Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON--Last month, the Customs Service issued a controversial directive that put Indian-made ghagra skirts with elastic waistbands under quota. On Wednesday, the issue heated up, when sources said the Consumer Product Safety Commission was expected to recall some rayon skirts from India after tests showed that the skirts are flammable.
Consumers will be advised to return the skirts to stores where they were purchased, and Customs will begin testing incoming shipments and rejecting those that do not meet U.S. safety standards, according to government and industry sources.
The recall announcement is expected Friday. The CPSC is planning to release the names of importers supplying the skirts and might also name some retailers that sell them, sources said.
The CPSC directive will apply only to Indian skirts made of a sheer rayon or rayon-blend chiffon overlay and a "gauzy" lining, the sources said. An Indian Embassy official, who did not want to be identified by name, said most of the affected skirts are ghagras, traditional skirts that are imported without quota restrictions--depending on what kind of waistband they have.
The skirts were exempt from quota requirements under the "folklore" provision of the two countries' bilateral agreement, which allows free trade in some traditional garments. Customs said the elastic is not traditional, but "a modern convenience."
In negotiations last week, Customs agreed to soften its stance so that elastic waists by themselves do not automatically disqualify a skirt from folklore status, according to Richard T. Crichton, Customs' branch chief for textiles. Although details are still being worked out, other factors might include ornamentation or silhouette or other characteristics that might constitute "untraditional" qualities.
Indian and U.S. officials said they have no idea how many skirts, ghagras or otherwise, will be affected by the recall, especially because most ghagras have only one layer, and many are made of cotton, not rayon.
Even some Indian skirts that are made of rayon and have two layers might pass the flammability test, said Robin Lanier, vice president of international trade for the International Mass Retail Association, noting that the thickness of the chiffon is the determining factor.
"The CPSC says these skirts fail to meet the flammability test, which means they burn faster than paper," said Lanier, adding that this is the first recall of adult apparel in her memory. "That should be of concern to our members. We've told them they should get these skirts out of their stores."
Some members of the trade community were skeptical about two federal crackdowns on ghagras coming in such rapid succession, particularly while U.S. negotiators are trying to convince India to open its markets to U.S. textiles.
"I'm suspicious of coincidences," said Clinton Stack, president of International Development Systems Inc., a Washington-based textile trade consulting firm. "There is something there and it doesn't smell so good....I guess they [the government] just don't want these things on the market."
But Crichton insisted "there is no connection whatsoever" between the actions of the two agencies. He said CPSC officials did not know about the folklore issue when they contacted Customs about the recall plan.
However, the Indian trade official said, "The timing and the fact that Indian skirts were the subject of the inquiry seems to convey an impression that there has been some targeting because of country of origin."
Despite the financial impact of the recall on importers, Julia K. Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, agreed that there is merit to the CPSC's fears of flammability.
While the timing of the action is suspicious, Hughes said garment testers at her employer, Associated Merchandising Corp., a New York-based importer, have warned her not to wear rayon chiffon skirts when she might come into contact with flame or a spark.
--Fairchild News Service

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