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PARIS — Even without the presence of many U.S. buyers — thanks in part to the simultaneously scheduled New York runway shows — this season’s Première Vision forged ahead, although with some hesitation because of the struggling world economy and a possible war in Iraq. Many exhibitors admitted to seeing fewer U.S. customers, some declaring as much as 50 percent less. They credited the absence not only to Fashion Week in New York, but also to the continuation of a trend started after last Sept. 11, when many firms cut their travel and expense budgets tremendously.
At Guigou, Sophie Veron, marketing and development manager, said she saw about half of the amount of U.S. buyers that she normally sees and the ones she did see were just not ready to buy.
“It’s not a question of quality or price,” she said. “People are just not buying. They’re being very cautious and are waiting to see if there will be a war.”
At Solstiss, appointments with U.S. customers were down by about half, as well.
“The Americans that we did see came from the bigger companies, such as Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren and Bill Blass,” said Francois Damide, president of Solstiss Inc., a subsidiary of Solstiss and Bucol. “It’s not a lot, but we expected it. This year will hopefully be an exception because of the anniversary of Sept. 11.”
Overall, business was extremely tight. With the dollar to euro exchange rate waning and the possibility of a U.S.-Iraq conflict, many exhibitors noted a decrease in the amount of fabric ordered, as well as a demand for lower prices.
The key to doing business in these times, they said, is to offer exceptional service, and for some, to provide that service to a more limited amount of customers.
Abraham, for instance, has gone from having 1,300 clients five years ago to just over 120 today.
“The business has changed,” said Erich Biehle, president. “In today’s world, textile companies have to help designers do their business. We have to be flexible and give them new ideas and make these ideas fit into their plan. You can’t do that for 1,300 clients.”
Italian mill Ones has also downsized its client base.
“We’ve reduced the amount of people we do business with by at least 25 percent,” said Giancarlo Onnis, president. “For us, it’s about the quality of customers, not quantity. You have to improve you relationships with the great customers and stop doing business with the ones that just sample season after season and then take the samples to be copied elsewhere for a cheaper price.”
At Sarti, export manager Mauritzio Sarti noted that in addition to continuing to improve relations with its best customers, the firm is also reducing prices on basic items by 5 to 10 percent to compensate for the dropping euro-dollar exchange rate.
“It’s not just one market that is suffering, it’s across the board,” he said. In contrast to other mills, he added, Sarti is looking to increase its customer base. “It will make it harder for us, of course, but it’s something we have to do because the customers we have now are ordering less and less.”
Mills, specializing in niche products, meanwhile, felt the sting less. For higher-end companies, such as Loro Piana and Colombo, whose fine cashmeres and wools start at around $46 a yard, business is slow but steady.
“The orders are definitely coming in slower, but they’re still coming,” said Pier Luigi Loro Piana, chairman of Loro Piana.
He noted that Loro Piana is focusing on diversifying the classics with new colors and special finishes. Also important, he said, was to break into new markets, such as the sport/activewear arena.
“We’re investing a lot of money into the development and research of more technical fabrics,” he said. “We’re proud to be outfitting Team New Zealand in this year’s America’s Cup with a wardrobe that is made of over 70 percent wool, something quite new in this market.”
Similarly, Colombo is venturing into the sport and activewear markets with a line called Thermo. The collection consists of cashmeres, wools and camel hairs that are “wind and water resistant and regulate the wearer’s body temperature,” said Roberto Colombo, president. “It’s a way for us to diversify our selection while still remaining true to our philosophy.”
In a move to provide customers with new ideas, other high-end mills, such as Jakob Schlaepfer, are now offering special developments that make it more accessible for buyers to purchase their creations. New there was a woven patchwork made of ribbons engineered onto a panel of fabric that last season was sold as a full fabric.
“By putting it on a panel, we’ve made it less costly and easier for the client to finish a garment,” said Shkendie Kaziu, vice president.
While not new, the overall trend at the show was the contrast between rougher, craftier looks and finer, more drapable styles, all of which were quite sophisticated and formal. Finish, meanwhile, played an important role in achieving both looks.
Brushed effects were seen in the form of soft, low-pile velvets and velours, as well as corduroys. Also important was the continuance of washed, vintage looks where patterns were blurred and colors were distressed.
For designer Yeohlee, textures that exuded an authentic feel were key.
“I’m really searching for textures that feel and look handmade and crafty,” she said. “The novelties are quiet and there’s a ton of black. I think it has to do with the economy. People dress up more in times like these.”
Los Angeles-based designer David Meister, meanwhile, appreciated the variety of soft finishes he saw at the show.
“I love the drape that they give the fabric,” he said. “And they produce a great washed, vintage look.”
Jeffery Kong, a designer at Escada, noticed the trend toward a rustic look, but felt it was more polished than casual.
“They had a gorgeous example at Sarti, where there was a faux-leather ribbon woven through a wool-blended texture, giving a high and low effect,” Kong said. “The contrast between the matteness of the wool and the shine of the leather was very sophisticated, but the technique looked quite artisanal.”
To the disappointment of many buyers, colors were hard to find. There was a sea of black, gray and ivory at almost every booth. Most attributed this to the rough economic times, saying mills were simply giving the buyers what they wanted. Metallics, however, continued in their popularity and were seen in many forms — from touches in tweeds to all over shine.
THE FIBER PRICE SHEET
The last Tuesday of every month, WWD publishes the current, month-ago and year-ago fiber prices. Prices listed reflect the cost of one pound of fiber.
Price on Price on Price on
Fiber 9/20/02 8/23/02 9/25/01
Cotton 46.25 cents 47.65 cents 38.62 cents
Wool $2.44 $2.29 $1.73
Polyester staple 51 cents 52 cents 52 cents
Polyester filament 65 cents 66 cents 70 cents
August Synthetic PPI 106.0 105.4 107.6
*The current cotton price is the August average on fiber being delivered to Southeastern region mills, according to Agricultural Marketing Services/USDA. The wool price is based on the average of 11 microns for the week ended Sept. 20, according to The Woolmark Co. Information on polyester pricing is provided by the consulting firm DeWitt & Co. The synthetic-fiber producer index, or PPI, is compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and reflects the overall change in all synthetic-fiber prices. It is not a price in dollars, but a measurement in how prices have changed since 1982, which had a PPI of 100.