Byline: Stuart Chirls

NEW YORK — Velvet is getting the royal treatment from textile suppliers who are scrambling to meet an explosive market demand for the luxury fabric.
Fabric mills and converters were caught by surprise in 1997 when velvet made a strong return to consumers’ good graces and sales all but exhausted available inventories.
Determined to avoid another tight supply situation and cash in on what has become a genuine velvet craze, fabric executives are showing lines that run the gamut from basic styles and colors to high tech stretch constructions, prints and specialty treatments in a host of colors that evoke velvet’s luxurious roots. And they’re not just targeting traditional luxury markets. Velvet is finding a home in less-expensive ready-to-wear, children’s wear, trim and accessories.
“The velvet business is great. It’s out of control, that is the best way to characterize it,” said Christina Bifano, creative coordinator for J.B. Martin, a large Canadian mill. “We are pretty much running at full capacity all of the time.”
“I was over at [French fabric expo] Premiere Vision, and the mills there were totally inspired by velvet,” said Carolyn Ricci, fashion director for A. Wimpfheimer & Bros., a major domestic velvet producer. “It was everywhere you looked.
“We are looking forward to velvet being a very strong trend in 1998,” she said.
In explaining velvet’s recent success, Ricci also noted that the fabric brings a host of virtues to the table. “For the consumer, it just feels good next to the skin and imparts a luxurious hand to whatever garment it is used in, especially body-hugging designs,” she said. “And, there is a greater demand for it because women are wearing velvet for the first time during the day, in the office or casually, instead of just in the evening. But that doesn’t mean that the perception of velvet has changed; it still evokes a feeling of luxury and status.”
Wimpfheimer is showing rayon velvet in colors that reflect a rich, classic feeling such as silver, lava (charcoal gray), pewter, mauve, gold and copper. “You get an iridescent effect because of the shine of the rayon that really sets off the fabric,” said Ricci.
Printed velvets are also sparking interest at Wimpfheimer, among them roses, Oriental bamboo themes, baroque paisleys and multiple-stripe configurations, priced from $11 to $11.50. “They are dye-and-discharge prints, which is a technique that is not really done in the U.S.,” Ricci said. “We also do work with outside printers and finish the fabric at our facilities in Virginia and Connecticut.”
Chinese motifs in embossed velvet and sun-washed colors in blends of acetate and rayon, rayon and silk, cotton and 100 percent rayon are also featured.
Despite the constant price pressures from retailers and manufacturers, velvet has helped boost Wimpfheimer’s margins by 10 to 15 percent since the fall 1997 season. “Sales are up 10 percent compared to a year ago,” said Ricci, “and we are selling casual looks to mainstream stores such as Banana Republic, which is doing a dress and a coat.”
J.B. Martin’s new velvet offerings include a retro lightweight rayon panne in shiny metallic jewel tones, “like in the Eighties,” said Bifano. “The shiny finish is very luxe-looking.”
The mill has expanded its collection to include cotton stretch velvet and acetate and rayon blends in all manner of renderings, such as cross-dyes, crushed, embossed and geometrics.
“We are aiming for surface interest styles and ultrafeminine looks,” said Bifano. Prices range from $8 to 12, narrowly up 10 to 25 cents a yard from a year ago. “We anticipate prices going up another 25 cents in ’98, not much really, but our business is so good we don’t have to increase our prices substantially right now,” she said.
Martin is also going after the casual, lower-priced market with a program of polyester and cotton plain cord velvet, $4.50, printed and embossed, manufactured at its plant just outside Mexico City. “Margins are still tight, but fall ’98 is looking to be a good business for us,” Bifano said.
Other fabric suppliers noted how velvet is breaking away from its traditional characterizations as a fall and winter fabric.
“I was very surprised at how much devore, for example — which we were selling only into fall just two seasons ago — is now selling into spring in very light hands,” said Shkendie Kaziu, vice president of Jakob Schlaepfer & Sons, of Switzerland. “That is a clear example to me of how the demand for velvet has grown.”
