Vendors in the Casual Lifestyle area of WWDMAGIC often run budding businesses, but they share many of the same concerns as fashion giants such as Polo Ralph Lauren or Jones Apparel Group.
Among those concerns are the elimination of trade quotas earlier this year and the impact of China’s place of prominence in an increasingly global production network.
Vendors also are keeping a close eye on the effectiveness of new marketing and branding campaigns, which are necessary to reach untapped customers and expand their retail presence.
The apparel sourcing landscape changed Jan. 1 when the 148 nations of the World Trade Organization set aside the quota system that regulated world trade in a number of product categories, including apparel and textiles, for decades.
Excepting the likelihood of temporary safeguard quotas, which could continue to regulate the market in the near term, the elimination of quotas has opened up an opportunity for China to dramatically increase its market share.
Already, the fashions from China account for 13.9 percent of the apparel imported into the U.S. for the year ended in November. That’s $8.88 billion worth of apparel, a 23.7 percent increase over the year before.
In the post-quota world, “China will look to bully everyone around,” said Martin Klein, executive vice president of sales at New York-based Kaktus Inc., which produces sportswear, activewear and dresses.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of the smaller manufacturers because they won’t be able to compete with the ones that are in China and India,” he added.
Most of Kaktus’ production is already in Asia. However, apparel firms that manufacture their wares in the U.S. have found that, in order to remain competitive, they will need to follow suit and move their production overseas.
“We were 100 percent domestic up until a couple of years ago,” said Jerry Stone, vice president of sales at Lawrence, Mass.-based sweater producer Alps Sportswear, which sells to specialty stores, boutiques and catalogues. “At this point, 70 percent of our line is import. We’ve been forced to go overseas for a number of reasons, not only price but also tailoring.”
Plants in India, China and Africa, all places Alps employs in its sourcing efforts, not only can produce goods for lower prices but also have machines that can put whole sweaters together.
Vendors also are looking to nose ahead of the competition by buying or developing a name that consumers will come to recognize and trust.
“We are interested in getting into a branded business to expand our scope,” said Kaktus’ Klein.
Klein declined to detail the company’s plan, but getting into a branded business has obvious benefits.
If a customer knows a brand name and what it represents, they are more likely to purchase it, fattening the vendor’s sales.
Longmont, Colo.-based sweater firm Icelandic Design is looking to bolster its brand by more clearly communicating its history to consumers, said Kristin Kalush, marketing manager.
“We’re looking to grow the business in new markets if we can, but not lose what we have. It can be kind of tricky,” she said. “We’re taking a few different marketing directions, trying to put a story behind the line.”
That story goes back to the Eighties, when owner Gerdur Kristjansdottir started the firm in Iceland, her homeland.
Drawing upon the knitting skills of her family, Kristjansdottir created sweaters with designs based on landscapes and European art.
She came to the U.S. and started selling sweaters made by her and her family. A few specialty store accounts in Colorado were parlayed into the 1,500 wholesale accounts the firm now boasts.
Some of the company’s products still have elements that are handmade, though production has moved to Nepal, China and India. The inspiration drawn from landscapes and European art also has remained.
“We definitely try to promote just the uniqueness of it,” said Kalush. “We don’t really have too much competition in our niche. We do have some knockoff issues, but not as bad as some other industries and types of clothing.”
Icelandic’s branding campaign also is an effort to appeal to a new kind of store base.
“We would love to get new business in more contemporary boutiques,” said Kalush. To that end, the company also is updating its styling.
Icelandic isn’t alone in its desire to branch out.
Albuquerque, N.M.-based Modern Cowgirl, which offers a line of sheer T-shirts featuring prints of retro cowgirl pinups, will be in Las Vegas looking for more retailers in large urban centers to complement its current retail distribution of about 80 specialty and department store doors.
“We are trying to get into more of the mainstream,” said owner Shana Gibson. “We do a lot of boutiques in the Western areas, but we found that the products are very popular in larger cities like Dallas.”
After all, Madonna’s interest in the cowgirl look might come and go, but Gibson said the style, a nod to the American West, will always be popular.