By  on August 23, 2011

While its lineage is as fuzzy as a ball of cotton, the mission of Supima is clear — to promote, improve and advance the consumption and quality of U.S.-grown pima as the finest in the world.

Often referred to as “the cashmere of cottons,” Supima is known to be the top type of cotton for softness, strength and brilliance of color. It traces its roots back centuries, deriving its properties from various types of Sea Island and Egyptian cottons, and was first called American-Egyptian, Yuma or ELS — extra-long staple — cotton, before gaining the moniker pima.

“A small group of visionary farmers, breeders and Pima Indians developed this special variety of cotton,” said Buxton S. Midyette, vice president of marketing and promotions at Supima. “Pima is a unique species of cotton with very special properties. It’s an inch and half in length, compared to an inch for regular cotton, it’s twice as strong as regular cotton and it absorbs dye very well because it’s a very fine fiber and the dye goes right to the core.”

Midyette noted that pima was originally developed as an industrial fiber used in such applications as Goodyear tire cordage and in the fuselage of the Spirit of St. Louis.

“Hence, it makes it a perfect fiber for things like denim, allowing for a range of washing and distressing because of its strength,” he said.

Supima was formed in 1954 in El Paso, Tex. As Midyette explained, “A group of growers came together and realized this special fiber needed to have its own marketing. They started marketing with designers such as Oleg Cassini and Claire McCardell and other leading designers and brands of the time.”

In its early years, Supima was primarily concerned with promotion, government regulations and agricultural research. In an effort to keep pace with the expanding interest worldwide in ELS cotton, Supima broadened its responsibilities in 1978 when it merged with the Arizona Cotton Planting Seed Distributors, essentially overseeing the production and distribution of all certified American pima planting seed. However, the division was sold to Delta and Pine Land Co. in 1993, when commercial seed companies had entered the business. The sale also marked the end of Supima’s 30-year-old partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its Arizona-based Pima Improvement Program.

Supima is represented by a board of directors comprised of 11 pima cotton producers: seven from California, two from Texas and one each from Arizona and New Mexico. Supima’s primary objective is to promote the increased consumption of American pima cotton around the world. Supima is a major sponsor of research programs to improve the quality of American pima. It also works closely with cotton industry organizations and government agencies to ensure a fair and viable marketing environment for American pima cotton growers.

More than 300 fine-count textile mills, manufacturers and retailers from around the world are licensed to use the Supima brand.

Supima started using cotton imagery in ad campaigns seven years ago. In 2008, it planted a cotton field in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in conjunction with the opening of a pop-up shop on Green Street. The month-long shop featured a partnership with 16 brands and was meant to portray the breadth of apparel and home furnishings products that use Supima.

Supima also created a cotton garden last year under the Highline in Manhattan featuring 700 live cotton plants, and cotton bales as tables and seats.

Supima’s two major retail collaborations are with Bloomingdale’s and Brooks Brothers, “which allows us to sell Supima as a brand,” Midyette said.

Brooks Brothers offered a full Supima collection in a 35-page catalogue in 2008 and in a special department in the store that includes women’s, men’s and childrens’ shirts, pants and sweaters.

“The idea of two iconic brands like Brooks Brothers and Supima working together has been amazing,” Midyette said. “We have collaborated on the catalogues and department displays and worked with training the sales staff. It’s been a great partnership which we’ll be continuing into the foreseeable future.”

Supima also worked with many denim and knitwear firms, such as Goldsign, Agave, Splendid and Michael Stars.

Midyette said Supima has been “relatively insulated” from the volatility in cotton prices over the last year or so, noting that it regularly sells for 50 to 100 percent more than regular cotton.

“Supima is a luxury fiber that allows brands to create a quality product that offers the best qualities to their consumer, so price has never really been an issue,” he said.

Since it represents American growers, Midyette said, “We couldn’t be more excited then to see the renewed interest in U.S. manufacturing,” noting that it sells and works with mills, yarn spinners and apparel manufacturers such as Buhler Quality Yarns Corp., Fessler USA, Antex Knitting Mills and Design Knit Inc.

He also feels Supima cotton fits right in with the sustainability movement in fashion, since it is a natural fiber and its qualities allow it to be long-lasting, renewable and biodegradable.

With a rich history, Supima isn’t resting on its laurels.

“We’ll continue to focus on our roots and the product itself and work with our partners, and connect with consumers to help them realize and see the benefits of Supima apparel and home furnishings,” he added. “We’re also doing what we can to give back to the industry.”

This is highlighted by the student Design Competition, where the top two graduates from schools including Pratt Institute, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Rhode Island School of Design participate in a design competition. Supima supplies fabrics to create a capsule collection that is shown on the runway. In it’s fourth year, the next show is set for Sept. 8 at the Studio space at Lincoln Center.

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