OIL-RICH NATIONS COME WITH BIG BUCKS

Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — What do oil and lingerie have in common?
A lot, according to innerwear manufacturers, who noted that buyers’ lingerie budgets from oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were significantly bigger at last week’s market — at a time when the price of gas is skyrocketing.
Several executives at a number of midsized companies and smaller, entrepreneurial innerwear firms said they were pleasantly surprised by a record turnout of retailers from the Persian Gulf states. A number of makers said several new retail accounts were added to established client lists, and they generally cited bookings had increased from 10 to 20 percent.
Lingerie — including sleepwear and at-homewear — has always been a popular apparel category in Arab countries, especially where women typically spend a good deal of time lounging around at home. But vendors said a main reason for the upswing in lingerie orders from Arab merchants was a robust economic turnaround in the region compared to a year ago, when the price of oil was considerably lower and budgets were at an all-time low.
The increase of Arab visitors was also evident at the Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris last January, where attendance by Saudi Arabian visitors was 48 this year, compared to 12 in 1998, and visitors from the United Arab Emirates moved up to 28 from 20 last year, said show officials. Attendance of Syrian visitors shot up to 51 against 15 in 1998.
Now, the appetite for anything that “reeks of luxury and has a big price tag is what is turning on Arab buyers,” said Sheila Solomon, national sales manager of Priamo Designs, an upscale maker of designer sleepwear.
“Last year, I only had one Saudi account,” Solomon said. “I opened four new accounts from Saudi Arabia last week with people I’ve never seen before at the market. They were looking for lots of luxury items and price was no object. They all bought Priamo’s new silk line big-time, and it was always as sets — from 12 coordinating robes and gowns to as many as 20.”
Wholesale prices for Priamo’s silk collection are $115 to $185 for robes and $95 to $125 for sleepgowns.
Kathy Weir, president of the licensed Oscar de la Renta sleepwear collection at Carole Hochman Designs Inc., said, “When times get tough for the Arabs, business tapers off. But it obviously has become a lot healthier based on their orders right and left last week.”
Weir further noted, “They definitely came in for luxury product and they bought a lot of Oscar sleepwear, as well as zip-front robes and caftans. They just love designer labels. Designer names are very meaningful to them. We opened three new accounts and they typically ordered between 12 to 60 pieces of one style in different colors and lengths.”
Suggested retail for the signature Oscar line starts at $150 and goes to $600.
Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori & Co., said, “Business has always been good with Arab accounts. Last week, though, it definitely increased over the same market last year. I don’t have the final figures yet, but I would be comfortable saying it’s between 10 and 15 percent to date.”
Cantone based the increase on two factors: “They’ve always liked our merchandise, and their economy is suddenly picking up with higher oil prices.”
John Bowman, president of the licensed Donna Karan Division of Wacoal America, said, “Obviously, there’s a lot of potential and a lot of money with Arab accounts. We had a number of Arab retailers visit our Donna Karan Intimates and DKNY Underwear booths at the Salon International in Paris and the Lyon, Mode City show. For now, we are doing it on an account-by-account basis.”
Marvin Backer, vice president of Flora Nikrooz Lingerie, noted, “I’ve been dealing with Saudis, Kuwaitis and the Arab Emirates for 16 years. I would say we’ve had an increase in bookings of 20 percent with 30 established accounts.
“They’ve always done well with the Flora Nikrooz label, but they had a big problem with low oil prices last year, and business slowed down. Now, it’s not only the wealthy but moderate, middle-class Arabs who are looking to buy more beautiful sleepwear and underpinnings.”
“Only one of my Arab accounts complained about the oil problem last year. They’re no longer crying the oil blues,” said Sylvia Mackta, a sales associate at Georgette Trabolsi, a designer sleepwear concern.
A top-booking item by Trabolsi was an olive and black burnout pattern sleepgown with ostrich trim, said Mackta, noting that it was popular because “the ostrich trim was removable. They like everything to be washable.”
Peter Keyloun, president of the Ariel division of John David Assoc., a maker of robes and at-homewear, said, “We had an account from Kuwait who had not placed business with us for a year. He used to be a $400,000 account. Last week, he came back and left a $90,000 order. Everything had to be lavish and expensive-looking.
“It appears they must be profiting from something like higher gas prices. I wonder how the American truck drivers feel about that? More lingerie in Arabian boudoirs and less fuel in the American gas tank,” said Keyloun.
Vicki Montana, owner of Vicki Montana Sales, a sales representative, said, “I saw all of my regular Arab accounts last week. Orders were doubled over last year. I service eight accounts here, and designer Diane Semandi of Jonquil has at least a dozen accounts she services at the salon show in Paris. They wanted expensive, luxury goods with a lot of embroideries and layers of chiffon.” Wholesale prices for Jonquil are $79 to $139.
Gregory Rivera, creative director for Fernando Sanchez, a designer firm specializing in luxurious sleepwear and at-homewear, noted, “Since last year, our existing accounts in the Middle East have grown. We’ve acquired a few new accounts.
“Our existing accounts have placed larger orders, especially for silk jacquard and Moroccan cotton. Judging from this recent market, there is definitely a resurgence in the Middle East, and we hope to increase our visibility for 2001.”
Victor Lee, chief financial officer of NAP Inc., maker of sleepwear and robes by Anne Lewin and the licensed Crabtree & Evelyn label, said: “The number of specialty stores coming to market has been getting bigger and bigger over the past six months. It looks like the specialty-store consumer base is also growing. But they may not be able to drive to the specialty shops to buy lingerie because of the hefty gas prices.”

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