By  on May 6, 2008

TOKYO — Japanese textile makers are facing tough times, as unfavorable exchange rates, competition from China and sluggish demand are biting into business.

Exhibitors at last month's Japan Creation textile show specialized in innovative, niche fabrics as a strategy to survive, and hopefully thrive, in the current climate.

High-tech synthetics, eco-friendly fabrics and a palette of pastels dominated the most recent edition of Japan Creation, which ended a three-day run on April 25. The show attracted 20,885 visitors, up from last year's 16,457, but down from the fall-winter edition's attendance of 38,411 in December.

Industry giants Mitsubishi Rayon Textile Co. and Teijin Fibers Ltd. were absent this season, which sapped some of the fair's momentum. Instead, Mitsubishi and Teijin opted to stage their own spring-summer product presentation. Company officials explained that they felt Japan Creation was scheduled too early in the season for them to present a full collection of new products.

Meanwhile, challenging textile business conditions continue to put pressure on Japanese mills. In March, exports of textiles, fabric and yarn fell 11.5 percent to 64.12 billion yen, or about $608.7 million at current exchange, according to the most recent set of statistics from Japan's Ministry of Finance. Imports of those items, mainly from China, rose 6.5 percent to 54.22 billion yen, or $514.7 million.

Companies are channeling their efforts toward creative and innovative products in a bid to attract an increasingly conservative buyer.

"We need to survive now, not by making commodity products but by making specialty products," said Ryosuke Chono, general manager of Toray Industries Inc.'s technical application department. "We need to focus on things that only Japan can do."

Toray, one of the world's largest fiber and textile manufacturers, hosted two booths at the show — one showcasing its spring and summer product lineup and another displaying its research division's new developments. The main stand featured silky polyesters, including one washed and rinsed numerous times to give it a textured sheen and wrinkled appearance.

Toray's cutting-edge innovations include an exceptionally soft nanofiber, a polyester and nylon alloy that absorbs perspiration to keep the wearer cool in humid summer months. Toray also showed a nylon and cellulose weave that, unlike many other cellulose fabrics, doesn't require a solvent to produce it."Cellulose is normally melted into fabric and it's not environmentally friendly," Chono explained.

Hironen Co. and Sakai Ovex Co. offered a range of synthetic fabrics with the softness and sheen of silk. One of Hironen's standouts was a lightweight polyester and triacetate tricot.

"The whole concept for the season is light and easy to carry," said Koji Tanaka, a sales representative with the company's textile division.

Sakai Ovex mined a similar theme, pushing polyester blends with organic cotton and linen.

"People are layering so their fabrics are light and easy to use," said Kazuhiko Ito, a textile salesman with the company.

The denim industry's presence at the fair was extremely thin apart from Kaihara Corp., which is pushing dark indigo cotton blended with linen or satin. Keizo Kumada, head of Tokyo sales for the mill, lamented extremely weak market conditions, especially for women's jeans. He also expressed concern over rising oil prices and the increasing cost of shipping American and Australian cotton to Japan.

Nagoya-based Olympus Thread Manufacturing Co. Ltd. displayed a selection of kimono-inspired cotton prints featuring bright florals, foliage and abstract designs.

"We are trying to use kimono patterns that are traditionally used in woven fabric and translating them into prints. That way they can be used for more different kinds of apparel," said Akane Yonemaru, who works in the planning section for the collection dubbed C-Element. "We are bringing the kimono into a more modern context and a lot of people are interested."

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