Kaziu said that the improved conditions here are one reason for velvet’s renaissance. “The economy is getting better here, and I think that people have more money to spend in the stores. All the fabric suppliers in Europe want a piece of the U.S. market. That is one reason we are seeing velvet trickle down into the kids’ apparel market and accessories. Those are two areas that are only starting to see significant amounts of velvet when consumers have plenty of money to spend. It is also reflected in rtw lines, where velvet trickles down from couture collections.”
The dollar’s strength against European currencies has also helped spark velvet sales. “It has been great for us,” Kaziu said. “We had the strongest Premiere Vision in terms of immediate sales that we had in the past four years, and one of the strongest ever. Usually, U.S. clients take samples and prices, then they go back home, review their plans, then place the order. At Premiere Vision, they wanted the goods right now, to make sure that they weren’t left out.”
Schlaepfer’s assortment is highlighted by fancy embroidered and sequined styles, “not very sparkly but refined,” Kaziu said. “We are also selling devore, not as a plain fabric, but with foils and overprinting.” Prices range from $125 to $300 per meter. “We give our clients different options, so they can control the price,” she added.
As a result of the unexpectedly strong market in ’97, Schlaepfer has changed the way it is approaching its business. “We are following markets more closely now, instead of just creating product as we had in the past,” Kaziu said. “It’s no longer enough to put together a line and expect it to sell; globally, we are tailoring our products to more closely match the demands of individual regions, the better to stay ahead of the competition and hit the important trends.”
Other European-based fabric makers reported similar reactions at Premiere Vision.
“Every single American customer we saw in Paris, even if they didn’t leave with a sample, wanted to see velvet,” said Michel Loubiere, U.S. business manager for Tissus Boussac, a French mill. “Everyone who was representing a mainstream apparel brand saw what velvet did in ’97, how big it was in better-priced segments, so they want it.”
Boussac is leading with both stretch and nonstretch velvets, $11-12 for solids, as well as printed and dye-and-discharge styles, priced up to $14. “Stretch has been very strong, as have prints, in Chinese-themed and tapestry groups,” Loubiere said. Again, the most popular colors recall a luxurious tradition, in dark brown, blue and burgundy, matched with black.
“We have been working with customers who want to pair velvet with plainer fabrics such as georgette, for blouses and other lighter weight qualities,” he added.
Loubiere said, “We expect our velvet sales to be up 30 percent in ’98 compared with the previous year. There was not enough velvet in the world to keep up with demand in ’97.”
However, one textile executive pointed out that retailers’ sudden interest in an expensive, specialty fabric such as velvet is an indication of broader changes that are sweeping the textile business.
“We found out that it’s not enough to have beautiful piece goods,” explained Peter Garfinkel, principal of Forsythe Woolen Co., a New York fabric importer. “You also have to be keyed into who is doing the buying and what they expect, and be prepared to turn on a dime.”
Forsythe for decades catered to jobbers and the myriad dress makers that once populated Manhattan’s garment center, with a line composed primarily of basic, tried-and-true styles. Today, Garfinkel has traded his basics for a line of novelty and custom goods that he sells to increasingly finicky buyers from the largest retailers and manufacturers.
“I’m not smart enough to predict what fabrics are going to be hot, which was something we could count on with plain fabrics,” he said.
“I have 2,000 novelty styles to show, and velvet has been a leader there for us for the past two seasons.” Embossed velvet in tie-dyed snakeskin and geometric patterns lead Forsythe’s line.
Even trim makers are getting in on velvet’s act. “There has been a rush to velvet in our area,” said Richard Goldfeder, president of Ribbtrim.
“Everyone we are seeing is trimming dresses, cuffs, collars and bottoms with it. There has been a tremendous surge, and our velvet trim sales have doubled over the past year.”
Ribbtrim is the exclusive American distributor for Makuba, a large Japanese manufacturer of ribbons and braids.
Bright, jewel-tone colors are hot, as are muted, antique-like tones in Victorian hues such as misty green, old ivory, taupe, rust, apricot and persimmon.

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