NEW YORK — Maria D’Abbondanza is no novice to the fashion apparel business, but the Canadian designer is finding it a major challenge breaking into the U.S. market.

D’Abbondanza invested $250,000 in 2000 to start up the Vaughn, Ontario-based firm. It specializes in sleepwear and she has kept her production and distribution aimed at more than 300 better specialty boutiques in Canada. She is now poised to enter the major specialty store market in the U.S.

"I am just starting to test the American market, collecting feedback and reaction from American retailers and am growing a little at a time," said D’Abbondanza, who began showing her softly tailored pajamas and wrap robes here this summer. "I think it’s important to take little steps at a time because I want to be able to service my customers."

She declined to give an annual wholesale sales figure, but industry estimates place yearly volume at $4 million to $5 million.

"The biggest challenge entering the U.S. market is letting American retailers know and understand the quality of the garments," D’Abbondanza said. "I think there is business in America, but unfortunately, they are not looking for new vendors right now and are afraid to try new things."

But she believes she will eventually break down the barriers. She noted the fairly low shipping costs from Canada as well as its duty-free status under NAFTA.

"I have my own factory, and the run is fast, usually four months," she said.

D’Abbondanza, who is originally from Pescara, Italy, got her start in the apparel business in Toronto in 1970, where she and her husband, Luigi, started The Royal Shirt Co., a men’s shirt firm. They started out with approximately $15,000 in seed money, several sewing machines and two employees. In 1999, the couple sold their shirt concern to Hartmarx for an undisclosed sum, which industry estimates put at about $20 million.

She described her sleepwear designs as "classic with a little bit of fashion." Prints include plaids, striped men’s shirting motifs and an abundance of haberdashery prints. There also are slippers in coordinating fabrics and prints."We are doing a lot of what is now being called comfortwear — loungewear items that are soft and comfortable in fabrics such as softly brushed cotton knits and flannels, woven cottons and Tactel blends," said D’Abbondanza.

Pajamas wholesale for $50 to $175, and cashmere robes are $800 and up.

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