Italy’s specialty textile companies feel somewhat insulated from pressures on other parts of the fashion industry.fter a difficult first half, high-end, Italian textile companies showing at the latest round of national trade shows voiced a tentative tenor of optimism.

While most mills at the recent Moda In textile show here conceded that business suffered in the first half of 2002, managers pointed to a slight — but encouraging — rebound for the second half.

"The summer orders were slow, but now sales are going well and we’re noting a pickup," said Alberto Scotti, owner and president of Compagnia della Seta, a Como-based silk manufacturer. Scotti said he expected 2002 sales to rise between 10 and 20 percent.

Spread throughout northern and central Italy, mills like Carvico, Lora Festa, Compagnia della Seta and Ratti have been a sourcing mecca for houses from Benetton to Giorgio Armani to Valentino. Silks, worsteds, jersey and high-tech fibers have flourished in the small, independent mills scattered through such landmark districts as Prato, Como, Biella and the Veneto.

Despite increasing competition from China and South Korea and the approaching 2005 global quota phaseout, Italian textile companies, especially in the high end, are confident that demand for their products will continue to thrive because of their role in the Italian fashion machine. The consensus among mills: Businesses will remain secure as long as the "Made In Italy" label stays in fashion’s favor.

"For mills that produce mass quantity, lower-quality fabrics, then there could be concern," said Andrea Paoletti, owner of Lanificio Paoletti, a wool mill based in the Veneto region. "For us, a niche company, there’s really no threat of competition because of our kind of product."

Meanwhile, at Star, another Como manufacturer known for its intricate prints, traffic was spilling out of its booth at Moda In and managing director Valentino Pasani said he expected sales to climb 10 percent to $58.9 million. All figures are converted from the euro at current exchange rates.

Pasani said he believed that free trade with China would help business: "I think it depends on how companies take advantage of the situation. If it allows me to buy my raw materials [silk] at lower prices, then that, in turn, will make my product more competitive."As a district, Como, famous for its prints, twills, chiffon, organza and shantung, has watched its bottom line roller coaster for a few years. In the second quarter of 2002, the Italian Silk Association reported a 4.8 percent drop in sales of Italian silk.

In 2001, Italian silk producers generated $1.65 billion in sales, and Italian wool mills, $5.5 billion, according to Sistema Moda Italia, a consortium of more than 1,500 textile and fashion companies that tracks sales and exports of Italian goods, and ISTAT, Italy’s national statistic agency. Figures for 2002 were not available by press time.

Just northwest of Como are the mills of Biella and according to the Industrial Union of Biella 2001, revenue reached $3.92 billion, with exports accounting for 35 percent of turnover. Many mills noted a difficult first quarter. However, the Union said actual sales figures for the first half of 2002 were not yet available.

In Prato, a district known for its carded wool and tech fabrics, the regional textile union expects revenue this year to dip to $2.16 billion from $2.31 billion in 2001.

Like many high-end Italian textile producers, Loro Festa, for the time being at least, isn’t worried about competition from the Far East. "At the moment, the greatest pressure essentially comes from Italy," said Giacomo Festa Bianchet, chief executive of Loro Festa, adding that the company has opened an affiliate in Hong Kong to help it forge into that market.

"Our strategy as an industry is to think of ourselves and promote ourselves as a niche product of the highest level," said Paolo Zegna, president of Ideabiella and co-ceo of Ermenegildo Zegna. "Our defense is not only to maintain but to build upon our service, creativity, quality and innovation."

Above all, however, Italian textile managers say pride, tradition, craftsmanship and innovation are their best tools.

"One of our greatest strengths as an industry, beside the quality of our fabrics, is our ability to respond quickly to the needs of a fickle fashion business," said Older Tescari, owner of Lanificio Top Wool, a wool and cashmere producer in Biella. "It takes a mind and a heart to create the kind of fabrics we’re capable of producing."

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