By  on March 30, 1994

TORONTO -- Although they shared floor space with loudspeakers, food stands and air purifiers, a dozen Canadian apparel companies enjoyed an enthusiastic response from Mexican retailers at a government-sponsored trade fair in Mexico City last week.

"It was great, the reaction was wonderful," said Toronto-based designer Franco Mirabelli, who took his bridge sportswear line to the three-day show, which closed Friday. "There are definitely stores that can carry the line."

While there were reports of some orders being written, most of the exhibitors used the event as an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the apparel market and find distributors.

Mirabelli said he plans to meet with a potential distributor soon. And, he added, Palacio de Hierro, an upscale department store chain, said it will buy the line for five of its stores.

"They viewed me as an Italian line because of the name and fabrication," said Mirabelli.

"The Mexican woman will spend money on clothing," he added. "They really care about the way they look. Everybody dresses up."

Other apparel exhibitors, among 425 small and medium-sized Canadian businesses displaying goods and services at Canada Expo '94, were equally impressed by Mexico's hunger for unusual fashion product.

"I could have sold most of the pieces in my sample line," said Paula Lishman, a Blackstock, Ontario, designer of knitted fur garments retailing at $2,000 to $3,000 Canadian, or $1,455 to $2,183 U.S.

"I'm encouraged by the amount of interest. I think there are definitely good prospects for Canadian fashion in Mexico," she said.

Echoing other exhibitors, Lishman said the weak Canadian dollar, compared to strong U.S. currency, makes Canada's products especially attractive. Moreover, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, duties on Canadian products are less than on European imports.

In addition, said Lishman, there's "much more of an affinity" between Mexicans and Canadians.

"The Mexicans feel a little overwhelmed by Americans and they see Canada in the same position," agreed Beate Bowron, a manager for the City of Toronto's planning and development department, which sponsored a buyer's lounge at the trade fair.Bowron characterized the show as a testing ground for Canadian businesses and a chance to show Mexicans "that we have a fashion product." The lounge served cool drinks in the hot Exhibimex Convention Center and showed videotapes of the recent Toronto ready-to-wear collections.

Angela DeMontigny, a project coordinator for the design division of the Canadian Apparel Federation, one of the organizers of Canada Expo '94, said there were fewer apparel exhibitors than expected because the Mexican show conflicted with trade events elsewhere. And there were a few glitches. Some clothing samples arrived late due to paperwork problems.

But apparel, ranging from men's shirts to lingerie and children's wear, was represented and "everyone did really well," she said. "The Mexicans just love Canadian-designed product. There's no bridge market in Mexico. It's either low-end or extreme high-end. We'll be in the middle to bridge market, and there's a definite need for that."

About 20,000 Mexican business people visited the show, although attendance fell slightly Thursday, a national day of mourning for slain presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Lishman said she had about 20 parties eager to represent her line. She planned to review them carefully before selecting one.

Rhonda Lepofsky, sales manager for Montreal-based Norma Lepofsky Ltd., said she signed a contract for distribution of its high-end women's fabric and leather outerwear.

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