MEDELLIN, Colombia — Colombia’s annual textile fair has become one of Latin America’s most important, drawing buyers and vendors from around the world to sell a range of goods from raw yarn and finished apparel to machinery and mannequins.

The Colombiatex fair included models parading the latest offerings from Bra­zilian and Colombian designers as spectators watched with caipirinha cocktails in hand.

With more than 6,000 exhibitors and visitors, Colombiatex, which ran Jan. 24-26, is a key tool in boosting the country’s textile and apparel industry. The fair produced more than $33 million in business. The power of the dollar was apparent, with almost two-thirds of business going to the U.S.

But it was China and that nation’s rapid ascent to the top of the apparel and textile manufacturing ladder that preoccupied many in attendance. Colombian manufacturers said in order to survive competition from China, they need to play to their strengths: fashion, proximity to the U.S. and reliable service.

“We know that price can be an issue, but what we produce in Colombia is generally high-quality fabrics and fashionable pieces that other suppliers can’t match,” said Roque Ospina, director of Colombia’s Institute of Export and Fashion or Inexmoda.

International buyers, many visiting Colombia for the first time, remarked on the quality of Colombian apparel and fabric. Among them was Bill Wright, who was looking for new suppliers for British Home Stores, the second-largest High Street retailer.

“Colombians are making things that we can sell, not selling us things they can make,” he said.

Other buyers said they were seeing a great difference in the quality of the fabric and finished goods compared with what they receive from China.

Marcia Nicely, owner of Designs by Marc Ltd., a Jamaican company that specializes in selling work outfits, said she came to the fair looking to buy fabrics, machinery, zippers and mannequins. She’s been purchasing products from China for 14 years.

“When I buy something from China, there’s often some flaw and I have to go back and tell them what flaws there are and make sure it gets corrected,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, there is much better quality in the Colombian product.”

This story first appeared in the March 14, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Martha Calad, who oversees fashion for Inexmoda, said, “People increasingly want elaborate, distinctive clothes, something that will set them apart from other people.”

Suppliers said denim was selling well and there was growing demand for corduroy. Colombian designers showed off their own native-inspired designs.

“Here we’re using the pre-Colombian patterns,” said Luz Elena Ramirez, designer for Textiles Romanos, pointing to a bag decorated with bright colors and stripes of indigenous tribes.

However, some did worry that the designs may not find a natural home in markets such as Europe.

The fair also served another less-explicit purpose: to try to change Colombia’s image. Colombians call it their “mala fama” or “bad fame.” The government and business leaders are well aware that much of the world sees Colombia as the world’s cocaine center, home to a long-running civil war and with one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Still, the country has undergone major changes in the past four years with the election of president Alvaro Uribe, who has taken a hard line against the insurgents and cocaine cartels. With improved security, the government wants to attract foreign investment in Latin America’s fifth-largest economy and third-largest population. In the first two years of Uribe’s regime, foreign investment increased by 50 percent to $3.13 billion.

“Colombia has this terrible reputation,” said Michael Johnson, a buyer for British label Paul Smith. “People think it’s all drug traffickers and killers, but since I’ve been here, I’ve seen only a friendly and helpful people.”

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