By  on January 29, 2008

NEW YORK — Despite concerns about the weak dollar and recession fears, buyers showed strong appetites for innovative fabrics at last week's international textile fairs here.

Exhibitors said brands and retailers shopping the shows, which included Première Vision Preview, the Turkish Fashion Fabric Exhibition, Texworld USA, Prefab: The Supima Premium Fabric Show and Kingpins, continued to place a heavy emphasis on environmentally friendly products. Buyers kept in mind that a depressed retail environment would require upgrading products with fabrics that offered enhanced looks, textures or performance.

At Prefab, which ended its three-day run on Thursday at Gotham Hall, mills said buyers seemed to have little concern about rising costs associated with using organic materials and higher quality pima cotton.

"Last year, nobody was willing to pay a premium for organic, but people are seeing the big hype in it and they're starting to say, 'OK, maybe it is worth it,'" said Tony Carnot, director of denim design and marketing of Arvind Denim Lab.

Denim, in particular, is a fabric that lends itself to the incorporation of organic fibers, Carnot noted.

"The beauty of organic mixed with denim is that denim is considered one of the biggest fabrics in the world and it's supposed to be natural," Carnot said. "Mixing organic cotton with natural indigos and vegetable dyes just makes it even more beautiful."

Helene Stein, vice president of merchandising for Los Angeles-based Ecotex, said the environmental movement is being spurred by a slow but steady introduction of eco-friendly consumer products ranging from jewelry to home goods.

"People are getting it in small doses and they're seeing it doesn't need to be crunchy," Stein said.

The Ecotex booth attracted higher-end contemporary labels for which pricing wasn't a deciding factor, she said. However, Stein noted that smaller labels, particularly from the West Coast, were generally more willing to take a risk on bringing new products to store shelves.

"Out there, there are small young companies and they're eager to make a mark, and it's fun to work with them and watch them blossom," Stein added.

Brands and retailers are willing to spend more if it means they can get goods on the shelves faster, a trend that has spurred growth at Fessler USA. The Pennsylvania-based mill has been in business for 108 years and specializes in manufacturing fashion knit tops for customers such as Nordstrom, Lucky Brand and Urban Outfitters."We've grown 25 to 30 percent over the last few years," said Brian Meck, general manager, who noted that all the company's facilities are in Pennsylvania. "One of the biggest drivers in the retail market lately has been speed to market."

Retailers can get an early read on which of their Asian-manufactured goods are selling well and turn to Fessler to quickly replenish those bestsellers. The mill also licenses Supima, which Meck said allows the company to work with finer yarn counts.

Puneet Shrivastava, U.S. sales representative for India-based Ashmia, said differentiating product is becoming a bigger challenge, even for retailers that aren't addressing high-end customers.

"Now what we are seeing is even the mass retailers like J.C. Penney, they want to distinguish themselves from Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears," Shrivastava said. "They're trying to upgrade their product, though they don't want to spend much."

Ashmia specializes in cotton apparel and counts Polo Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, J. Crew, Ann Taylor and Tommy Hilfiger among its customers. Shrivastava found buyers looking for fabrics with strong color saturations.

"It should not look hazy," he said.

Andrew Olah, chief executive officer of Olah Inc., which produces Kingpins, credits an increased attention to upgrading fabrics to a lack of overall direction in the fashion industry.

"In the business right now, we're in an ideological trough," he said. "I think one of the biggest problems in business is we don't have new things...the only way you can change anything is with the fiber."

The selection from exhibitors at Kingpins reflected Olah's sentiment. Bayer CropScience was on hand to promote its Fibermax-branded cotton, which uses a seed it developed to improve the quality of cotton being produced, notably by growers in Texas. Fibermax offers comparable performance to using pima cotton and is more affordable, making it appealing for brands looking to make a quality upgrade.

Japanese denim mill Kurabo Industries has incorporated pima cotton into its line, as well as Dow XLA stretch fiber. Dow XLA sponsors Kingpins. Takashi Mitani, manager of jeans and casual fabric sales for Kurabo, said the company is also introducing denim that uses recycled cotton from the mills' denim scraps. The end garment contains 10 percent recycled denim."There's a shortage of ideas right now," Olah said. "That's why we're focusing on things like pima, Fibermax and XLA. It's not an accident it's all fiber. We're trying to take nice fabrics and make them nicer so a customer will take them and say, 'wow, I don't have this.'"

Foot traffic at Texworld USA was mixed, exhibitors said, although some noted they had benefited from buyers looking for lower-cost alternatives.

"We're seeing customers coming here that originally sourced from Europe," said Ken Chen, executive vice president of Taiwan-based Tah Tong Textile Co. "They are coming here now obviously because of the cost for them."

Patrick Fong, managing director of Osaka Eiko Boeki, said the firm had "certainly" benefited from the high value of the euro. "At this price range, the buyers are very interested," he said.

Exhibitors at the Turkish textile show believed the lack of interest from buyers and the dwindling number of mills making the trip to present their wares will likely mean the show won't return next season. Several sales representatives noted that the Turkish government's financial support of the show mandates that at least 20 mills exhibit, but only 15 mills presented at the show.

"Because of the dollar situation, Turkish fabrics in general have become more expensive," said Taner Aksy, a salesman with Akin Tekstil. "Because of that, a lot of customers cannot afford it, and also the garment production. There used to be a decent amount of garment production, which is also now not there."

Ali Yaman, assistant general manager of sales and marketing at Deba, said the removal of quotas in 2005 had been the first blow to the Turkish industry. The current pricing pressure forced the remaining Turkish mills to concentrate on serving Europe and countries in the Middle East, Yaman said.

"With a strong dollar, there was a chance to be competitive [in the U.S.]," he said. "But that hasn't happened."

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