Despite a general nervousness among Italian textile manufacturers, there is hope Italian creativity will ultimately outwit the world market.

A depressed global economy and competition from cheaper producers in Asia have challenged Italians to take innovation through yarn and fabric one step further, and to give their materials and fibers unique qualities that won’t be found elsewhere.

Uncertainty prevails for an industry Italy relies on to make up 15 percent of total industrial production. According to data released by the Italian Textile Association, textile industry sales decreased by 5.2 percent in 2002, to a total value of $20.6 billion (all dollars are converted from euros at current exchange rates).

Aside from problems of a falling American dollar and an unsteady world economy, the market is being further disrupted by the skyrocketing price of wool. Australia, Italy’s major wool supplier, is gripped by drought, causing prices to increase by more than 50 percent in 15 months to $6.81 a kilogram.

"We use 90 percent of best quality Australian wool and the other 10 percent from New Zealand. We are very worried about the drought period. In 2003, there will be many problems and it all points to the same direction — higher priced wool," said Riccardo Osella, managing director of yarn company Grignasco Group.

Chris Wilcox, chief economist of Australian wool textile organization, The Woolmark Company, said it would be some time before Australian wool producers could recover quantities.

"Ninety-nine percent of New South Wales is in drought. To put that in perspective, if NSW was a country, it would be the fourth-largest world producer of wool. At the moment there is no sign of rain and we are just waiting. It will take two or three years to see an increase of sheep in Australia."

The combination of an unsettled world economy and higher cost of raw materials has forced some yarn manufacturers to increase product prices.

"Raw material prices have increased by 30 to 60 percent for extra fine wools, and because of the U.S. dollar falling by 15 percent, we have been obliged to increase our prices in a soft demand market which is not ready to accept the costs," said Massimiliano Zegna Baruffa, chief executive of yarn producers Zegna Baruffa.Other spinners and manufacturers are choosing to forego the use of only wool in their collections or are balancing the problem by introducing cheaper ranges.

Yarn manufacturer Filpucci presented a new collection of yarns for spring-summer 2004 with prices between $12.85 and $25.70 that proved popular with buyers.

"Buyers like novelties – so we have done a cheaper range for the younger market, with the brightness of satin trends. Buyers are interested in the flair they can get at this price, especially in this current market," said Leandro Gualtieri, president of Filpucci.

Manufacturers are expected to utilize substitution fibers and more blends in the wake of wool prices.

"Wool processors have been forced to use more acrylic and polyester in blends because of the wool prices and even using cotton for winter collections," said Wilcox.

Giacomo Festa Bianchet, president of yarn company Lora Festa, said it is concentrating on a new source of fiber — fine, handpicked Peruvian pima cotton.

"It’s white and fabulous, the longest and best cotton in the world," said Bianchet.

Italians feel they will be able to survive the current economic crisis through their own bravura. Manufacturers are determined to do this through investment in research and development and by further honing creativity that buyers won’t be able to find elsewhere.

"The Italian policy is to continue trying to produce the goods in a unique way," said Luciano Bandi, yarn division managing director of Loro Piana Lanificio.

Fabric manufacturer Limonta proved this kind of Italian design direction in its spring-summer 2004 fabric collections. Aside from the usual cottons, silks and wools, it has released fabrics made with fibers like bamboo, carbon and plastic and some laser-finished cottons.

"We make a niche product and a product that is special, so we are not too worried about the market," said Aurelio Rigamonti, general director of Limonta.

The Gringrasco Group has produced new fibers spun with silver with antibacterial and antistatic properties for its spring-summer 2004 collections.

Young company Pinato Tessuti SpA La Panama specializes in finishing and treating fabrics sourced from Pakistan and the Far East. After being hit financially by opening an agency in New York on Sept. 5, 2001, director Piero Cipriani attributes the company’s 40 percent increase the following year to investment in research."For spring-summer 2004 we based the whole collection around love and sex after the war in the 20th century, like the old sepia postcards of naked women. The illustrations are sensual. Our designers found vintage corsets in a Parisian market and established a color scheme around them," said Cipriani.

Some manufacturers complain putting their creativity out on the market so far in advance at fabric and yarn fairs runs the risk of being copied.

"In Italy and Europe there is quiet pressure from large companies from abroad. In Turkey and Tunisia they make a cheaper product and copy a lot of our products. In the end the customer is always looking for price and quality, but now lower prices are more important." said Stefano Borsini, president of yarn company IGEA.

China is considered the main competitor, as it is by yarn and fabric producers worldwide. Davide Crotti, director of fabric manufacturer Silanco SpA said there was little point in producing plain, unprinted fabrics such as cottons and silks, because in China they are available at much cheaper prices.

Other Italian fabric manufacturers have faith it is their creativity in technology that is luring even the Chinese market to buy from Italy.

"We modify our machinery to get what we want out of the fabrics. In the past two years we have sold 100,000 meters of printed fabric to China and one-third of this is in silk. The fact is that we are doing it better than they can. What companies are looking for is extravagance, color and if possible fashion trends — something new and courageous," said Claudio Salvade, director of Star Stampa Tessuti Artistici SpA.

Roberto Luchetti, director of sales and marketing for textile company Lanifico Becagli, believes that China has a strong hand in actually helping the Italian textile industry.

"[The Italians] are becoming converters and not producers. We will attack the Chinese market because there are certain niches of the market where we can try to sell the most precious and newest part of quality that people in China just can’t buy domestically. We take the raw fabric and make it more precious. Plus the Americans and Europeans set fashion — they show the quickness in understanding what people are looking for. Fashion is discovered here and it arrives there."

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