LUXURY FABRICS SEE '96 GAINS

Byline: Stuart Chirls

NEW YORK--After a respectable 1995, producers of luxury apparel fabrics are reasonably optimistic about achieving another round of improved results this year.
Shifting fashion trends will play their usual role. Linen, which was hot at the start of last year, has cooled off somewhat, and silk, which was clouded by a plethora of low-priced goods, is regaining its cachet.
The retail slowdown gripping stores from Japan to Germany helped knock down what industry executives considered "too high" fiber prices in 1995, and cleaner retail inventories and less promotional pricing at better and high-priced stores seem to augur well.
Prices on most key fibers are up from a year ago or about the same as they were, but they're no longer leaping ahead, and the overall price situation has more stability. The current score on pricing shows:
* Pima cotton, between $1.70 and $1.75 a pound, up from between $1.20 and $1.30 a year ago.
* A kilo of type 3A raw silk, the most commonly used variety of the fiber, $33 a kilo, up from $28 last year at this time.
* Linen flax fiber, down slightly at around $2.50 a kilo, against $2.60 a kilo last year.
* White dehaired Chinese cashmere, used primarily in knit applications, after falling as low as $1.10 to $1.15 a kilo in 1995, has rebounded to between $1.20 and $1.25 a kilo, close to the $1.30 a kilo of a year ago. Iranian or 'Persian' cashmere, a coarser variety found in wovens, has dropped to between $65 and $70 per pound, from $80 a pound.
* Camel hair, which generally follows the cashmere market, has also settled at around $8 to $8.50 per pound, off slightly from the year-ago price of $9.
* Mohair, the least expensive of the animal hair luxury fibers, has fallen to an average of about $2.50 a pound, down from an average of about $3.20 per pound.
Here's how executives are viewing prospects for the key fibers.

Pima Cotton
Lean inventories and increasing domestic consumption made 1995 "a real good year" for the pima industry, according to Jess Curlee, executive director of the Supima Association. Supima is a compounding of "superior" and "pima."
"There was a shortage of pima supplies worldwide," Curlee said. "The major growing countries--Egypt, Peru, the United States--did not plant a big crop because the price wasn't attractive enough to get them to grow it. And the Soviets, another major grower, are still feeling the effects of the breakup."
Curlee said pima growers are seeing a small but growing domestic market for the high quality fiber. Stronger than upland, its shorter, staple cousin, pima has found its way into lightweight denims and shirtings and as a carrier fiber in stay-pressed and wrinkle-resistant bottomweights. The lean supplies should keep prices up through the year.
U.S. production of pima cotton totaled 360,000 bales in 1995, up from 342,000 the year before. About 80 percent of U.S.-grown pima cotton is exported, mostly to Japan, but total exports fell to 300,000 in 1995 from 375,000 in 1994, the latter figure boosted by substantial reserve stocks.
The outlook for demand continues bullish, and there should be more fiber available this year, Curlee noted, when domestic growers are expected to harvest a bumper crop totaling some 560,000 bales.Silk
After several years of dealing with a flood of low-priced silk garments from Asia, silk producers are seeing a renewed interest in the venerable fiber for higher-priced markets in this country. "Silk is becoming more and more of an important fiber with better customers," said Barney Kelly, a partner in Nuance Textiles, a producer of silk fabrics. "The silk label still means a lot to the consumer, and it's an increasing part of our business."
Kelly said Nuance is expanding its offerings in prints and novelties, and in dobbies and jacquards.
Demand for a silkier velvet also spurred business for J.B. Martin, a large domestic velvet producer. "There are two ways to improve the 'hand,' either mechanically or by increasing the silk content," said Loic deKertanguy, president of J.B. Martin. "We did it with more silk."
DeKertanguy said the trend has continued into 1996. "Everything is cyclical," he said. "The consumer is fed up with quantity and is going back to wanting quality, even if it's expensive. People are going to buy less, but buy better."

Cashmere and Camel Hair
Textile executives said business was good in 1995, thanks to adverse economic conditions in overseas retail markets that knocked down steep prices.
"Cashmere has been quite good. It was a leader in coating fabrics, both in 100 percent cashmere and cashmere-with-wool blends," said Boris Shlomm, president of Amicale Industries. "We had the advantage of Europe and Japan being in serious recessions, so their was no pressure on supplies, and that has continued. There is a balance between supply and demand, which makes for little risk of prices jumping.
"There is no reason to think there's going to be anything but growth in 1996," he said.
"Prices were too high last spring and the international market stopped buying," noted Richard Forte, president of Forte Cashmere Co., a dehairer and comber of cashmere and an importer of sweaters. "The market has firmed up, but I don't expect prices to go much higher in 1996. The market won't stand for it."
Despite the stability of prices, Forte said nearly all of his customers have trimmed their cashmere programs when it comes to units. "It's a shift away from basics and into fancies," he said. "It's a natural market progression into cashmere and other luxury fibers by retailers who want to get away from the cutthroat price competition." Although retailers are spending less on a per-order basis, Forte said his total business would be up 20 percent on increased market share.
Camel hair, once considered the 'poor man's cashmere,' has become more of a middle-range fiber, thanks to evolving technology that makes the finish very close to that of cashmere. "There's more and more interest in camel each year," said Shlomm. "There are many different colors available. It's for people who want a luxury fiber at about half the price of cashmere."Linen
Changing fashion tastes have given linen less than a smooth ride, keeping prices level with last year.
"We have seen linen wane a little bit," said Fred Rottman, executive vice president of the American division of Picchi SpA, a maker of linen and linen-blended fabrics, based in Prado, Italy. "We are seeing more use of high tech fabrics, like Lycra [spandex], and other synthetics with linen, as people get away from wrinkles and into clean surfaces."
To keep pace, Rottman said Picchi is chintzing linen, as well as giving it a waxed, outerwear-type finish. "We're also mixing it with nylon, to give it a shine, and we're doing more in the way of linen, rayon and acetate blends."
The firm, he noted, is also doing a big business in all-rayon and rayon and acetate, as part of the trend to soft dressing.

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