By  on October 21, 2008

HONG KONG — Mounting economic woes kept buyers largely on the sidelines during the Interstoff Asia textile fair here.

Although innovative fabrics like Austrian fiber producer Lenzing’s Promodal blend and Texorganix’s spun bamboo bark and soybean protein fiber spurred interest, buyers were anxious about overcommitting on budget and volume. The 200 suppliers exhibiting at the show, meanwhile, were resigned to the market downturn. Most said they had been feeling the economic pinch since the beginning of the year and were bracing themselves for tougher times ahead.

About 6,200 visitors from 45 countries attended the show, which ended its three-day run on Oct. 10 at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center.

Anil Chhaperia, a partner in Calcutta-based Vinayak International, which sells natural fabrics to European and American wholesalers, said compared with previous periods of economic turmoil he had experienced, the latest downturn would last longer and have deeper repercussions.

“Our wholesale clients no longer want to stock up on inventories,” Chhaperia said. “Everybody is just buying what they need and only when they have an order from a customer. In this business, we are used to an economic slowdown every three to four years, but recovery this time looks like it will take longer than the usual six to 12 months.”

Officials from show organizer Messe Frankfurt acknowledged the impact of the weakened global economy.

“Many European and American companies are cutting back on travel and accommodation costs,” said Amra Durakovic, Messe Frankfurt’s senior public relations officer. “Instead of coming to our fairs, they are sending their local distributors and representatives on their behalf. This has been a noticeable trend across all our fairs this year. It’s all about the economy right now.”

Caution has emerged as the buzzword among buyers who are facing increased scrutiny over their purchases.

“With the Australian dollar plummeting in the last week, we will have to recost everything and adjust our budget accordingly,” said John Holding, owner of Eco.D, a casual women’s wear brand in Melbourne, Australia. “There is certainly no way we can push up our prices to the consumer, so we will have to buy less and be very careful about what we buy.”

Uncertainty over when the U.S. economy might bottom out has hit brands like HTnaturals, with the lion’s share of the Vancouver-based eco-textiles clothing company’s sales coming from the U.S.

“Our customers are placing smaller orders even though they are telling us they will probably reorder,” said Jane Nemis, the company’s product director and designer. “People are really playing it safe. They would rather have less stock than be stuck with inventory.”

Yitzac Goldstein, director of development and production at Texorganix, is confident eco-friendly fabrics will retain their market niche despite buyers having to pay a premium of up to 50 percent.

“Eco-textiles are more resilient than some of the more fashion-oriented fabrics because there will always be consumers who want environmentally friendly clothing,” Goldstein said. “Consumers in this segment see eco-textiles as part of their lifestyle. We expect business to remain dynamic, but perhaps not as dynamic as in the last few years.”

Saral Kochar, a production manager at American Eagle Outfitters, was sourcing eco-textiles in preparation for the brand’s move into the environmentally friendly market. According to Kochar, the downturn was unlikely to suspend the effort, though expectations will have to be revised.

“The core customer base for eco-textile products makes this a stable market, but any pickup in demand will have to come later,” said Kochar.

For many buyers, the green movement has moved from the fiber level to putting the focus on the environmental impact of the entire processing cycle.

“The next push is on how the fabric has been processed and produced,” Nemis said. “We are looking closely at the finishing, the way the material has been dyed and the treatment of waste water to ensure the production cycle has not damaged the environment.”

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