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NEW YORK — Competition for big-name U.S. clients is heating up among foreign mills, as several established international textile trade shows here reached capacity and new ones reported strong debuts.

New York is becoming a prominent global textile center, said Ahmet Oksuz, a committee board member at the Istanbul Textile & Apparel Exporters’ Associations, which organizes the Turkish Fashion Fabric Exhibition.

“There are benefits because New York is becoming a show city,” he said.

The Turkish show has increasingly drawn buyers from as far as California. In some cases, Oksuz believes those individuals are unable to get to major European textile exhibits such as Texworld and Première Vision, leaving New York as their best option. The Turkish show took place at the Grand Hyatt hotel Jan. 23 to 24 and drew 36 exhibitors.

The Turkish textile industry has faced challenges, both external and internal, in recent years. It has been unable to compete on commodity products in the face of mounting competition from Asia. As a result, the focus has shifted to producing high-quality goods as well as constant innovation. The country also has had to deal with rising taxes and higher wages, both of which have dealt blows to Turkey’s garment manufacturing sector.

Oksuz believes the textile industry’s continued growth will be possible because yarn and fabric production involve fewer costs than apparel manufacturing.

“Garments are very much labor intensive,” he said. “The labor cost is 30 percent to 40 percent [of a garment], but with textiles, it’s about 10 percent.”

There are indications that the country’s textile industry is making progress. The Turkish Exporters’ Assembly said textile exports rose 17.4 percent through the third quarter of 2006. Oksuz acknowledged that textile exports to the U.S. were falling, a trend he said was to be expected, considering the lack of manufacturing here.

The Office of Textiles & Apparel, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said fabric imports from Turkey fell 9.6 percent, to $114.8 million, for the 12 months through November. Turkey’s business with the U.S. is stronger than statistics would indicate, Oksuz said, noting that Turkish mills often export fabrics to factories in Jordan, Egypt and North Africa that are manufacturing goods destined for the U.S. market.

This story first appeared in the January 30, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Robert Caplan, director with Kipas USA, said many brands and retailers were beginning to devote more energy to diversifying their sourcing portfolios to lessen their dependence on Asia.

“One area that hasn’t got a lot of attention is the Middle East region, which can include Turkey,” Caplan said.

Parent Kipas Textiles & Apparel wants to take advantage of the increased attention being paid to the region by opening a facility in Egypt capable of making 15,000 units a day and about 4 million units annually, Caplan said. With this facility and its Turkish plants, the company would be able to produce 10 million tops and bottoms a year.

Pricing remains the biggest obstacle to landing major U.S. clients.

Ipeker, a family-owned vertical mill that specializes in prints and has been in business since 1930, made its first foray into the U.S. market at the show. Ihsan Ipeker, a member of the company’s founding family who represented it at the show, said he expected to make inroads slowly.

“New people in the market think all the prices should be like China,” Ipeker said. “Some things are doable, some things are not doable, so, it takes some time for the customer to understand.”

Abdullah Suner, a representative with Celiktas, a mill that has been in operation since 1940 and now specializes in jacquard knitted fabrics, said the company invested significant sums in research and development as a way to differentiate itself from Chinese mills.

“We are trying to sell not just fabric, but an idea and an image,” Suner said.

The company also has found success by developing exclusive fabrics for retailers such as Topshop and Marks & Spencer.

“China cannot spend that kind of money to develop new items,” Suner said.

Lace mill Konak Tul must contend with the preconceived notions of U.S. buyers as well as the challenge of Asian manufacturers.

“Buyers in the U.S. do not think to buy lace from Turkey,” said Michel Bahar, vice president of Konak Tul. “Being a fancy fabric, if it’s trendy, they need it. But always they have the alternative of China.”

Exhibitors at Texworld, which ran Jan. 23 to 25 at the Penn Plaza Pavilion, are also facing fierce competition to expand their businesses in the U.S. In some cases, mills in South Korea and Japan have opened their own mills in China or formed Chinese partnerships.

South Korea’s Visionland Co. has set up a Chinese arm of operations to offer lower-priced goods to customers, including Ann Taylor, Jones, Target and Hennes & Mauritz. Julia Lee, a general manager with Visionland, said the company could often offer a lower-priced, Chinese-made version of its Korean products.

“There are some limits,” said Lee, noting that Chinese mills sometimes don’t have the technical abilities to replicate certain fabrics. “We segment which items we can make in China and which we can’t.”

Denim continues to be prevalent at Asian mills. Michael Gorelick, the U.S. agent for Moririn, a Japanese denim manufacturer that traces its roots to 1660, said the company had been active in the U.S. for only two years. In that time, Gorelick has seen larger brands become interested in using Japanese denim.

Dollen Yao, a representative with Taiwan denim manufacturer A&A Textile Co., has seen designers increasingly look to incorporate premium denim into their collections, and not just for bottoms.

“More women’s designers are doing denim,” said Yao. “Now, a Limited or a Banana Republic, they’re carrying denim, but theirs is different from denim guys like Levi’s or Lee.”

The pricing pressure from China is a constant, said Yao. But mills must also contend with a U.S. buyer that is reluctant to be the first to use a new fabric.

“Europeans, they like to try the new stuff, while the Americans want to play it safe,” Yao said. As a result, Americans were one or two seasons behind, he said.

Yogesh Kalia, senior manager of export marketing for India’s Alok Industries, has seen a similar attitude among U.S. clients. Alok is the largest producer of nondenim cotton fabrics in India, counting the Gap brands, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s among its clients.

“Most of the fashion in America is playing with the basic stuff, whereas Europeans will play with qualities and fabrics,” Kalia said.

Europeans moved faster on the fashion trends and therefore ordered smaller quantities, he added. Americans, on the other hand, work on larger volumes but more basic goods.

More than 1,000 people attended the first edition of Prefab: The Supima Premium Fabric Show, held at Gotham Hall Jan. 23 to 25.

Benjamin Lam, vice president of Fountain Set USA, said the premium focus of the show resonated with exhibitors and buyers.

“We exhibit at a lot of shows, and they have tons of booths and people, but when you walk in here, it’s so comfortable,” Lam said.

Buyers didn’t have to fight through a crowd to get to the vendors they wanted to meet with, Lam said. He also noticed many buyers taking advantage of the show’s couches and cafe-like seating areas to discuss fabrics before returning to the vendors with more questions. Lam said he had met with buyers from labels such as Perry Ellis, Phillips-Van Heusen and Polo.

Jesse Curlee, president of Supima, the promotional organization representing the U.S. pima cotton industry, said the premium image of Supima had risen during the last two to three years and was prompting some cotton farmers to grow more pima.

“In California, they are drastically reducing the acreage of regular cotton and growing more and more pima,” Curlee said.

Johnnie Yuen, a sales manager with Hong Kong denim manufacturer Central Fabrics, said the company had sought to add value to its denim by using Supima cotton, as well as XFit Lycra.

“Lots of new players are setting into the denim market from places like China, Pakistan, India and Indonesia,” Yuen said. “We’re seeing more supply year after year.”

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