By  on September 13, 2005

NEW YORK — Fabric and garment manufacturers from Thailand and South Korea exhibiting at shows in New York last week sought to convince U.S. buyers they were competitive with China.

More than 30 exhibitors set up booths at the Metropolitan Pavilion here on Wednesday and Thursday for the Korean Preview, featuring textile manufacturers from Deagu, a city in southeastern South Korea.

Apparel imports from South Korea have plummeted over the past year by 33.8 percent, to $522.4 million in June from $788.8 million in June of last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Textiles & Apparel.

Korean textile manufacturers are increasing efforts to make direct contact with buyers in the U.S. market. The government is also taking a more proactive role.

Korea's Ministry of Commerce started its first textile marketing agency, the Korea Textile Center, last year. The organization represents all Korean manufacturers and opened offices in Moscow and Shanghai. Offices in Mumbai, India, and São Paulo, Brazil, are to open in 2006.

Kwan-Hyung Lee, a general manger with the KTC, said the government provides 70 percent of the organization's funding, while 30 companies made up for the remaining 30 percent.

"There are many textile manufacturers in our area," Lee said. "They have no capacity to market their products to overseas markets. That's why the government has begun to invest."

Ludia, a manufacturer specializing in polyester-based technical fabrics for outerwear and sportswear, was among the show's first-time exhibitors. A company spokesman said its fabrics had been used by Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Old Navy. However, the spokesman said the company usually conducts business indirectly through an agency in South Korea, leaving it with no direct contact with buyers. The firm was hoping the show would provide an opportunity to get in front of those buyers.

Won Gab Co. has established a presence in South Korea and China, giving it a price advantage over U.S. manufacturers of raschel lace.

"The Chinese market on the lace side is 20 percent to 30 percent cheaper and it is exactly the same product," said Ronald Folger, an international fabric resource provider based in Secaucus, N.J., who works with Won Gab.Folger said there are only a handful of domestic raschel lace manufacturers left, producing fabric at a much higher cost than China.

"Retailers and manufacturers are coming to us directly now," he said.

Organizers of the Thai Garment and Leather Goods Sourcing Expo, which ran last Tuesday and Wednesday, planned the show in the middle of the week to allow exhibitors time to independently meet with buyers in the days following the show. The show attracted 32 exhibitors.

Unlike South Korea, Thailand has seen its export levels rise since changes in the quota system. Thailand's imports to the U.S. have risen 10.1 percent to $840.5 million in June from $763 million a year earlier.

David Chiu, president of the Thai Leathergoods Association, said many Thai companies had already gained a foothold in West Coast markets.

"Most of the people in the leather goods market are looking for a connection for the East Coast," Chiu said. "This is only a sample of what we can do in Thailand."

Thailand's government has also gotten more involved with promoting its textile industry. The Department of Export Promotion has begun programs for fabric and garment manufacturers to upgrade design quality.

"We know we cannot compete with China, so we have to upgrade our industry," said Nithima Siriphokakij, a representative with the department. "This is like a research and development project. They work with the Italian consultant and then they can build on that."

The Thai Cluster program utilizes an Italian textile consultant to help provide up-to-date fabric designs in an effort to stand out from China's offerings. Some 15 manufacturers participate in the program, which also helps link textile manufacturers with garment makers.

"Right now, we are trying to upgrade them with their design," Siriphokakij said.

Sukij Kongpiyacharn, vice president of the Thai Garment Manufacturer Association, stressed the importance of more direct contact with the U.S. market.

He also viewed the show as an opportunity for U.S. business to get an early foot in the door in the Thai manufacturing market, a move that could prove important if a free-trade agreement is reached between Thailand and the U.S. Kongpiyacharn said he expects the show could easily triple in size if the agreement is reached."Do business now so when the free-trade agreement is signed you're ready to go," said Kongpiyacharn.

Kongpiyacharn said Thailand has already signed trade agreements with Australia and Japan, and has trade agreements with some limitations solidified with India and China.

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