NEW YORK — The tough times are continuing in the printed fabric market — one that has seen few bright spots over the past 18 months.
Despite a small upturn in the first few months of this year, the print business once again is in a slump, with many print converters predicting the sluggishness will continue at least until the early part of the fourth quarter, and possibly into 1995.
For most converters, prints comprise at least 25 percent of their business, and some converters garner about 90 percent of their business through prints. That, they said, makes the outlook extra-troublesome.
Converting executives said cheap, imported finished goods made from rayon challis from the Far East and Eastern Europe continue to eat into domestic production, while at the same time, more companies are being forced to chase after a shrinking number of manufacturers and retailers.
Many converters note that rayon challis goods are being imported for between $2.75 and $2.95 a yard, versus about $3.30 to $3.60 a yard for domestically produced goods. While the soft domestic market has forced down prices of U.S.-made goods by about 10 percent, many customers, they said, are using the cheaper products.
Some executives are also complaining that China is transshipping those goods through Turkey, Chile and Argentina.
“There’s no doubt the market has been asleep here, but there are no fewer than six mills from Turkey exporting goods into this country,” said Charles Greenberg, president of Omega Textiles, who noted the company’s printed fabric business is off 30 percent from last year. “Those people are going to my competitors [who sell imported fabrics], and my customers, directly.”
“The story of goods coming in from overseas doesn’t always have a happy ending for manufacturers,” said Gerald Greenstein, president of JBJ Fabrics, which derives the lion’s share of its sales through prints.
“While they are getting the goods cheaply, colors are often wrong and the base fabrics aren’t up to the specifications they thought they were getting,” Greenstein said. “People are getting burned and are realizing that imports are not always the answer.”
As prices go down, converters further pointed out, prints aren’t enjoying the profit margins they were a few years back.
“It’s a very labor-intensive business,” said Martin Tandler, president of Tandler Textiles. “Lots of costs go in, from designing the pattern, to setting up screens, to redesigns. Of all the fabric-associated businesses, prints are the most costly.”
Another big depressant to business, many converters acknowledge, is that the current fashion cycle isn’t calling for loads of prints. While most executives said they have at least a few hot print items, the majority of business is coming from novelty fabrics and finishes — sheers, crepons, crinkles and high-twist effects — many of them in solids.
To offset a lull in the print market, Greenberg noted that Omega is producing woven novelty plaids, checks and other patterns in high-twist and crinkle fabrics. Solids with any type of surface interest are also being featured, he said.
“Good prints and good patterns will sell, however, as we did put in a full line of prints for spring,” Greenberg said. “We’d like to think the overall business will pick up in November and December. Maybe, though, that’s more hope than fact. “Right now, there are so many other things besides prints in the stores,” Greenberg added. “When people are tired of solids, they’ll go back to prints. We are just on the downside of a very long cycle this time.”
Greenstein confirmed that JBJ’s print business isn’t breaking records, “but it’s doing OK.”
“We have a couple of prints that are hot, items that we have reorders on,” Greenstein said. “However, I don’t know any part of the business that’s not flat.”
Greenstein added that with the consolidation at both the retail and the manufacturing level, and with the diminishing number of sales opportunities in the market, “everyone is stepping on everyone else’s toes, and it’s going to continue, whether prints are dominant or not.”
Evan Phillips, national sales director for the Manes Organization, said the sluggishness of the print market is emanating partly from retailers. Buyers, he said, continue to “play it safe, and are not taking a lot of fashion chances on patterns, unless it has some sort of surface interest.”
Manes’s top seller for spring 1995, said Phillips, is a 100 percent cotton gauze, in solids and prints. Novelty knits, in ribs and pointelles — primarily in blends of cotton and polyester — are also being featured.
“We continue to feel the lack-of-print impact and have diversified,” Phillips said. “We are concerned about the rest of this year, and the early part of next year.”
Still, there are a few converters who said they aren’t feeling the malaise in the market as sharply as some others are.
“The manufacturers that are print-driven will continue to do prints,” said Ralph Annibale Jr., principal and stylist at Nuance Textiles. “But manufacturers that add prints on line are doing fewer prints and more solids. Right now, it’s a lot safer.
“When business gets tough, though, solids aren’t the most innovative thing to do,” said Annibale. “We’ve been getting some strong reorders, and there are a lot of new gray fabrics we are printing on, such as variations of linens, high-twist fabrics and other textured fabrics,” said David Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Metro Fabrics.
“Imports are cheaper, but it takes a long time to get the goods,” said Caplan. Caplan’s firm does print goods overseas, which are shipped to firms that sew goods domestically and to companies that sew goods offshore.
“Domestically, I can ship in two to three weeks,” Caplan said. “The imports take two to three months.”
Caplan added, “Most of us are in a slow period now, which is not unusual. We all must be more innovative in the types of prints we create and the base fabrics we use. I’m confident that by October the market will pick up considerably.”
Tandler said his firm, while hit by the sagging print market, “hasn’t been hurt as much as we could have been.”
Tandler said the firm’s yarn-dyed and novelty knit business in solids “is doing terrific.”