NEW YORK--The slump that has gripped the domestic printed fabric market for the past 20 months could finally be easing. Although print converters aren't ready to predict substantial increases, they said reorders for prints are improving, especially on custom orders, and that sales of printed textured fabrics have been rising. Retailers who had been offering apparel in solid, yarn-, or piece-dyed fabrics have been slowly adding more prints to their lineups, converters said. At the same time, converters added that the two edges they once enjoyed over importers of printed fabrics--better-quality products and the ability to deliver goods more quickly--could be fading. As the foreign products improve--and converters say they have seen this happening over the past six months or so--apparel makers have been willing to pay for the air freight to get those fabrics on time. That's especially true for rayon challis. The price differential between the imported and domestic products makes this extra expense worth it, say converters. U.S.-made printed rayon challis--once considered the workhorse fabric of the domestic print market--runs about 90 cents a yard more than imported goods. Imported rayon challis prints aimed at the moderate market are from $2.60 to $2.70 a yard; U.S. challis prints are about $3.50 to $3.60 a yard, converters said. Converters also said the rise in print activity is complicated by a consolidating apparel manufacturer and retail market. "The last three months were especially slow because there was a perception in the market that prints were not trending," said David Caplan, chief executive officer of Metro Fabrics. "And since every retailer has to do the same thing at the same time, the message that 'we don't want prints, they aren't selling' became pervasive." Caplan said that for transition-into-fall, in July and August, Metro received "significant" reorders, indicating an upswing. "I really think that prints as a whole category is in for a good run," Caplan said. "Stores that hadn't had that many prints are starting to spotlight them." "The very fact that we are converters means that we are supposed to be able to adapt to changes in the market," said James Gutman, president of Pressman-Gutman, New York. Pressman-Gutman has built a large portion of its $180 million business on printed fabrics. "We've had some decent business in prints, most notably in dyed and overprinted fabrics," Gutman said. "And, although our wet print business has been in the tank since April, I would say the overall business is getting a little better." Gutman noted that the wet print business had been hurt by a worldwide glut of the fabrics, and that "imported printed finished goods have had a dramatic impact on our industry. 1994 was a horrendous year for the print business, but there are small signs of improvement." "The imports have gotten better, and many firms are flying in goods from the Far East at their own expense," said Maria Damiano, executive vice president, who oversees Galey & Lord's print division, which supplies wet- and pigment-printed fabrics to the moderate and high-volume women's and children's wear markets. The company also services the men's sports market with wet-printed cotton knits. "The rayon challis business has been hindered by imports, so you can't hinge your season on that one fabric," Damiano said. "Our task is to find newness and novelties, and we are encouraged that the new, novel products are starting to make some impact." Damiano said Galey & Lord is realizing some favorable response for prints on crepons; special finishes on knits, including sanding or brushing, and dyed and overprinted looks. "Prints will and are coming back," Damiano said. "It's only how much we've lost to the imports that will determine the category's success." JBJ Fabrics, widely considered one of the top print converters in the women's market, is also looking closely at its mix. The company, which built its $50 million business primarily through printed rayon challis, is investigating additional export opportunities--primarily in Mexico--and is seeking to establish offshore production to service those apparel makers that cut and sew internationally. In addition, the company is also offering coordinating solid fabrics for nearly every printed fabric it has and is highlighting additional prints in nearly every fabrication, including linen and cotton and polyester blends. "This is a cyclical business, and by diversifying, you tend to level off the ups and downs," said Michael Garson, a JBJ partner and chief financial officer. "This industry as a whole has become globalized, and we have to approach the business with a greater peripheral vision. That's a fact of all industries, not exclusively a fact of the fashion industry. "We still see the apparel and textile business as a growth industry," Garson continued. "The variable is where and what you produce." "If you go into the stores today, 70 percent of what you find in basic prints is imported," said Evan Phillips, out-of-town sales manager for the Manes Organization. "The key then is to be on top of the marketplace in terms of novelty items." Manes, Evans said, is highlighting a men's wear look in a baby gabardine, along with stripes, checks and plaids on fabrics with surface interests. Seymour Appelbaum, vice president of Charter Fabrics, also said a strong custom print business is driving that segment of the company. Currently, custom prints account for about 65 percent of Charter's print business. At Omega Fabrics, the company's custom order business is keeping its overall print business afloat, said Ron Loeser, one of the firm's three partners. Custom orders, which two years ago made up about 20 percent of Omega's business, now account for about 35 percent of the converter's $100 million volume. "Open-line business is tough because it's hard to get enough of the same people who like the same thing," said Loeser, noting that Omega no longer produces blitz and bengaline fabrics. Instead, Omega has turned its focus to such novelty products as printed blends of rayon and acetate. "We're also seeing a tremendous increase in our business in California," Loeser added. "That market is asking for prints, but they have to be different and novel." "Right now, California as a print market has opened up nicely for us," agreed Ralph Annibale, a principal at Nuance Textiles. "Because of price competitiveness, the domestic challis business has bottomed out [in New York]. We are concentrating on textural type fabrications, which have both texture and depth, as opposed to flat weave fabrics. Whether in California, New York or anywhere, that's where the business will come from." While the domestic print business is making small strides in improvement, some firms have increased imports of their own finished fabrics. Among the top countries supplying printed fabrics, converters said, are Japan and Korea. Turkey, they said, is improving, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka are subpar. One firm, Tandler Textile Inc., now has imports accounting for about 60 percent of its overall $80 million-plus business. "Our print volume is down compared with last year, but there are small, slight signs of life," said Martin Tandler, president and owner, adding that while the company's volume continues to move upward, it is currently through yarn- and piece-dyed fabrics, "both of which are up substantially." "There are advantages and disadvantages to importing," Tandler said. "While the time it takes for reorders is improving for imported goods, in most cases it's still more than double for domestic goods." Tandler said the lead time for domestic prints is about two to three weeks, versus two to three months, on average, for imported products. Metro is another firm establishing itself as a key importer of printed fabrics. "I believe, to be competitive, you have to have some balance of domestic versus imported product, but you can't offer the same market both products," Caplan said, noting that his company supplies all markets with imported and domestic goods.
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