MILAN — Lightweight, flowing fabrics, in soft, muted colors were among the key fabric looks for the fall 2004-winter 2005 retail season presented at last week’s Moda In trade fair.

Italian mills at the Milan fairgrounds also showed fabrics with small, neat patterns, with a smattering of large floral prints. Weaving mills showed mixes of smooth-finished fabrics, as well as those with nubby textures, and added shots of metallic fibers for brightness.

Wool and other natural fibers were prominent in most fashion looks shown at the three-day event, which closed Friday, with man-made fibers playing more of a supporting role.

Recent statistics on the Italian textile industry show that exports to the U.S. are on the rise, after several years of decline. In the second quarter of 2003, U.S. sales of Italian apparel, including fabric and yarn, increased by 12.1 percent. Economic analysts have described these results as a sign that the American market is improving, and Italian textile manufacturers are counting on their creativity and improved fabrics and finishes to keep that momentum going. The U.S. is the third-largest market for Italian fashion products and Italian weavers are hoping to stay the course through the continuing economic slowdown by offering American buyers a high level of quality and creativity they can’t find anywhere else.

Exhibitors at the show represent a large cross-section of the Italian textile industry, and overall last year recorded about $5.5 billion in sales, with 36 percent of that value coming from exports. (Values converted from the euro at the current exchange rate.) The high stakes keep the fair’s style and technical committee busy tracking fashion changes, tastes and habits. That information is then translated into trends, which provides the Italian textile manufacturers with an up-to-date global picture of the fashion and luxury market sectors.

“Our goal as a trade show is to provide visitors with a window on the world of Italian textiles,” said Max Dubini, president of Moda In. “The creativity, research and development in terms of textile design, processing, color enhancement and distinctive yarns, which give Italian textiles their unique look, can provide American designers and manufacturers with the tools they need to customize their collections.”The handmade look was particularly evident at Serikos’ booth, where yards of rich wools, in a variety of designs and colors, were draped over display racks. Sales manager Gino Parzianello explained that because the fair was so early this year, the company didn’t have time to prepare proper sample swatches. Instead, staffers brought along the uncut sample runs that had just come off the looms.

Those sample yardages of luxurious fabrics included textured, bumpy tweeds; plush chenilles; iridescent taffetas, and transparent organza in rich ruby red, amethyst, sapphire blue, topaz, emerald green and other opulent colors that evoked the Renaissance.

“It’s still too early to know what is going to sell this season but so far the…tweeds, viscose chenille and wool boucle are generating considerable interest,” said Parzianello.

At Marioboselli Jersey, soft, fluid tricot knits, which offered high drapability and crease resistance were catching the eye of Calvin Klein designers Betty Lew and Caroline Martin.

“Feedback from our clients shows that most stylists prefer easy-care fabrics and solid colors, with black and cream still the hands-down favorite,” said owner Federico Boselli. “What finally makes it to the fashion runways in 2004-2005 is still to be seen.”

In addition to the company’s solid colored trademark jersey fabrics, designers had their choices of pale apricot chenille in a checkerboard pattern, embroidered retro-patterned jerseys, lace-like prints, multidimensional flocked patterns and soft mossy finishes.

Although many mill owners were reluctant to make a prediction as to what the final fashion results will be, one thing was clear: Lightweight fabrics in a variety of natural and synthetic yarns are running up against the heavy winter looks of yesteryear.

This was most evident at Dondi, where Guido Capelli, who is responsible for production, said he thinks the most important aspects of a fabric are its fluidity and draping characteristics. In addition, he said, it must have a soft hand and feel good next to the skin. Dondi produces three lines of textiles: One for sportswear, a second for ready-to-wear fashion and a third for high-fashion applications. Capelli said he prefers to give the company’s designer clients samples in neutral colors, which lets them focus on texture and weight, and once those decisions are made they can work together on choosing the colors for their collections.Miroglio, a company known for its prints, takes an opposite approach, according to sales manager Roberto Boffa. That mill prefers to present samples in many patterns and colors, with the idea of providing designers with a springboard on which to build their collections. Here, lightweight fabrics in rayon and soft fluid jersey took center stage, in a variety of small geometric prints, large florals, stripes and panels of designs in soft muted colors.

While there was a prevalence of natural-fiber textiles throughout the fair, mills did not deny the continuing appeal of fabrics with stretch properties or other technical fibers that add to the easy-care aspects of clothing.

Nero su Nero offered technical textiles intended for sportswear applications, and the samples on display included looks that reflect the company’s name — black on black.

Exhibitors acknowledged they face a lot of uncertainty in the textile market. They pointed out that a slight increase in exports registered in July does not come close to making up for the economic losses suffered as a result of the soft U.S. economy and weak dollar. All of these factors have taken a toll on Italian textile exports to the U.S. Exhibitors also pondered the continuing effect on the textile market of the Chinese yuan, which many economists contend is undervalued by about 40 percent.

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