By  on January 12, 1994

WASHINGTON -- A government-sponsored apparel trade mission last fall to three Latin American countries has been paying off for participants, an indication that the opportunities of a North American Free Trade Agreement could expand into South America.

Back when NAFTA was far from a certainty, this contingent of 11 U.S. companies found eager buyers on their trip to Mexico, Chile and Argentina. It took place Oct. 13-22.

Now that NAFTA is in effect with its free trade benefits for Mexico, the Commerce Department is planning another apparel trade trip there in April, but it may also include Venezuela and Colombia, said Maura Kim, who heads the department's women's wear export promotion program.

"A lot of U.S. companies have an image of Latin America as a sourcing place rather than as a selling place," said Kim. But outward-looking businesses now are discovering the area's "very strong, viable markets," she said.

Because Mexico's economy was liberalized just five years ago, and those of Chile and Argentina were opened in 1990, many local companies are inefficient and unable to satisfy growing consumer demand, Kim said.

"Those countries are still an untapped market," she said, although German, Chinese and Japanese apparel companies are starting to move in.

Ted DiPonzio, international sales manager for Ursula of Switzerland, Waterford, N.Y., said his company's evening and social occasion apparel soon will be sold in Liverpool, Mexico's largest department store chain, and El Palacio de Hierro, an upscale department store chain.

Eventually, at least 150 specialty stores around the country also will carry Ursula products, with sales expected to reach $10 million annually, DiPonzio said.

"It's very exciting. There are only so many specialty stores [in the U.S.] to handle our product, and where better to go than someplace with 80 million people?"

Although the vast majority of those people do not have much money, DiPonzio said he was surprised at the spending power he saw in Mexico.

"The American perception is a vast wasteland of poverty-stricken people....[But] I visited five or seven malls, huge malls, and they were loaded, crowded with people spending money," he said.

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