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PARIS — As their fall collections hit the runways, designers already are turning their minds to spring — and are squeezing mills over prices more than ever.

This story first appeared in the February 16, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Firms exhibiting at the world’s largest textile fair, Première Vision, which ended its four-day run here Friday, focused on heritage but also price given the global economic downturn, with customers pushing for wow-factor fabrics for less.

“Even luxury brands are being price conscious — things have changed,” said Dan Nakayama, executive officer of international sales for Japanese outerwear specialist Komatsu, which works with a number of luxury brands.

Among Komatsu’s new offerings was a machine-washable garment-dye nylon range with a waxy finish.

Hidenobu Shibata, a designer at Japanese mill Cobo, said for the first time he had brands ask if the firm’s fabrics could be produced in China in order to lower the cost.

“They want tricky fabrics, but don’t want to pay the price,” he said.

The pressure on price is only increasing the squeeze on European mills, already battling a strong euro and the competition from the behemoth that is China. As the European economy battles the whirlpool created by the financial problems in Greece, countries like Italy face the prospect that their textile industry could see even more significant shrinkage over the coming year.

Key trends at the show included:

• Special order fabrics, with designers working with mills to create their own exclusive textiles.

• Plaids and checks.

• Innovative treatments, especially of natural fabrics.

• Bright colors.

Lum Yeung, men’s associate designer for Calvin Klein, said the weak dollar made it harder to pick from Italian mills.

“We work a lot with Turkish and Asian [companies],” she said, adding she was after light, easy and sporty fabrics with lots of textures in neutrals and pops of color.

Blake Kuwahara, a consultant for Hong Kong-based manufacturer Lever Style Inc., said one of the biggest challenges faced by Asian manufacturers is rising labor costs, which have increased by up to 20 percent. Fueling those increases has been growing resistance from Chinese youth, who are finding more opportunities outside the textile industry.

Some visitors cited an uncertain mood at the show, and sounded alarm bells for Europe’s embattled producers of high-end textiles.

“Everyone’s very tentative,” said Susannah Handley, material and product development consultant for Louis Vuitton. “It seems they’re afraid to spend money, which is so not the thing to do right now.”

Many designers are now going directly to manufacturers to have fabrics made to specification, she said.

“It gives them the opportunity for innovation and it’s a more interesting, collaborative way of working which is more secure for both parties,” Handley said.

Mills said brands and retailers might not confirm orders until April, wreaking havoc with the supply chain. Europe’s spinners and finishers are said to be in a frail state, a situation experts said could prove detrimental to the creativity of European textiles.

“All of the selections will be sent out next week, then it goes into limbo,” said Pat Keeney, a woven cloth designer for Scotland’s Johnstons.

Katy Bercovitch, managing director of London-based silk merchant Henry Bertrand, cited a lack of confidence among customers.

“I think a lot of people have said to themselves, ‘What have I got under the table that I can reuse?’” she said.

Designers shopping the show said several mills appeared to have reworked old stock by applying new washes and coatings.

“It seems the Italians are having a really bad time, there’s not much in the way of new developments,” said Paris-based designer Damir Doma. “For the Japanese, it’s exactly the opposite, they’re really putting up a fight.”

Doma lauded Cobo’s layered cotton range with subtle tone-on-tone prints, and Sotoh’s multilayered, superlight and dry cottons.

There were pockets of optimism among mills, however. Malhia Kent stylist Eve Corrigan cited “enormous demand” for made-to-measure fabrics. Recent commissions have included mohair that resembles ice cream and fabric that looks like jam. Customers are being demanding on creativity and reactivity, said Corrigan, adding that, while sales declined 40 percent in the first half of 2009, the firm has seen record-breaking results over the last six months.

Key trends observed by designers included an emphasis on innovative surface textures, lighter open-weave fabrics with a handcrafted feel, irregular patterns, color and humor.

“The colors are good enough to eat, very spring-like bonbon shades,” said Deborah Lloyd, co-president and creative director of Kate Spade. “The Eighties have disappeared, thank God,” she added, citing a softer, more feminine mood.

Amanda Wheble, senior women’s wear designer for British sportswear brand Crew, which is looking to expand its women’s wear line, was impressed with the “amazing” selection of prints.

“Checks are becoming more important, with more ginghams and seersucker bases,” she said.

Lanvin men’s wear designer Lucas Ossendrijver cited an abundance of natural materials, especially technical cotton mixes.

“I’ve seen lots of strange prints and surface effects, such as mixing really hairy yarns with really flat ones, and interesting tweedy effects, but done in cotton and linen — so summery,” he said, praising Lorma’s offer.

“We will see a lot of archive fabrics from the Fifties and Sixties…brands are keen to cultivate their heritage,” said Robert Bre, vice president of ready-to-wear and accessories for the Como-based mill Mantero.

Production orders have slowed since September, he said, attributing it to poor sell through “even for the major brands.”

Alcantara, the Italian firm whose eponymous suede-like technical fabric was used by Halston in the Seventies to create an entire collection, is set on reviving its links with the fashion world. In partnership with Italian Vogue, the firm presented Alcantara-based outfits and accessories by eight young designers at the event, including Nicholas Kirkwood and Marco Di Vincenzo. The firm’s main business had shifted from fashion, which now represents around 20 percent of sales, to the automotive industry.

Shandong Ruyi set out to change the perception of made-in-China fabrics with The Ruyi Collection, a range of worsted suiting fabrics in ultralight weights.

“The West definitely has the impression that Chinese companies are lacking in creativity, but that’s in the past,” said group chairman Qui Ya Fu. “Rapid economic growth has brought about wealth, which we’re investing in research and development and human resources. We’re recruiting the best [creative people].”

Liberty introduced its The Story Book Collection, with prints inspired by the styles of established and emerging British illustrators, including Quentin Blake and Sally Haysom. Among novelties at Jakob Schlaepfer was a range of daisy fabrics Marc Jacobs is said to have fancied.

“It’s all about nuances,” said Lever Style’s Kuwahara, who was after fabrics with a creative edge. “American retailers realize they have to be more on point with what consumers are looking for. They can no longer [operate] on price and brand name alone. Product needs to jump off the shelf, be innovative fresh….They can’t just come out with a white shirt anymore.”


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