with the real Chinese cashmere," said Jim Schaal, buyer of sportswear and dresses at Gidding-Jenny, Cincinnati, one of Forte's about 400 specialty store accounts. "This looks like a hot year for cashmere sweaters, and we don't want to get cut short."

Discussing the need for representation in the countries producing the fiber, Forte said, "The European sweater makers are finding that it's difficult to operate outside of the country of origin, and they may begin to suffer next year because of it."For retailers, if they deal with agents who are not knowledgeable or reputable and who don't know what they are selling, they could find themselves facing serious shortages or, even worse, subpar fiber."

Forte was interviewed at the company's dehairing plant here, a 120-year-old former spinning mill. While he wouldn't be specific about volume, he indicated the company's sales are between $20 million and $40 million.

The business is split evenly between supplying raw fiber and sweaters. The sweaters are knitted in Inner Mongolia.

Currently, Chinese cashmere -- which at 14 to 15 1/2 microns is the finest and is usually used in knitted sweaters -- is now selling at about $100 per kilo, compared with $65 last year. In 1989, the price was about $175 per kilo and had declined each succeeding year until last year. One micron is one-millionth of a meter. A human hair is about 50 microns.

Iranian cashmere, a coarser type, about 16 to 19 microns, is usually found in woven fabrics. It is currently selling at about $72 per kilo, compared with about $50 last year. In 1989, the price was about $125 per kilo.

"You look around now and you see women's cashmere sweaters virtually in every retail distribution channel, even at the lower end in stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls," said Forte.

"With the market being in such tight supply, I guarantee that next year you will not see cashmere sweaters in those stores, because instead of being $59, they'll be $79," Forte added. "Any sweaters that are labeled as 100 percent Chinese cashmere, and sell for $59, are in no way, truly Chinese cashmere. It's impossible."

While the sweater market is the newest and fastest-growing segment of FCC's business, the company isn't about to neglect its roots -- as a cashmere fiber supplier to both knitters and weavers.

In addition to its dehairing plant here, which services FCC's U.S. customers, the company also has sites in Belgium, China and Mongolia to service Europe and the Far East. The plant here employs between 50 and 100, depending on the season, Forte said. The company dehairs about 1 million pounds of raw fiber per year. One bale of cashmere is 550 pounds."What makes them ideal to work with is that they stand behind what they sell," said Peter Warshaw, president of Warshaw Woolen Associates, the New York sales agent for L.W. Packard & Co., Ashland, N.H., a weaver. "They aren't just a fiber agent. They actually process it. They speak our language. I think Dick's middle name is cashmere."

One reason Forte said he is able to get this kind of endorsement from customers is that FCC rejects about 60 percent of all cashmere it is offered.

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