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Emerging Markets: South Korea Buoyed by Trade Pact

While it's probably better known for its electronics than fabrics, the country is emerging as a player in the global textile industry.

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SEOUL — While it’s probably better known for its electronics than fabrics, South Korea is emerging as a player in the global textile industry.

This story first appeared in the March 25, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The South Korean textile industry recorded $16.3 billion in exports in 2013, surpassing its 10-year high of $15.9 billion in 2011, according to the Korea Federation of Textile Industries (KOFOTI). For the year ending Jan. 31, South Korea was the second-largest supplier of fabric to the U.S., with imports worth $511.7 million and an 8.5 percent market share, according to the U.S. Fashion Industry Association. In March 2012, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement went into effect, substantially cutting tariffs and setting a schedule to eliminate them within 10 years.

In comparison, China remains the largest supplier to the U.S. fabric market with $1.73 billion and a 29 percent market share over the same time period.

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In response to the Korea-U.S. FTA, the Gyeonggi Textile Center opened in Los Angeles to manage overseas marketing and provide a one-stop sourcing showroom. The center, created by government officials in South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province and the Gyeonggi Small and Medium Business Center, has been advising on trade issues between buyers and suppliers in the two nations.

Within one year of opening, nearly 350 contracts for textiles totalling $4.7 million were in the works. Now the center has expanded and opened offices in New York to help promote the province’s more than 2,800 textile-related firms. South Korea is looking to narrow that gap through a combination of government and private sector initiatives.

“Our vision is to initiate a textile renaissance,” KOFOTI chairman Ro Hee Chan said in an annual report on the state of the industry, adding that South Korea is aiming to increase textile exports to $21.2 billion by 2020.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s newly formed Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy is now overseeing the campaign to give South Korea an edge in the global market by increasing the foreign labor force, investing in research and development and cultivating brands. The country has long been a source for midmarket textiles, but some companies are aiming higher, according to Lie Sang Bong, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of Korea.

“Firms are experimenting with new techniques and more expensive textiles to target a higher-end market,” said Lie, whose designs have adorned Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Olympic champion ice skater Yuna Kim.

In New York, Mood Designer Fabrics owner Philip Sauma has noticed the shift. Traditionally, “Italy, Japan and France are the countries more recognized for high-quality fabrics,” he said. “But the quality of fabrics produced by Korea has improved dramatically.”

One Seoul-based textile firm even managed to capture the attention of Fédération du Prêt-à-Porter president Jean Pierre Mocho. Ludia Co., which specializes in outerwear and accessories and counts Burberry, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Moncler as clients, was invited by Mocho to show its Bliss line of viscose rayon at Paris Fashion Week in 2010, according to a company spokeswoman.

Since then, Ludia has been one of the firms featured at the Preview in Seoul trade fairs. KOFOTI sponsors the expos, which are held in New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, Shanghai and South Korea.

The South Korean silk purveyor B.C. Corp., which manufactures fabrics for women’s ready-to-wear, sportswear and formalwear and has been used by Zac Posen, Jason Wu and Lela Rose, had the opportunity to present its intricately woven materials at the Preview in New York this past July.

“Our challenge is to rethink the ways in which silk can be manipulated and blended with modern regenerated and synthetic fibers,” said Jesse Lee, a merchandiser in B.C. Corp.’s New York office.

The expos have been successful platforms for cutting-edge, high-tech firms, such as Young Poong Filltex. The company, which produces extreme weather-resistant materials with breathable water-repellent fabric, left “Preview in Seoul” with several deals, according to Hyun Jung Lee of the Young Poong Filltex planning team.

The firm, which sells to firms such as Bogner, Mammut, Lacoste and Nautica, has more than 15 registered trademarks for its lightweight fabrics.

South Korea has free-trade agreements and joint research projects with 75 different countries, according to the Switzerland-based International Textile Manufacturers Federation.

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