By  on May 22, 2007

MIAMI BEACH — Innovation and corporate social responsibility were recurring themes during the ninth edition of Material World at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Material World, which ended its three-day run May 10, presents resources for all aspects of the sewn product industry, from design to delivery. This year, and every third year, Material World and Technology Solutions were joined by Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas, which added 80 exhibitors to Material World's 475. The show, sponsored by Atlanta-based Urban Expositions, is composed of and targets mostly Western Hemisphere companies, but sourcing pavilions included exhibitors from India, Pakistan and China.

Exhibitors stressed the need to position themselves as innovative partners capable of providing brands with the latest in technology and most efficient execution. This year they also were intent on showing their commitment to the environment and social responsibility.

Technology Solutions featured dramatic new applications, such as Paxar's magicmirror, which displays content, size, color, mix-and-match guidelines and accessories suggestions when a garment equipped with a radio frequency identification, or RFID, tag is held in front of it. The mirror also can provide advertising or communicate with salespeople, who are alerted via a computerized handheld device when the fitting room customer needs another size or color. Magicmirror also tracks garments to prevent shoplifting.

Magicmirror was among 14 participants in The Cool Zone, a futuristic technology showcase sponsored by TC2, a Cary, N.C.-based research consortium. Other exhibits included virtual and 3-D design tools, customized fit scanners and digital printing machines that eliminate treatments and dyes that pollute water.

The color green infused all areas of the show, from organic, recycled and new bamboo fibers to technological advances such as digital printing that reduces pollutants. The show's trend pavilion, with the theme "Sustainability," combined the latest fashion and performance trends under banners stressing environmental awareness. Fabric exhibitor Eclat, based in City of Industry, Calif., launched a green division last year, showing fabrics of bamboo, organic cotton, sea kelp, soy bean and recycled polyester for the first time at Material World.

"Our customers want it; Champion ordered 800,000 pieces of an organic cotton top and pants for Sam's Club," said April Booth, Eclat's national sales manager. "Wal-Mart's going green and committed to 250 million pieces of organic garments through 2010."Tim von Gal, president of Material World, said the concern is so overriding now that future Material World shows would designate environmentally responsible exhibitors and hold seminars on environmental responsibility.

"For whatever reason, from Al Gore's movie [on global warming] or Wal-Mart's green initiative, people want it," he said.

Kevin Burke, chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which also sponsors the show, said environmental and social issues were a common theme in the apparel industry, reflecting consumer attitudes and the new Democratic majority in Congress.

"This has hit a vein," he said. "With so much offshore sourcing, companies now know it's not worth saving a nickel to use a factory with poor labor standards. The challenge for companies is to protect their brands."

Burke said the biggest challenge for AAFA members is providing product for increasingly demanding big retailers that are now competitors by producing private label merchandise.

"With fewer traditional big retail channels, manufacturers are becoming retailers themselves, opening stores or selling direct through online catalogue channels," he said.

Brad Beal, senior vice president of manufacturing at Jockey International, said companies have to "adapt or die."

During a seminar on effective brand managing, Beal said Jockey is now a retailer, with more than 100 stores, and is focused on innovative new products, developing niche markets and environmentally friendly fabrics. Jockey had consolidated its sourcing to the best, rather than the cheapest vendors, he said.

"Above all, we want to have an emotional connection with consumers, to be the first thing customers think of when they wake up in the morning and open their underwear drawer," Beal said.

Another panelist, Chuck Nesbit, Chico's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the company's sourcing strategy is determined by the brand's product and design, rather than allegiance to a particular region of the world.

"Our vendors decide where they produce, not us," he said. "The product needs to be trend-right and fashion-right. We don't want vendors who say 'What can we sell you?' but 'How can we tailor it to be partners and help build a brand with you?'"Rick Helfenbein, president of Luen Thai USA, which makes product for Liz Claiborne, Polo Ralph Lauren and other major U.S. brands, said big companies want design-to-store collaborative partners, and that environmental and social issues are priorities. Despite criticism of China's economic policies and their impact on the U.S., he said manufacturers should concentrate on opportunities there.

"There's a huge market in China that loves American products," Helfenbein said, speaking at an executive sourcing breakfast that kicked off the show.

Tom Glaser, president of supply chain for Europe and Asia for VF International, said the company was "looking for factories that can innovate like the Asian model."

At the sourcing breakfast, Glaser said VF spends $300 million on full-packaged sourcing in the Western Hemisphere, but the lack of a good fabric supply in Central America and Mexico limits the region to basics such as T-shirts, underwear and jeans.

In an interview, Glaser said VF was "under constant pressure to innovate." He pointed to initiatives such as Lee Jeans' new customized fit and marketing programs, and shoe line Vans' design-your-own program, where customers create a design that VF then makes in China.

"We need to create new experiences," he said. "Who needs another plain woven shirt?"

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