Byline: Robert Murphy

PARIS — A year after launching its program to help French apparel and textile firms boost sales in the U.S. market, DEFI, the country’s commission for the promotion of textiles and apparel, is hardly resting on its laurels.
“We’ve made significant progress,” said Paul Benyamine, DEFI director, referring to La Mode de France campaign, initiated last March. “But we’re not going to change the market in a year. We need to continue to attack aggressively the American market in order to lay the groundwork for sustained, long-term success.”
DEFI kicked off the program because French firms traditionally have pumped most of their efforts into creativity, while overlooking practical business measures important for success in the U.S. market, according to Benyamine.
“The goal of La Mode de France, which is steeped in the practical, is to provide a counterbalance by building firm working relations between France and America, while teaching French firms how to deal with the U.S.,” said Benyamine.
Already, DEFI said, it has boosted the image of French apparel and textiles through an advertising campaign designed to alert American buyers to apparel, accessories and textile trade shows here.
Benyamine said DEFI commissioned the tracking firm Roper Starch to conduct a study assessing the ad campaign’s impact.
“According to our results, DEFI’s program exceeds the industry average in terms of immediate recognition and impact,” said Benyamine. “We’re immensely pleased with the results.”
Other steps DEFI has taken include inviting American buyers — all expenses paid — to French trade shows they normally wouldn’t visit. For example, last year, the group extended an invitation to selected American buyers to visit Expofil, a fabric and yarn fair. For the show’s upcoming June session, DEFI is stepping up its efforts by inviting Eddie Bauer and Ann Taylor.
“We reap immediate results from this type of action,” said Benyamine.
For example, he said, most firms DEFI invited to Expofil last year were returning on their own to next month’s installment.
For Fatex, a show featuring apparel manufacturers, Oct. 3-4, just prior to Premiere Vision, DEFI will invite about 30 American buyers.
“Firms come to France for PV, but they aren’t aware that they can also manufacture garments in France,” said Benyamine. “Our manufacturing industry is still strong, but we need to allow people to discover the industry’s talent if we want it to flourish in the future.”
Another DEFI project intends to provide services to Americans attending Paris’s ready-to-wear presentations and concurrent trade shows. For the upcoming October session, DEFI plans to set up a business center in the Carousel du Louvre, the city’s main fashion show venue. It will have computers with Internet and e-mail access, fax machines and phones. Buyers also will be able to buy passes to trade shows.
Although luring U.S. buyers to France is one of the project’s key objectives, La Mode de France also wants to bring French firms into direct contact with the American market on its home turf.
It is a major sponsor of the upcoming PV European Preview fabric fair, to make its debut in New York, July 18-19. In March, DEFI helped finance a month-long showcase of French lingerie in 13 Saks Fifth Avenue stores across the U.S. DEFI paid expenses to train sales staff in how to sell French lingerie.
“The results of the lingerie project were truly remarkable,” said Benyamine. “During the period of the promotion, sales of French lingerie jumped from 17 percent to 30 percent of Saks’ total lingerie sales.”
DEFI is investing in the future. With Paris’s Institut Francais de la Mode, or IFM, DEFI last year sponsored a three-week course at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. This year, DEFI is offering a one-year scholarship for one FIT student to study at IFM. Next year, DEFI plans three courses for American fashion students studying at FIT, Parsons or the Fashion Institute of Los Angeles.
“Our success depends on fostering cross-cultural understanding,” explained Benyamine. “Essentially, the American and French markets are very different, but by understanding the differences we can both function together in unison.”
Funds for DEFI are generated by contributions from apparel and textile firms. Until last year, apparel firms chipped in 0.11 percent of their yearly revenue and textile firms contributed 0.08 percent. This year, textile firms voted to retract their DEFI contribution, leaving apparel firms as the sole contributors, at a modified rate of .08 percent.