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NEW YORK — Bruce Roberts, a key figure in the textiles industry for decades, remembers when the domestic fiber business thrived.
Roberts, who as executive director of the Textile Distributors Association presided over the group’s final meeting last week, said: "It was a growth business, it was a domestic business and it was a great business. Not only was it a successful business, but it was fun and collegial. There was lots of competition, but they worked together in many cases."
Founded in 1938 as the Textiles Distributors Institute, the association sought to protect the domestic textile industry and champion causes such as establishing flame-resistant standards in apparel. The emergence of man-made fibers helped spur a boom in the domestic textiles industry between 1955 and 1975, a period in which the TDA and textile manufacturers had their greatest influence on the political scene and the apparel industry.
Membership in the organization eventually reached 365. However, the rise of low-cost, overseas manufacturing was a force too great to overcome, and the TDA’s sphere of influence and relevance steadily declined. In mid-November, about 25 of the remaining 50 members gathered at Sardi’s restaurant here to lay the groundwork for dissolving the group.
Roberts, 84, who had led the association since 1990, has witnessed the rise and fall of the industry. In 1955, an executive recruiter wooed Roberts from his job with an advertising agency to take a position with Eastman Kodak’s chemical division. At the time, the only fiber being produced by the company was acetate.
"They really didn’t have any marketing or merchandising staff of any consequence in New York, so I sort of turned into that," Roberts said.
In 1958, Eastman introduced its Kodel polyester fiber, building it to a $500 million business and becoming the second largest producer behind DuPont. Roberts recalled buying a four-day sponsorship of the U.S. Open golf tournament for only $90,000. Eastman also sponsored portions of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which became another crucial platform for brand marketing.
"We had a polyester fiber that was whiter than the competition’s," he said. "They had problems originally with polyester. There was some yellowing when it was laundered. We came in with an optical brightener in our fiber. We thought, what would be something that would say white. Everybody was wearing white in tennis then, not like now."
Roberts joined the TDA in 1955. After 31 years with Kodak, he went to work at home goods manufacturer Springs as a senior vice president, staying from 1986 to 1990. By the time he was appointed executive director of the TDA in 1990, it was clear that the industry was in for sustained declines.
"We certainly saw the writing on the wall," he said.
Roberts remembered mill executive Ely R. Callaway confronting TDA members with the reality of the situation during the organization’s annual meeting in 1992. Callaway’s family had run its own mill company and he eventually became president of Burlington Industries. After leaving the industry in 1973 he moved to Southern California and opened a winery. Eight years later he sold the winery and founded Callaway Golf Co., introducing the now iconic Big Bertha Driver.
"[Ely] said there’s no way this industry is going to survive as it is now," Roberts said. "You’ve got a world market and it’s gone, and he was so right and a lot of people didn’t think he was right at the time."
The TDA attracted some of the biggest names in the apparel industry to speak at its annual meetings, including Roger Milliken, Hal Kahn, Mackey McDonald, Paul Charron and Roger Farah.
"Milliken stands out for me because he has certainly been the most significant textile executive of the last several decades and he’s still around," Roberts said.
The TDA’s annual meeting, which included musical lampoons of different industry issues, was a sold-out affair for years, and the annual dinner-dance held at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center was an annual highlight. Roberts said anybody and everybody in the textile and apparel industry was a target for the musical lampoon. At times, a cast of as many as 30 people spent months rehearsing and helping to build elaborate sets for the final performance, which featured popular tunes set to altered lyrics and sung by some of the industry’s more distinguished types decked out in hula skirts and lipstick, among other fetching accoutrements.
"We speared anybody we could think of," said Roberts. "There were costumes, we had a makeup artist, we built sets and some of these guys worked on it for months."
Assessing the efforts of the TDA, Roberts has few regrets. The one exception is Crafted With Pride In the USA, the nationwide marketing campaign to spur consumers to "buy American."
"There was a great deal of money spent by Crafted With Pride, which the TDA was a prime mover," he said. "We did the best we could. We contributed to it and we worked at it aggressively."
Ultimately, American consumers showed they favored elements such as style, color, fabric quality and — above all — price over concerns about where goods are made.
"I wish we could have done a better job with Crafted With Pride," Roberts added. "I wish we could have impacted the mentality of the American consumer."
Despite TDA shutting its doors, Roberts will remain active in both the industry and, of course, in his personal life. He currently serves as a consultant for two foreign textile companies, something he plans to continue. He’s also taken part in a weekly tennis game for the last 40 years occurring each Thursday morning at the little-known tennis courts at Grand Central Terminal. Roberts describes those courts as Donald Trump’s smallest holdings.
"I am well known for tennis," he said. "I haven’t gotten much better lately, but I still play and like it a lot."