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Foreign Mills Lure U.S. Buyers Despite Weak Dollar

Foreign mills exhibiting at trade shows here last week saw heavy foot traffic from brands and retailers, buoying their confidence even as poor exchange rates and increasing competition continue to put the pinch on profit margins.

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NEW YORK — Foreign mills exhibiting at trade shows here last week saw heavy foot traffic from brands and retailers, buoying their confidence even as poor exchange rates and increasing competition continue to put the pinch on profit margins.

At Premiere Vision Preview, held Wednesday and Thursday at the Metropolitan Pavilion, exhibitors presented fall and winter 2008 selections to an American market that is particularly anxious about rising costs.

The first thought on most peoples’ minds was the troubling exchange rate between the rising euro and the falling dollar (the euro reached an all-time high against the dollar of $1.3846 in early currency trading Monday before slipping slightly). Designers are having to dig deep to maintain prices, while providing the quality their customers have come to expect.

“It’s made a huge difference in the way I shop the show,” said designer Nanette Lepore. “About 80 percent of my collection is European fabrics and the cost is rising.”

Still, most designers were upbeat.

“When we come to PV, every mill says, ‘What can we do for you?'” said Herve Pierre, creative director at Carolina Herrera. “If you don’t take advantage of that, you’re silly.”

The show’s more than 130 exhibitors were divided into five “style universes.” The Accessories universe was full of lace trimmings and embroideries, and the success of the luxury market was evident in the Fancy Seduction universe, where firms presented luxurious silks, wools and fur fabrics. Vibrantly colored shirtings, suitings and linings were prevalent in the Tailored Distinction area. Both the Relaxed Attitude and Active Pulsation areas catered to the American sportswear market, with wovens, denims and knits, as well as technical fabrics for the active sector.

A move to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was praised by mills exhibiting at Texworld USA, which ended its three-day run Thursday. Exhibitors were pleased with the improved layout and facilities at Javits and reported an uptick in the number of buyers frequenting their booths. They also expressed confidence in the strength of the U.S. market.

Sapphire Mills, a 40-year-old Pakistani company that specializes in bottoms and works with brands such as Liz Claiborne, Gap, Ann Taylor and American Eagle Outfitters, has expanded its capacity to 4 million meters per month from 2.7 million meters to serve the U.S. market.

“The U.S. is very challenging in terms of price, quality and service,” said Naveed Yousaf, marketing manager for Sapphire.

Yousaf said stretch fabrics with subtle texturing and dense twills were popular in bottoms for the women’s market. The company sees strong growth opportunities for the nondenim bottoms market.

Wayne Jansz, a merchandising manager for Pakistani denim mill Artistic Garment Industries, said brands and retailers are still buying denim, but are seeking lower-priced fabrics.

“I see not much of a slowdown in denim except in the pricing,” said Jansz, noting that urban and streetwear brands such as Ecko Unlimited remained strong denim performers.

Hilmi Kosar, sales manager with Turkish mill Semada Tekstil, said there is ample room for growth in the U.S., but believes companies have to make a substantial commitment to the market, which means doing more than hiring an agent.

“The market is competitive and an agent can’t keep up with that,” said Kosar. “They may represent 10 companies, so we must be in direct contact with our customers.”

Semada specializes in fancy fabrics and introduces 28 new fabric designs into its collection each month. Kosar said the company does about 85 percent of its business in Europe with retailers such as H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer. It was the company’s second time exhibiting at Texworld USA and to boost its profile with U.S. buyers, Kosar said he had been living in a hotel for the past month in order to meet directly with potential clients.

The 15 exhibitors at the Supima Premium Fabric Show, which ran for three days through Thursday at Gotham Hall, fielded buyers looking for eco-friendly fabrics. Usman Ghani, a marketing executive with Pakistan’s Mahmood Group, said the firm is working to make organic fabrics a larger part of its business.

“Up to now, it was 10 to 15 percent of our business,” said Ghani. “Looking to the future it should go up to between 30 and 35 percent.”

Chemical manufacturers that provide the apparel industry with dyes and finishes are also moving to introduce products that lessen the impact on the environment, which Ghani said could trigger rapid growth in environmentally friendly products.

“Once that is done, we’ll be in a position to increase our organic offerings further,” he said.

Helene Stein, vice president of merchandising for Los Angeles-based Ecotex, said the company had been “inundated” at April’s Los Angeles International Textile show and was getting an equally strong response from big-name brands at the Supima show. Stein acknowledged that not all buyers possessed a full understanding of what it means to offer organic or environmentally friendly goods.

“Some people are coming in with buzzwords in their heads,” she said.

Some buyers have gone to the other extreme, Stein said, developing a new position she jokingly referred to as the CGO, or chief Google officer, whose job entailed combing the Internet for the latest and most obscure natural fibers. After one full day of the show, Stein had a page of her notebook filled with new materials buyers had inquired about for use in natural fabrics.

The Istanbul Textile and Apparel Exporters’ Association, which organizes the Turkish Fashion Fabric Exhibition that ran July 17 and 18, moved the show to the Puck Building in SoHo this season. There were about 20 or so mills present, even though the show’s organizers had claimed 50 companies would be exhibiting during the summer edition.

Erdinc Yasar, planning and marketing manager for 35-year-old mill Ornek Tekstil, said buyers were attracted to Lurex fabrics or anything with a shiny effect. Doing business with U.S. customers has forced Ornek to make improvements in the way it conducts business, which Yasar felt helped the company overall. It’s been a gradual process, but after exhibiting at the show six times, the mill now counts labels such as Bebe, BCBG Max Azria and Club Monaco among its customers.

Joanne Satin, an agent representing Ipeker Tekstil, a family-owned vertical mill that specializes in prints, said double-printed burnouts had been a “big hit” among buyers. “Prints are definitely happening and also silk-like jersey fabrics have been popular,” said Satin.

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