MAKERS SCRAMBLE FOR BETTER FABRICS

Byline: Allegra Holch and Michael McNamara

NEW YORK--Trading up.
That's the mantra of the moderate market these days. And with all this consumer belt-tightening, there's an increasing demand for affordable clothing that doesn't scream "inexpensive"--especially for fashion-conscious women on strict budgets. And that's exactly the customer the moderate market is targeting.
This consumer-driven demand has forced the entire pipeline--fabric firms, apparel manufacturers and designers--to react quickly.
"People want better goods," said David Caplan, president of Metro Fabrics, a $50 million fabric converter here. "No matter what retailer you walk into, whether it's J.C. Penney, Ann Taylor or The Limited, the fabrics have more of an upscale look, and they're using better grades of fabrics."
Silk, linen and pima cotton--fibers once considered for the fashion elite--are now available in just about every segment of the moderate market.
"In the past, the moderate market was just about garments to sell," says Walter Baker, president of Pamela B., an upper moderate sportswear firm. "But now that we're using goods from the better market--which means paying more for fabric--the clothes look better. Now it's about giving the customer great value for their money."
For holiday, Baker is enthusiastic about a black triacetate crepe and Lurex pinstripe fabric that he says the contemporary firm Kenar is also using.
"We had buyers in from Nordstrom who took one look at our Lurex pinstripe and said it was exactly the same as what they saw at Kenar," said Baker. Baker said Kenar's outfit would be much more expensive than his, which will retail for $120.
Kenar confirmed it is also using a triacetate crepe and Lurex pinstripe fabric, but in charcoal gray, with the jacket wholesaling for $130, and the pants for $69.
Among other upscale fabrics Baker is touting is a wool bouclA from Italy, in bright, vibrant colors he says are reminiscent of Versace.
"Retailers are kicking in the teeth of manufacturers to lower prices," says Joel Zimmerman, vice president sales and merchandising for La Chine by Galinda Wang, an upper moderate to better sportswear company. "I don't think most moderate companies are trading up in fabrics to create a better product necessarily--it's just that the prices of the fabrics have gone up, especially the price of polyester."
In the last six months, polyester has increased more than 15 percent.
"People have the taste level, but not the disposable income," says Charles Glueck, president and designer at Focus 2000, a three-year-old moderate label. Glueck's solution to the problem has been to model his line after a bridge look, using better fabrics like cashmere from Italy and men's wear worsted wools that come from a worsted wool mill in Asia. The company owns 50 percent of the mill.
"The challenge is to offer consumers something fashionable at a good price," says Daniel Fierro, design director at Jessica Tierney by S.K. "I may look like I've traded up, but I've had to temper more expensive fabrics with less expensive ones to keep my prices within reason. It's really a balance of both."
When he's choosing his fabrics, Fierro says, "I look for things that are exciting like satin and boucle plaid--fabrics that have a luxe appeal."Peter Nygard, chief executive officer of Nygard International, says that in the company's moderately priced Nygard Collection, he's paying attention to quality in fabrics.
"We've upgraded our fabrics enormously," he says. "Our fabrics are very similar to those found in bridge."As Nygard sees it, his company is at an advantage because "we shop for fabrics all over the world, from India to Turkey and China." Nygard is partial to high twist yarns in wool and acetate that he says used to be found only in the bridge and better markets.
Cashmere blends from Italy and products made from polyester microfibers are among the other fabrics Nygard is using this season. He's also planning to use silk knits for sweaters "at competitive prices" and is "contemplating" adding silk blouses to the line.
Jeffrey White, president of S. Shamash & Sons, here, an international manufacturer and converter of silk and linen fabrics, said because the price of silk in China has moderated, to about $25 a kilo, "people can move into it now."
"Linen too is much more of a mass-type fiber," White said. "It still carries a cachet, but the woman who may not have bought it five or 10 years ago, is now making it a staple of her wardrobe."
Fab Industries, a knitted fabric supplier, is turning to the extra-long-staple cotton, aiming to hit the moderate market. "We're doing pima because it hasn't been done much here," said Samson Bitensky, chairman and ceo of Fab Industries. "It's just one more thing for us to hang our hat on."
Still, not all textile mills are having unmitigated success in moderates. Some executives said as long as price remains the chief issue, many moderate apparel manufacturers will stick with the lesser-priced goods.
"The moderate firms we work with are still price conscious," said a fashion coordinator for a large textile company. "They have a line they want to hold, especially since retailers are holding their line. That's why so many of those people are going offshore to source linen and silk. The prices are still cheaper. For the domestic manufacturer, the moderate business is difficult these days."

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