Byline: Stuart Chirls

NEW YORK — Mills, converters and fabric importers are getting an early boost from their large program customers as the fall 1998 season gets under way, but leery textile executives said it’s too early to know if business will break from the so-so levels of recent years.
A hot, new trend has yet to emerge as apparel makers go with proven fabric styles, including stretch and surface-interest constructions, novelty prints, and pile goods such as velvet and corduroy.
“It is still early at this point, but we feel very, very good about our piece-dyed and fancy lines. They have been positively received in the first round of sampling among our program customers,” said Alex Neely, president of Burlington’s men’s wear division, which also includes the women’s fabrics segment. “Almost everybody has been through here at least once, and we are now starting on the second round of meetings.”
Neely said that surface-interest fabrics and piece-dyes are driving buyers’ interest. “There is also a lot of very good interest in fancies that we haven’t seen before,” Neely said. “But it is very early in the season, and we will have to wait until after [Paris fabric trade show] Premiere Vision in October to know what apparel manufacturers plan to do.”
“As far as mood in the market is concerned, everybody is optimistic,” said Jolene Northrup, sales manager for Agmont, a vertical mill based in Montreal. “Even so, it is difficult to sustain that optimism when we have gone for so long without sales being great. Yes, business is coming in, but fabric people want it to be better than it is.”
Early-season attention has focused on novelty fabrics that offer added value — and higher margins — for retailers. “There has definitely been more interest in novelties, such as Supplex nylon, and also ‘classic’ novelties such as piques with Lycra,” Northrup said. “Buyers are also looking more at surface-interest styles for women’s sportswear.”
As far as prices are concerned, Northrup said that Agmont is charging more for certain styles, although she added — only half-joking — that the final cost frequently “is what they [the customers] are willing to pay.”
“Stores are very price-conscious,” she said. “So a lot of business is price-driven. The department store chains are getting harder and harder to pull in, because that segment of the market is so competitive.”
The momentum from a lively finish to the corduroy season in ’96 has carried over into ’97, making pile fabrics an early hit. “The cord business continues to be strong,” said Fred Baumgarten, president of Majestic Mills, a major domestic producer. “It has been broadening in scope to include a large variety of segments within the women’s wear market. We are selling narrow pinwales in dresses for country looks, as well as in jeans. Cord garments are checking at retail now; it’s a strength-to-strength issue.”
As for pricing, Baumgarten noted that fabric suppliers increasingly are having to look inward to accommodate their cost increases. “Our customers and their customers are in a competitive retail environment,” he said. “We are doing our best to try and hold our prices by not passing along increases, and we have been feeling the effects. Margins continue to become more competitive, and we are dedicated to making our company more efficient.”
Pile fabrics continue to be a bestseller for S. Shamash & Sons, an importer of silks and other high-end fabrics. “I was at WWDMagic, and I couldn’t believe how much velvet and pile there was,” said Jeffrey White, president. “Among buyers looking at fall 1998, velvet burnouts and corduroy are still very strong. It’s early, and we are still in discussions with our program customers, but we are optimistic for the new season.”
White’s outlook is brightened by recent Customs data showing a 10 percent jump in silk imports through the first six months of the year compared to ’96. “Buyers are planning ahead in certain niches,” he said. “Some pile fabrics, such as cord, are getting hard to find. They want to get their orders in to ensure that they can get the goods.”
Topping Shamash’s order list are silk velvet, silk and cotton velvet and cotton blend corduroy, in dyed, printed, and burned-out effects, priced from $3.50 to $17.
White said that overall, the price of silk fabrics has increased 25 percent over the past year, “and stayed there.
“It is difficult to raise prices today, but we passed on those increases for some fabrics. After all, if people want a certain style, they are going to pay for it. On the other hand, sometimes customers simply aren’t going to pay. We are dropping silk gabardine out of our line, for example, because it got too expensive. It went from $12 to $14.”
Other executives agreed that even in a hypercompetitive environment, price can be a secondary consideration when it comes to a unusual or exclusive style that has apparel makers knocking on the door.
“No question — there has been big pressure on our prices,” said Jerry Miller, president of Hamil USA, the American print converting arm of Hamil Textiles, a Canadian mill. “Retailers are tough and getting tougher. But we are a supplier of middle — to-upper-end fabrics, and we hold to what we do.”
Miller said orders from program sportswear makers have been coming in “at the usual pace.” He feels his company has an advantage in that it has been doing a lot of its print sourcing in Japan in recent seasons, where it claims to get better quality.
“Program people want great color matching and great printing technique,” he said.
In prints, oversize paisleys have been a hot seller for fall ’98. “Designers want anything on warp technique, or with beautiful borders, in unpredictable colors,” said Glynis Dohn, Hamil’s vice president of design.
At Gordon Textiles International, an importer representing 15 European mills, stretch is punctuating early reactions from buyers. “At the high end, there is enormous continuing interest in stretch,” said James Gordon, president, “especially with a nylon component, such as Tactel or polyamide nylon, for a crunchy hand and smooth but dry touch.”
Gordon said that high-content blended wool fabrics, with up to 60 percent wool, and polyester and viscose, were doing well among traditional better sportswear houses. “Velvet-type fabrics have been strong,” Gordon said, “and the consensus is that we will have another strong velvet season in ’98.

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