NEW YORK — U.S. textile manufacturers are focusing on quality, innovation and the advantage of proximity to market as the keys to surviving seemingly insurmountable competition from China.
"I think the facts speak for themselves. Year to date in terms of imported fabrics, there's clearly a large erosion in the domestic market," said John Bakane, president and chief executive officer of Cone Mills. "However, there are niches that are actually flourishing."
According to Bakane, the greatest opportunities for domestic manufacturers will come by claiming business in developing specialized areas. One of the most recent examples, said Bakane, is the specialty jeans market, which has experienced rapid growth. According to Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm NPD Group, women's jeans priced at $60 and up more than doubled last year. For the year ended in February, the $60-plus range represented 5.8 percent of the denim market compared with 2.9 percent a year ago.
"The premium jeans market, it's been a phenomenal growth story," Bakane said.
Cone also has reaped unexpected rewards from a growing European trend for historical denim. European markets have seen a strong call for denim inspired by its heritage as a working garment for miners and laborers, a need only a domestic manufacturer such as Cone is prepared to meet.
"We have a 115-year history in the business," said Bakane. "When it comes to authentic vintage products, no one can touch us because they don't have the history."
Levi's was one of those companies seeking styles that had first been produced at the turn of the 20th century.
"Don't underestimate this issue of history in regards to products, particularly for denim," Bakane said. "The focus on historical authenticity of denim jeans has been quite an advantage."
The ability for U.S. manufacturers to respond quickly is another factor that Bakane said has helped many domestic firms stay in business.
"I had someone from overseas tell me that cheap labor from overseas can't do two things: It can't change geography and it can't change history," he said.
The domestic mills that are at risk are those that are manufacturing products "in the middle," or do not meet a unique need.
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