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Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 02/15/2011

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — An innovative denim fabric that consists partially of thread made from recycled plastic beverage bottles was the star exhibit of this year’s Colombiatex, the Andean region’s largest textile show. It was also emblematic of the embattled Colombian industry’s efforts to refocus and, in the process, reverse a decade-long decline.

This story first appeared in the February 15, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The indigo-colored cloth is called EcoDenim and is a joint venture by two leading manufacturers: thread maker Enka and fabrics weaver Fabricato, both based in Medellín. Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who is Fabricato’s president, told WWD that the company introduced the product in December and just made its first sale, a $160,000 deal with jeansmaker Werner–Eickelmann of Germany.

People don’t just like the product, they like what it does, which is recycle these bottles that otherwise would take 100 years to degrade,” Zuluaga said. He added that the fabric costs 10 percent more to produce than all-cotton denim but that it affords higher margins from environmentally conscious consumers.

Although the EcoDenim has the downy feel of old Levi’s, it is made with 32 percent recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles that are crushed and spun into synthetic thread. Fabricato then weaves it into a cloth that includes 68 percent cotton. Enka spent $36 million setting up a recycling-collection network in 19 Colombian cities and on the requisite machinery before the launch.

The Colombian textile and apparel industry has suffered blow after blow in recent years, some of them self-inflicted. Since global free trade opened the floodgates to illegal imports from China and South Korea, Colombian exports have dropped to $1.16 billion in 2010, down 42 percent from $2 billion in 2008. The end of the quota system and the steady appreciation of the Colombian peso also hurt.

Once a vital supplier of denim to U.S. jeans manufacturers, Colombia has been crushed in recent years by competitors in Central America and Turkey, said Paula Trujillo, competitiveness director at Inexmoda, the Colombian trade association that hosts Colombiatex, which was held at the end of January.

“In innovation, we were not advancing with the same velocity and agility as other countries,” Trujillo said.

In the past year, manufacturers were also slammed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s freeze on retailers’ payment of $200 million to Colombian apparel and fabric suppliers, the result of Chavez’s bitter falling out with former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe. New president Juan Manuel Santos is trying to patch things up, but the once lucrative Venezuelan market is for now all but lost.

In response, many Colombian companies like Enka and Fabricato are trying to retrench, an effort reflected in the Colombiatex emphasis this year on natural, native or recycled threads and fabrics as ways out of the morass. Enka president Alvaro Hincapie said the new denim product was the result of a strategic review that involved looking at 100 possible new products.

“We saw that Europe was a growing market for recycled threads, and so we decided to make a speculative venture,” Hincapie said. “In addition to denim, we think there is also a big potential upholstery market” for the recycled-bottle thread.

Crystal Group, a vertically integrated “bale-to-retail” concern, is focusing on the booming Latin American market with its Punto Blanco lingerie chain, and exporting sport clothing to U.S. clients that include Target and Macy’s only when it can leverage its “fashion quick response” advantage over Asia.

“We are now a brand-oriented company that sells products with a story,” president Luis Fernando Restrepo said. “We no longer try to just push out commodity products. China will eat you alive in that business.”

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