By  on May 24, 2007

NEW YORK — In a roundabout way, denim designers located in the Northeastern U.S. have two apparel industry titans and their legal wrangling against each other to thank for the emergence of one of the region's only wash and development facilities.

Hannibal Apparel Development Services opened on the outskirts of Jersey City, N.J., in late February, taking over a laundry that had been exclusively used and owned by Jones Apparel Group. In February 2006, a three-year legal battle between Jones and Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. over several licensing issues ended in a settlement, the terms of which included Polo paying Jones $355 million in cash to acquire the Polo Jeans business. Jones' need for the Jersey City facility following the settlement subsequently disappeared.

Olah Inc., a U.S. agent for foreign contract manufacturers and textile and hardware vendors targeting denim designers, and Frederic Guy, a textile and apparel industry veteran who had been working as a consultant, saw an opportunity to provide a service that hadn't been available to the apparel industry here for years. Guy purchased the facility and renamed it Hannibal Apparel Development Services, or HADS, and Olah Inc. agreed to handle marketing of the facility's capabilities.

Andrew Olah described the arrangement as more of a collaboration than a business partnership. Guy is also maintaining his long-standing relationship with Tunisia's Sartex, a manufacturer specializing in jeans and casual garments for brands such as Ralph Lauren, Carhartt and Timberland. The majority of Sartex's business is based in Europe, but the company hopes HADS can provide a vehicle to help expand its presence in the American market.

"The idea is two things," said Guy. "First, Olah is a partner in the facility, which is a tool for him to help his customers and to develop new washes for the fabrics they sell. The second thing is it's an open eye for Sartex, who is also a partner, on the U.S. market."

The real power of HADS, however, is that it offers designers and product developers access to a facility right in their backyard. Big and small brands are discovering that they can free themselves from dependence on Los Angeles' wash houses or their foreign factories, cutting down on time, and the cost of flights to the West Coast and FedEx bills."We think that we must be open to small customers that want to make smaller productions," said Guy, noting that the facility could be used to make a sample run of anywhere from one to 300 jeans in a matter of days.

The facility recently finished a run of 3,000 jeans in two weeks, but Guy believes it can handle more.

"It's ridiculous to do that even in L.A., but it's very easy to come from the city here," he said.

Proximity to the hub of the apparel industry has obvious advantages. Guy acknowledged that there are similar operations in places such as Montreal, Kentucky and North Carolina, but none of those can be reached via a 20-minute car or train ride from Manhattan.

HADS is also equipped to carry out a battery of fabric tests for its clients. The facility's climate-controlled lab is equipped to conduct tests approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. Tests can be carried out to determine fabric characteristics such as tensile and tear strength, seam slippage, abrasion resistance, ability to stand up to frequent washing and reaction to light exposure. Technicians handle detail work by hand and even have a sandblasting chamber at their disposal.

Brands that have started using HADS are finding that in addition to saving time, the open nature of the facility allows them to be more involved in the process. Gaining a better understanding of the development is giving them an advantage when it comes to dealing with their larger production facilities overseas.

"You're able to watch and instruct them on what you want," said Wells Stellberger, a product developer for Marc Jacobs who spent his first half-day at HADS last week. "You're part of the process and you're able to try ideas that you wouldn't otherwise."

This makes HADS atypical. According to Stellberger, most laundries are secretive of the formulas they develop and normally show their clients only the results of their work, not the process. HADS, on the other hand, sells its customers the formula, allowing them to take it to any facility they choose to manufacture their product."For the more labor-intensive things that you want more handwork and details, it's very valuable," said Stellberger.

For Christine Rucci, owner and designer of the 5EP denim label, obtaining a technical understanding of the wash process is crucial when it comes to denim. It helps designers get what they want, but perhaps more importantly, it can show them what can go wrong.

"Right now, the first thing a customer sees is the finish," said Rucci. "So right now, it's the most important visual aid and selling tool you have."

Rucci launched 5EP in 2004 and said the back and forth between Los Angeles washhouses could make the task of perfecting a wash take up to six months. With HADS, she believes that process could be cut down to a week, which translates into huge savings for a business of her size. She's also found value in being able to develop a relationship with the HADS technicians.

"I think as a denim designer and business owner, well, you can just send a jean out, but there's nothing better than the one-on-one," said Rucci. "Once you establish a relationship with the technician, you can create your own language."

In March, Janelle Pietrzak, a design coordinator for Anthropologie, and several of her co-workers took a two-hour drive from Philadelphia to HADS. The nine hours they spent at HADS, said Pietrzak, were more productive than they could have anticipated.

"We brought a lot of fabrics with us and got everything accomplished we wanted to," she said. "A new window was opened for us because we can work with them and we feel we can be more creative."

Anthropologie will be working with HADS on denim and nondenim pieces and Pietrzak expects the experience will pay off when working with their factories.

"We learn more about the process, and we can be more knowledgeable about the direction, and about what we're asking for and how it's achieved," she said. "It's a very good place for discovery."

Opening HADS wasn't Guy's bid to cash in on the lucrative premium denim segment, nor does he believe a slowdown in the denim market would adversely impact the business."We can continue to develop denim even if denim is 50 percent of what it is now, because there will always be a need for development," said Guy.

Still, Guy has a clear faith in the strength of denim. It's a faith rooted in the power of the material to breed loyalty from the person wearing it.

"It's so logical as an item," he said. "It's convenient, not fragile and it will last."

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