MONTREAL FIRMS EYE U.S.

Byline: Georgia Lee

MONTREAL — French may be the native tongue of Montreal, but manufacturers here are convincing the Atlanta Apparel Mart that, when it comes to product, they speak the same language.
A group of mart officials and sales representatives, out to bring more Canadian lines to the Atlanta facility, recently visited Montreal manufacturers as part of a fact-finding mission sponsored by the Quebec Trade Office. The trip was held from Sept. 23-26.
The Mart has invited principals to attend the Oct. 23-27 market in Atlanta, in hopes of linking them with permanent sales representatives.
“I was impressed with the quality of the lines, and the fact that they target specialty stores rather than department stores and discounters,” said Peg Canter, general manger of the Mart, who added that some Canadian lines, such as Joseph Ribkoff, had done well in Atlanta. Although the lines represent a wide range of looks and prices, many fit in the moderate, upper moderate and better price range.
Encouraged by the North American Free Trade Agreement and a general loosening of trade barriers, most are just entering the U.S. market. “Canadians are starting to view the U.S., Canada and Mexico as one market,” said Allen Gauthier, vice president of sales at Hollywood Jeans, a specialty denim division of Era Clothing Inc. that targets the junior and contemporary market with novelty looks.
“The boundaries are falling, and there’s room for everybody as long as you have a niche,” he said.
Gauthier described U.S. businesses as more fast-paced and bottom-line-oriented than those in Canada.
“Canadian companies are learning that to compete in the U.S. they have to respond quickly and become more focused on marketing,” he said.
Atlanta and the Southeast comprise the next target market for Hollywood, which currently has reps in Los Angeles, Dallas and south Florida. With annual sales of $30 million, less than 10 percent of Hollywood’s business is currently done in the U.S.
“The U.S. doesn’t need another boring, basic jean line,” Gauthier said. “We’re different, because we offer a wide variety of tops, as well as bottoms for a total specialty look.”
Key trends for spring include clam-digger pants, variations on overalls, and boot-cut and wide-leg jeans. The collection mixes fabrics such as corduroy and cotton with denim, and expanded stretch items. Tops, which account for 45 percent of the line, are designed to coordinate with bottoms. The tops feature jeanswear detailing, such as double-needle stitching. Wholesale prices range from $22.50 to $27.50.
Cartise International, a moderate-to-better dress firm here, hopes to appeal to U.S. buyers with its range of looks, focus on quality and controlled distribution that does not include discounters.
“We hear from specialty stores that there’s a void in good dress lines that go from day into dinner,” said Sharoni Padan, president of the Montreal firm, which has a wholesale volume of over $10 million and produces 500,000 units annually. Wholesale prices range from $65 to $150.
With dresses, two-piece dressing and jumpsuits, the line is “middle of the road, not too basic and not too crazy,” said Padan. Fabrics include stretch velvet, polyester microfibers and boucle knits. He said he wants to target a consumer who wants to “fit in, rather than stand out.”
The 22-year-old company began exporting to Germany, the U.K. and Russia three years ago, before setting its sights on the U.S. last year.
“We wanted to learn from our errors elsewhere before tackling the U.S.,” said Padan. Today, the firm has around 35 U.S. accounts.
Padan said quality is a primary focus, not only for his company but for other Canadian manufacturers, who make almost all of their product domestically.
With a strong labor pool of mostly immigrants from Asia, Montreal’s minimum wage is $4.90 U.S. Domestic manufacturing allows for frequent quality checks and quick turnaround for U.S. customers, said Padan.
To attract the U.S. customer, Cartise tripled its advertising and marketing budget over the past two years. Each garment features a hangtag with 16 color photos of other styles in the line. Retailers also receive a 15-page brochure in color, produced twice a year, along with mailers and posters.
Marketing has been a key concern for Moda-Vero, a seven-year-old moderate sportswear line. Since it began exporting to the U.S. two years ago, 40 percent of its advertising budget is now allocated there.
“NAFTA and free trade help, the strong dollar helps and our European styling appeals to U.S. buyers,” said Robert Provost, general manager.”But marketing is essential, because we’re unknowns in the U.S.”
With around 250,000 units produced annually, wholesale volume for the company has increased from $4 million to $7.7 million over the past two years. With 60 percent of Canadian business in private label, the firm is used to quick turnarounds.
The coordinated separates line targets 30-to-35-year-old women with easy, mix-and-match pieces at wholesale prices from $45 to $120. For spring, fabrics are mostly washable, including viscose and polyester, and micromatique jersey, Provost said.
With 10 U.S. accounts developed from a recent trip to New York shows, Provost will next target the Southeast.
“Our line is very put-together and coordinated, which should appeal to the Southeast customer, who tends to be a little dressier than her California counterpart,” he said. Provost said the growing atmosphere of free trade has made doing business with the U.S. increasingly attractive.
“It’s easier now,” he said, “to ship to the U.S. than it is to ship to Vancouver.”

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