NEW YORK -- After withstanding a mercurial year in the printed fabric market, converters said the first six months of 1994 should see steady, if unspectacular, growth.With the trend toward soft dressing, texture and surface interests -- styles that lend themselves to prints -- converters said prints should see some significant action, at least through June. Most converter executives said sales of fall 1994 lines, which they're selling now, are consistent and that the initial interest in print fabrics for spring 1995 is much stronger than it was a year ago.Converters said 1993 started strong. Business then fell off around mid-year, gathered momentum in the third quarter and dropped dramatically over the last couple of months, they said."Last year we were at the tail end of a downturn of the print cycle," said Annie Vetrone, head stylist for Missbrenner Inc. "But we think 1994 will be a robust year for prints.""Going into last year, there was a euphoric feeling after the presidential election that was very short lived, and I think the year in our industry reflected that," said Michael Garson, executive vice president of JBJ Fabrics, a wet-print specialist here. "This year, there's more of a long-term optimistic feeling. Consumer confidence is on the way back, and people have a better idea of what the tax situation is. Also, most of the big layoffs appear to be over. People seem to know where they stand."Gerald Greenstein, JBJ's president, added, "We're going to be approaching this year very carefully. Based on our fourth-quarter results, we see the first quarter looking steady, but we see a bigger pickup in the second quarter."Still, some caution flags are being waved. One particular concern is how long it will take Southern California, a key market for many converters, to get back to a sense of normalcy after last week's earthquake.An extended recovery time may hamper first-half business, while, on the other hand, in the longer run, the rebuilding will provide a shot in the arm for the West Coast economy, they said."Business doesn't wait for us to get organized," said Ed Albrecht, president of Texollini, a Los Angeles print converter. Albrecht, despite losing his house in the Jan. 17 earthquake, was back to work the next day. "We're going to have to put this behind us, and gradually, within the next six months, business will be back to normal."Albrecht said Texollini's office in downtown Los Angeles had virtually no damage except for a few fallen displays."The big problem is getting to see our apparel manufacturer customers," he said. "Because of the foul-up to the roads, we can only see maybe one or two of them a day. We normally see about 10.""We're going to have to wait until the dust settles to tell the extent of it, but the earthquake will have an effect," added Gary Parker, Missbrenner's executive vice president. "Stores are going to be very cautious, as are manufacturers.""There's still some sluggishness in the basic print market," said Evan Phillips, national sales manager for the Manes Organization. "Despite the encouragement of the Christmas season, there's still some genuine concern."In addition, the ongoing dispute between the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union and the management at 11 New Jersey dyeing and finishing plants -- considered to be among the best in the country -- contributed to a rough fourth quarter and could have some lingering effects at least through the early stages of 1994.As noted, about 1,500 union members struck 21 print plants in October. They subsequently voted to return to work Dec. 15 under a contract proposal offered by State Labor Commissioner Raymond Bramucci. However 11 of the plants did not agree with the proposal, and locked out more than 700 workers. Two weeks ago, the union said it would offer a return to work under a contract originally proposed by management. However, the plants have only taken back a handful of union workers and are keeping most of the replacement workers they took on during the strike."Most of the damage from the strike was felt in late 1993," Greenstein said. "As far as we're concerned, it's back to normal. Still, there remains some discontent between the union and management.""It's going to be a challenging year, but I think we'll all be better off than last year," said David Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Metro Fabrics, here. "Retail remains a constant concern. Stores want smaller lead times. That puts pressure on the manufacturers, who, in turn, put pressure on us as converters."Among this year's key looks, converters said, are ethnic, floral and romantic motifs in rayon and rayon blends, including sheers, crinkles and pleats. In addition, prints on knits such as 100 percent cotton, and cotton blends with polyester and Lycra spandex, will be strong. Prints on gauze fabrics should also do well, they said."What we're finding is that there's less depth to the market, but it's broader with more sku's," said Isaac Kier, chairman and chief executive officer of Lida Inc., a vertically integrated converter. "I also think that the knit print business -- which utilizes pigment printing -- will be especially strong, most notably in Lycra-containing fabrics, cotton, polyester and cotton blends and jersey interlocks.Kier also said the recent leveling off of the denim market should help Lida's performance in 1994."We do a lot of Lycra fabrics, and Lycra runs counter cyclical to the denim market," Kier said. "We've seen that market flatten, and we should be the recipient of some strong business because of it."Missbrenner's Vetrone said the strong influence of Russian-inspired prints -- which include paisley motifs -- will be an important print trend for the company. Moving forward, gauzes and batistes, will be highlighted in spring 1995."With some European sectors experiencing a surge in prints, we think our optimism about a strong print year is warranted," said Vetrone, who also said coordinating prints are important.Ron Loeser, executive vice president of Omega Textiles, said, "The print cycle, after a slow 1993, is starting to go gung-ho. However, we've had to cut back on the number of open line prints, since the markups last year deteriorated.""We're finding action in blended yarns and more novelty fabrications, including blends of polyester and rayon," he said.Manes's Phillips said the company is banking heavily on brushed finishes in thermal and ribbed fabrics, fleeces and knits. "Anything with a surface treatment will be strong this year," Phillips said. "We're exploding with gauzes and crinkles, things that have some surface texture. That look is even starting to filter into the men's wear arena."Caplan of Metro added that "the Eastern or Moroccan look will be prevalent, as will the continuation of ethnic and primitive looks."
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