NEW YORK — "Are you asking all two of us?"

That was converter Gail Strickler’s exaggerated response when asked about the state of the converting business. As more and more firms lose market share to less expensive imports, converters said their operations are expanding from simply working with U.S. gray-fabric mills and dye houses to coordinating the efforts of fabric producers overseas — essentially conducting the traditional converting business outside the U.S., but offering their expertise in design and quality control.

In some cases, converters are becoming simple importers of fabrics — finding fabrics that foreign mills are already making and trying to sell them in the U.S.

In fact, mills and converters said a combination of domestic production to cater to brands that manufacture in countries with preferential treatment from the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act and NAFTA and partnerships in the Far East is often a solid approach, accommodating as many customers as possible.

They also said recognizing that the apparel-manufacturing business has shifted overseas is in itself a key in sustaining a stateside textile business, whether a company is a converter, mill or fiber maker.

Historically, converters bought gray goods and developed a fabric line in terms of color, patterns and finishes. That type of creativity is what Saxon Textiles Corp. president and chief executive officer Strickler said she misses most about the converting business today.

To avoid costly research and development on potential fabrics that may not ever be produced, Strickler said some converters have avoided risks by stocking fabric lines developed by mills from Asia, which in turn makes them an importer.

"Some are really just agents at this point," Strickler said. "The point of being a converter was taking a risk, but you can have $10,000 to $20,000 wrapped up before you even have a sample."

Strickler said she recently developed a fire-retardant fabric for uniforms and has roughly $7,000 invested in the project — and only 300 yards to show for it.

"Finishing plants aren’t going to guarantee a working loss because they haven’t worked with the fiber before and you’ve got to be able to figure the development cost," she said. "If it’s a hit, that’s fine, but if not, where do you absorb that?"Strickler added that developing fabrics has grown increasingly difficult since more and more people today will buy sample yardage and then have a foreign mill copy the fabric to get a lower price. To battle that problem, Strickler said she had no choice but to start converting in Asia herself.

Even then, she said she hopes the mills she works with there don’t approach her customers directly.

"When it comes to huge companies who have [their own] production and sourcing abroad, they won’t need a converter," Strickler said. "But a customer that’s going to be manufacturing that isn’t a megacompany — they can see the fabric in the U.S. and get it in Korea, Taiwan or China."

New York-based Symphony Fabrics converts woven and knit fabrics aimed at the evening, bridal, activewear and swimwear apparel categories, according to Seymour Schneiderman, president. The diversity results in 80 percent of the firm’s production staying in the U.S. While Schneiderman said his business is holding steady with annual sales between $40 and $45 million, that’s off from revenues over $80 and $100 million just four years ago.

"Our foreign policy has made the fashion business its sacrificial lamb," Schneiderman said. "We gave it away to Asia, Turkey and now sub-Saharan countries are being courted. Being diversified gives us the ability to go anywhere in the country where fabric is being used. We used to be focused on bridal and prom and we still call on those people, but we go everywhere today."

A key part of "everywhere" is Asia — Symphony started working with overseas mills two years ago and the company currently has three fabrics being developed abroad. Symphony fabrics run anywhere from $1 to $20 per yard, another testament to the firm’s diverse range.

Another trend in the converting business — and textile business as a whole — is full garment-production packaging. While Schneiderman said he doesn’t want to have anything to do with manufacturing garments, other converters find the prospect more attractive, such as Jim Gutman, president and ceo, Pressman Gutman.

"We’ve changed our business model since the early Nineties when we started to import," Gutman said. "We anticipated that domestic mills wouldn’t be able to survive, so we started making garments for our clients and that’s accelerated."Gutman said one of the benefits of owning no machinery — and classically, converters do not — is the ability to adapt to an evolving marketplace. When asked why his customers don’t approach factories in the Far East directly, he said his company’s experience and established presence in Asia simplifies the otherwise complicated business process.

"We’re far more flexible than a mill in China," Gutman said. "The other thing is that we can source the product and we can be competitive with a Chinese agent. And we’ll negotiate terms, credits and samples. We really provide a complete service and that’s the way manufacturers want to do business."

Gutman said his biggest hurdle is that the domestic apparel-manufacturing industry has consolidated into a smaller number of large companies that have the expertise to set up overseas offices and source abroad themselves.

But the need for immediate goods will never fully go away, so domestic companies are still relevant, executives contended. Focusing on niche markets, such as swimwear and intimate apparel, is one way to bring value to a company, according to Alfred Greenblatt, president of 3 1/2-year-old textile firm AGX Corp.

Greenblatt said he recognizes the need for overseas production and opened an office in Seoul, South Korea in August. It now employs six people.

"We’re going to do what we do in Asia, just like we do in the U.S., which is manage the process," Greenblatt said. "I have people that make sure there’s a smooth process from order to delivery."

In the three months that AGX Asia Pacific Ltd. has been in business, Greenblatt said it’s already printed close to $4 million worth of goods — just under 10 percent of the entire company’s volume so far this year.

"If you go over to Asia and you give someone a garment, they’ll come back with the right price," Greenblatt said. "But they often don’t have an understanding of the printing process or quality standards for the U.S. market, and that’s really important when it comes to a specialized industry like swimwear and intimate apparel."Greenblatt also said it’s the first time in years that he’s been excited about prospects in the fashion business.

As for how to define the evolution of the industry, Pressman Gutman’s Gutman said he calls his business a converter-importer.

"We supply the apparel chain with whatever it wants," Gutman said. "We used to have quite a few gray goods mills to choose from and dye houses to source from. Today we’re down to a few dye houses and little gray goods. Converter as it was 10 years ago? It’s gone."

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