Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — Don’t point the finger of responsibility at the European mills.
With spring designer goods hitting U.S. stores exceptionally late this year, buyers and clothing manufacturers are playing the blame game, looking for someone to take the fall for missed deliveries and the markdowns that will likely follow.
As reported in WWD last week, some are trying to pin the rap on European fabric mills, claiming they are not keeping up with the times, shipping fabric late and throwing the whole designer calendar out of whack.
The mills will have none of it.
In a series of interviews at last week’s International Fashion Fabric Exhibition in New York, mill executives said it’s not their fault that the fashion calendar is moving further and further back. By and large, executives said — without giving specifics — they hadn’t heard complaints from customers that they had delivered goods later than promised.
However, mill executives did point out a few reasons that things are getting later and later. First and foremost, they complain that fabric buyers are taking longer to make up their minds as to what goods they’ll want in a given season. Rather than making selections at the big Premiere Vision fabric show in Paris, or even in the week or two after, they get bogged down in more than a month of meetings, wasting valuable production time, mill executives said.
They also pointed out that weaving and knitting high-end, ornate fabrics takes time and that when they say a production run is going to take four weeks, they mean it’s going to take four weeks. Looms — no matter how high tech — don’t respond to pleading.
Still, they acknowledge that everyone in the fashion business is under a lot of pressure to sell merchandise as close to full price as possible, that no one wants to maintain inventories and that neither of these pressures is likely to change in the near future. So the only solution they see is to speed up their operations where possible, but more importantly to communicate realistically about time requirements.
“I don’t know anyone who has complained to us that we are late. We usually deliver three or four days early,” said Thanos Kamiliotis, president of Italian mill E. Boselli & Co.’s New York operations. He pointed out, however, that his company is up-front about its time needs in negotiating delivery dates and is willing to walk away from orders that it knows it can’t fulfill on time.
That’s becoming more of an issue lately, as apparel makers expect ever-faster turnarounds on orders, he continued.
“They used to give us plenty of time, and now it’s getting shorter and shorter,” Kamiliotis said. “Nobody wants to have inventory, but people place their orders on Friday and want delivery Monday.”
While that might be overstating the case, he said that over the past few years manufacturers have come to expect fabrics to be completed twice as quickly as in the past. While six-to-eight-week production schedules were once common, now Boselli’s average is three to four weeks.
In order to keep up with these expectations, last year Boselli built a new mill using double-width looms, which has cut its average production time by half, according to Kamiliotis.
“We have to do our best to satisfy our customers,” Kamiliotis said. “We turn the mill upside down to try to produce faster.”
As challenging as these higher expectations are, Kamiliotis said he accepts that the pressures are only going to increase.
“If I was an [apparel] manufacturer, I wouldn’t want to commit myself to inventory in advance unless I was sure that something was going to be a standing item with my existing customers,” he said. “There’s no other choice. We have to get used to it.”
While later production orders may be an inevitability, even decisions on what to sample are being made later, contends Gera Gallico, the head of French mill Billon Freres’ New York sales and marketing operation.
She said that Billon Freres starts each season with a sample inventory of about 50 to 70 meters of each fabric in its line. Traditionally, it has relied on sample orders as an indicator of what fabrics are most likely to be in demand for the season, and while sending samples out has geared itself up to expect large production runs on heavily tested products.
But early in the season rather than placing sample orders, many fabric buyers are just requesting swatches.
“If people would be decisive and say they wanted to sample 10 meters of something, we’d know what they wanted,” she said.
She said Billon Freres isn’t expecting to start receiving actual production orders for spring 2001 until July or August, for September and October deliveries. A few years back, Gallico noted, spring orders would come in in June, for August deliveries.
Gallico also pointed out that having to run production cycles in August can be a problem, as that has traditionally been a down period for European mills. While many Americans tend to dismiss August idle periods as an old-world luxury, Gallico said that’s a misunderstanding of how mills operate.
“Just because we’re not running production doesn’t mean we’re not working,” she said. “The equipment does need to get serviced, and development is a key element for European fabrics. If we’re always in production, we can’t come up with new development.”
With the competition from Far Eastern mills heating up, European mills are forced to develop more-involved fabrics that are harder to knock off. This benefits apparel makers by leading to unique garments, mill executives said, but also adds to production time.
Juan Gratacos, whose family owns an eponymous mill in Barcelona, said the increasing demand for complex fabrics has increased time pressure on mills.
“Over the last three to four years, in order to sell, you’ve had to develop more sophisticated fabrics,” he said. “Before, it was weave, dye and finish — that was it. Now you have to do something extra.”
While that something extra — adding a coating or embellishing a fabric — creates a more unique look, it also adds production time. As an example, Gratacos showed a woven fabric with flecks of several rich colors, noting that its production requires three dye runs.
He said that since in the end retailers know when they need goods to hit the selling floor, mills and apparel makers have to be more realistic in planning production schedules.
“The final consumer doesn’t care how long it takes,” Gratacos said. “The only thing to do is explain how long it takes to do something, and plan accordingly.”
One strategy to minimize the effect that production times have on fabric buyers is to keep large quantities of fabrics in inventory. While few mills are willing to do this — just as most apparel makers and retailers have worked to reduce inventories over the last decade — London’s Maison Henry Bertrand (England) Ltd. does.
But even the high-end silk resource faces the occasional complaint about timing, said Edward S. Gilbert, managing director.
“We had one company come here yesterday who said, ‘Why haven’t you sent us the samples?’ The reason is, they didn’t pay when they ordered from us last time,” he said, declining to name the company in question.
The European mills exhibited at IFFE’s Eurotex area, a new component of the show, which ended its three-day run at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Thursday. The show’s core group of fabric and trim exhibitors said the addition of the Europeans, which came about because the European Textile Selections show shut its doors, seemed to draw more high-end buyers to the show.