Medellín, Colombia — U.S. buyers are excited about sourcing opportunities in Colombia, sharply boosting orders during the Colombiatex fair, held in the country’s second-largest city last month, according to export and fashion institute Inexmoda.

“We saw the biggest opportunities from U.S. buyers and we hope they will reach $100 million next year,” said Ricardo Vallejo, exports vice president of export promotion agency Proexport, adding that U.S. textile and clothing orders surged 47 percent to $62 million compared with Colombiatex 2012. “We also hope to attract more sourcing and production. The U.S. continues to realize Colombia is a good supplier.”

Overall, Colombiatex drew $152 million in purchasing contracts, up 3 percent from 2012 and exceeding its $120 million initial target. There were 231 U.S. buyers, up 67 percent from 138 last year. Overall, the event attracted 1,700 international buyers from 27 countries. While Inexmoda could not provide a year-on-year comparison, observers said the number likely jumped significantly.

Moreover, the amount of exhibitors rose 14 percent to 416, while 32,429 people attended the 25th edition of the fair, up 2.75 percent from 2012, according to Inexmoda.

Inexmoda president Carlos Eduardo Botero said U.S. buyers were mainly interested in T-shirts, pants, sportswear, uniforms and uniform fabrics, as well as in full-package manufacturing opportunities.

After the U.S., Venezuela and Ecuador were the second- and third-largest buyers, securing $18.2 million and $10 million in orders, respectively.

“The fair is consolidating its international status,” Botero boasted, adding that it has become the most international sourcing fair in Latin America. “This isn’t just because of the exhibitor increase but because we are attracting more and more international buyers each year.”

Added Botero: “We have innovative and top-notch fabrics and this year people have looked at sourcing beyond the spring and summer season [for which the fair was held] into autumn and winter. They have understood Colombia has a cutting-edge and vigorous market ready to compete in the legal global market.”

U.S. buyers agreed the industry has significantly improved in recent years. They added they expect to significantly increase their Colombian sourcing in coming years, especially in light of China’s supply problems.

Speaking of Colombia, John Hernandez, a sourcing manager at New York-based plus-size apparel brand Redcats USA, said: “They have great quality and beautiful workmanship with good leading times.”

While products are slightly costlier than China’s, quality is better. Also, because of its free-trade agreement with the U.S., Colombia has lower delivery costs and time frames, compensating for China’s lower prices, Hernandez explained.

Consequently, Hernandez said Redcats is considering moving a big percentage of its Chinese production to Colombia by 2017. Currently, the company manufactures 60 percent of its clothing in China, 20 percent in Pakistan and the rest between Bangladesh and India.

But after placing “very good” test orders for swimwear, sleepwear, lingerie and unisex knits with a string of suppliers including Balalaika, Texcauca and Hilandería Fontibón, Redcats is now looking for suppliers in Colombia.

“We placed 10,000 knits last year and hope to double that amount in 2013,” Hernandez said.

While Colombia is farther than Mexico, Hernandez said the quality-price ratio compensates for longer shipping times to the U.S.

Eduardo Mario Pinedo Taboada, sales representative at Miami-based women’s beachwear and apparel maker Designs by Corleone, agreed Colombiatex is gaining momentum in Latin America.

“The product quality is very good, so everyone’s coming here,” he said. “The São Paulo fairs are also very good, but even the Brazilians are coming here now.”

Like Hernandez, Pinedo noted Colombian fabrics are good, adding that labor is cheaper in many market segments, giving the country a competitive edge over Mexico, which is also rushing to attract U.S. buyers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many more American brands buying and manufacturing here in five years,” Pinedo added.

That is the wish of Medellín’s government. According to sources, the city wants to consolidate itself as Colombia’s fashion capital and a Latin American fashion hub. Apart from Colombiatex, it hosts the annual apparel fair Colombiamoda in late July. This year, the fair will be expanded by Textiles 2, a new sourcing facility that will operate alongside Colombiamoda, Botero said, adding there will be up to 30 additional runways.

To develop Medellín’s fashion profile, the city will likely launch a fund to help develop future emerging designers and brands. Last year, Medellín spent some $800,000 to help support new designers and expects to invest much more in coming years, according to Tomás Cipriano Mejía, subsecretary of economic development.

According to Cipriano, Medellín is working hard to develop through several innovative projects. The task has paid off as the city is now the third finalist in a survey (led by the Urban Land Institute) to choose the world’s most innovative city, competing with Tel Aviv and New York.

Medellín is also moving to develop Via Primavera, the city’s tiny yet fast-growing answer to São Paulo’s fashion high-street Rua Oscar Freire.

The town’s best emerging designers already have stores there, including women’s wear labels Ana Mahia and Wanita, fast-growing beachwear brand Agua Bendita, and men’s wear, leather goods and accessories brand Mon&Velarde.

Mon&Velarde’s owner, Marta Gaviria, is confident Medellín’s goal to elevate its fashion status will succeed. She expects to receive city funds to promote her brand internationally and at home.

“City Hall’s aid is going to help us a lot and we are looking forward to getting it,” Gaviria said.