By  on February 19, 2008

MILAN — Italian textile firms plan to deal with a potential U.S. recession the same way they have tried to stave off Asian competition — by stressing quality, innovation and experience.

Executives of some of the 59 exhibitors at the sixth edition of Milano Unica, which ended its four-day run at the Milan fairgrounds on Feb. 15, said they will take a wait-and-see attitude toward the upcoming year, which for most started on a positive note. The Italian textile industry's 2007 sales of 9.1 billion euros, or $12.47 million, was flat against 2006, according to Italian fashion and textile consortium SMI-ATI.

"Just when we found the light at the end of the tunnel from the last crisis, it's like the light has been turned off suddenly," said Paolo Zegna, president of Milano Unica, summing up a general feeling among many in the textile industry. "But this time around it's different. There's optimism because the Italian industry knows now what they have to do — push quality, creativity, innovation and sales in new countries. On top of that, there's a newly found camaraderie between the mills. It shows that Italians are capable of doing things together."

The Italian textile industry was hard hit by the rise of low-cost Asian manufacturing between 2001 and 2005, resulting in the loss of more than 66,000 workers between 2001 and 2004, according to trade organization Sistema Moda Italia.

Prato-based mill Mario Bellucci has responded to a potential market downturn by upgrading its fabric lineup for spring 2009 to include viscose and cotton silk blends, as well as luxury crepe jerseys woven from silk, viscose and cupro.

"We changed our collection from basic to high-end," said export director Simone Bellucci. "We really tried to amplify the femininity and luxury look to the fabrics."

Bellucci showed a feather-weight, slippery, powder-pink silk satin.

"Before we would have done this in a heavier weight, but China is now the go-to place for weighty satins," Bellucci said.

Mario Bellucci closed 2007 with a 30 percent increase in sales to hit 25 million euros, or $34.3 million, with the boost coming mainly from jersey fabrics. Bellucci predicted the year would yield many small orders of between two and 5,000 meters from U.S. clients."They will buy a lot, so it works out in the end," Bellucci added.

Jersey fabrics reaped robust sales for many other Italian mills. Jersey specialist Mario Boselli's 2007 sales were up 30 percent compared with 2006.

"Jersey was so strong for summer 2008, but I am anxious to see how this season will sell," said Federico Boselli, chief executive officer.

The mill unveiled organic linen and cotton jerseys for spring and summer 2009, alongside gauzy silk jerseys with a peach hand.

Italian silk also performed well last year. Beppe Pisani, president of Ideacomo, said the collective 2007 volume of silk mills in the Como district — where most Italian silk is woven — had a 5 percent increase on sales, after rising 3 percent in 2006.

"The fact that there is more mass silk production means that there will be more need for brands to differentiate themselves with higher-end silk," Pisani said.

His mill, Serikos, had particularly strong sales to the U.S. last year, increasing 60 percent compared with 2006 because of new collaborations with designers Diane von Furstenberg and Thakoon. Pisani said he felt positive about 2008.

"If there is a recession in the U.S., sure it won't help, but I am convinced our clients will keep coming to us for exclusivity," he added.

Loro Piana launched its new trademarked fabric, The Wave, at the company's Milan showroom a day before Milano Unica opened. Developing the new product was a yearlong process that required inventing a yarn-twisting technology complemented with tailor-made looms. The Wave is constructed with a combination of two merino wool fibers and an extra-fine filament of silk twisted at extra-high tauten.

At the fair, co-ceo Pier-Luigi Loro Piana said spinning the fibers in a new way eliminated silk and wool's normal performance limitations, and produced a supersoft, elastic, resistant and breathable fabric.

The twisting technology also allowed the mill to bump up the percentage of natural fibers in tech fabrics.

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