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LOS ANGELES — Small designers are like lottery tickets — one never knows which will hit big.
That’s the thinking from exhibitors preparing for the Los Angeles International Textile Show, which opens at the California Market Center on Oct. 21.
In a year that’s posed the apparel industry many obstacles, including the port lockout, sluggish retail sales and slipping consumer confidence, exhibitors said courting new prospects and strengthening relationships with young companies is at the top of their lists.
Focusing on the industry’s future leaders is also a way to banish port-related gloom, which has pervaded the West Coast industry in recent weeks. Textile suppliers, among the first to get cancellation calls after the shutdown on Sept. 29, are worried about a sudden market glut as dockworkers extricate the backlogged goods. Many exhibitors, wary of further trouble at the ports, were flying in orders and sample goods for the show, at great expense.
While it hurt some companies, the port crisis also underscored the value to textile suppliers of small firms — consistent customers that tend to buy and produce locally. Because these firms don’t have to water down designs to please a broad audience, their designers offer fresh perspectives that sometimes spark trends, which can burn through fabrics like wildfire.
Local knitter Shara-Tex learned this lesson last year when it sold velour to Juicy Couture, a small firm then known for clingy, rayon-blend T-shirts.
The velour tracksuit trend has exploded since then, bringing Shara-Tex a host of new customers and playing a huge role in reviving velour from grandmas-only status. Juicy Couture has a “substantial” standing weekly order, said Shara-Tex designer Darcy Hughes.
“You never know who is going to blow up,” said Hughes. “That’s why I try to spend most of my time working with new people. It seems the small customers are the ones that come up with the new trends.”
Shara-Tex plans to broaden its velour business by offering corded and patterned versions at the show.
Warren Zaretsky, vice president of sales for Los Angeles-based knitter Mansfield Textiles, said his minimum-order requirements make it hard to start shipping to small firms, but a little patience often pays off. He’s lately focused on junior firms, which need to “cut, sew and ship in four-to-six weeks” to catch a trend or keep momentum on a hot reorder.
“They can’t afford to send it to China and wait eight-to-12 weeks,” he said. “We own our yarn and knitting machines, so we can ship baby rib in seven days.”
He’s seen junior sportswear firms such as Fang and Shameless go from barely meeting his 1,000-yard minimums to becoming substantial customers.
“It takes patience,” he said. “But we’re willing to work with them.”
His junior business is up 75 percent over last year. He’s started courting even smaller contemporary firms that have good buzz in the marketplace and prospects for growth.
Michael Shapiro, president of Los Angeles-based importer D&N Textiles Inc., also values small and newcomer companies. He estimated that only half as many companies opened this year, in comparison to the last few years, because worries about the economy have made it hard for new ventures to obtain financing.
“The breadth of the customer is declining, which is disturbing,” he said. “The small companies are very important to me. They ask for 500 yards at $10 and that’s $5,000. That’s a real order.”
He plans to attract new prospects by making his show booth approachable and conversational. Each year he decorates along a theme. This time, it’s “dirty laundry” with silhouettes cut from his swatches.
“It’s immediately visual,” Shapiro said. “If something catches a designer’s eye, they can point to the silhouette and I can pull that swatch for them.”
Rebeka Shad, owner of Los Angeles-based importer Brayanix International, said realigning her business to work with “boutique manufacturers” is a matter of survival.
She said she’s been burned too often by the budget market, where bankruptcies have been a common problem recently. Last year, she got stuck with $300,000 worth of unpaid bills when several customers shuttered.
“The smaller boutique designers write less quantity, but they like fancier, more expensive fabrics,” she said. “Believe me, even a firm doing $5 million to $10 million, I would jump on helping them.”
Jane Johnson, co-owner with her husband Tom of Fresno, Calif.-based Antique & Modern Buttons, said working with small designers is a “joy,” particularly with the strong interest in buttons as a garment’s focal point.
“Sometimes they’ll send me a scrap of fabric and say ‘Find me a button,’” she said. “I’m comfortable with that, because I used to produce a line of one-of-a-kind pieces myself.”
On the other hand, textile firms that prefer to work with bigger players said the only way to survive is to offer full-package garment production or to find a niche in a higher-margin fabric.
“There is no day-to-day business. The daily calls for 2,000 yards that were once the backbone of the industry don’t exist anymore,” said independent rep. Jerry Bernstein, who has been in business for 53 years.
Bernstein found his niche supplying athletic fabrics, including mesh, nylon, microdenier and brushed polyester blends to major athletic brands.
This year, he has picked up extra business from junior firms chasing the tracksuit trend. In recent months, however, those calls have been petering out. He’s expecting interest in stretch and rigid knit lace, used as trim on lingerie and some sportswear, to pick up where the tracksuit trend left off.
Lower prices are another time-honored way of attracting more business.
Albert Hakimi, principal with Los Angeles-based converter Epic Textiles International, has been experimenting with a finishing process for Tencel lyocell fabrics that would allow him to cut his prices as much as 30 percent.
“We already dropped the price 20 percent a couple of months ago, but in this market there seems to be no bottom,” he said. “There’s only certain things you can do to a fabric and we don’t want to cut corners or sacrifice quality.”