European weavers exhibiting at last month's Première Vision International Shanghai fabric and trend fair see the Chinese market as a long-term investment. Of particular interest are Chinese firms keen to create their own brands and designs. Marie-Hélène Corbin reports.

The third Première Vision International Shanghai brought together 89 European exhibitors; including 43 Italian and 19 French weavers - slightly less than the two previous fairs held in 2004.

"It is the summer season so the wool weavers, particularly numerous among the Italians, are not exhibiting this time," Première Vision president Daniel Faure explained.

In a world free from textile quotas and the resulting dramatic acceleration of Chinese textile exports towards the European Union so far this year, many of these mid to high-end weavers claimed that this surge in shipments of low quality products had no direct impact on their activities.

In value, Chinese textile imports into the EU increased 73 per cent during the first two months of 2005 compared with the same period of 2004 (the growth is of 46.5 per cent for January and 119 per cent in February). And in volume they saw a spectacular rise of 1,500 per cent in February, after an initial jump of 650 per cent in January.

"Most of the damage to the European manufacturers has already taken place. The most painful consequences in terms of production will be felt in the non-Chinese low-cost countries like Vietnam or Bangladesh, or North African countries," Daniel Faure said.

But for these producers, whose fabric prices do not drop below 5 euros per metre and sometimes exceed 15 euros per metre, "the strong euro remains an important handicap," admitted Xavier Murer, Asia Pacific commercial director of the French knitter and printer Henitex.

Luc Rambaud, the general manager of EC Young Shanghai, a newly founded agent company targeting the Chinese market, was quite optimistic about the impact of quota abolition on European markets, where price deflation is already being seen in garments.

The dreary offerings in the stores will, on the other hand, drive demand for original and elaborate clothes, he hopes. "So in the end our customers will benefit of this evolution."

EC Young Shanghai represents four European weavers: the French knitter Billon; the French lace maker Sophie Hallette; the Italian colour woven, jacquard and prints manufacturer Taiana Virgilio Tessitura; and the French wool weaver Jules Tournier & Fils and sells "special items such as special jacquards and micromodal synthetics."

Perceptible anxiety
Most of the exhibitors were said to be satisfied with their presence at the fair, the selectivity of which is still appreciated. Yet a level of anxiety was also perceptible.

"European domestic consumption is not good, and the removal of quotas will not solve the problem," said Laurence Pitié, sales area manager of the French wool weaver Roudière, which sells products such as non-stain stretch or blends like linen-wool or cotton-wool.

"We will have a more precise view of the situation in six months or one year from now," added Nathalie Héritier, export manager of the French knitter Bel Maille.

"We are trying to compensate for the loss of European markets, captured by Chinese products, with the high potential of the Chinese market. Among the Chinese professionals we observe a really strong will to create their own brands with their own design. They are not only interested in buying finished goods."

Carlos Bacelor, commercial manager of the Portuguese colour woven and cotton shirting producer Arco Texteis, insisted on travelling to Shanghai to meet Chinese buyers who represent a higher quality and professionalism than those seen in Première Vision Paris where copying is feared.

"To succeed in China is a long-term investment, and the work of the agents is fundamental," he said. "In two or three years from now there will be real growth, and the potential is enormous."

Traditional market
For Laurence Pitié (Roudière), the Chinese market is still "very traditional," the most mature part being the sportswear sector.

"They start from such a low basis," she notes, "and the middle class cannot afford very much more than the low-end products so far. But the development of the market is astonishingly fast."

"Some contacts who approached me one year ago with five stores now have 100," confirmed Xavier Murer (Henitex).

Zhu Chongyun, the president and chief designer of the women's wear brand Marisflog, which owns 110 stores throughout China, said that her customers show an interest and enthusiasm for European fashion designs and that she herself favours prints and natural items and values the "quality of the hand of European fabrics."

She showed interest in the fashion information forums at the fair, which were for the first time displayed in three distinct areas: the fabrics, the ranges and the 'bests.'

"The Chinese buyers are more professional than one year ago; they already have ideas about what they want," Daniel Faure observed, insisting that "even if this market is hard, the exhibitors who attended the fair for the third time already had significant orders."

The same concept will be adopted for the next edition, on 9-10 November 2005 in Shanghai. But in 2006, Daniel Faure does not exclude a move to Beijing, the northern city where the Messe Frankfurt Intertextile show is holding its spring edition.

"Some professionals have asked us to do that," he explained. In 2001 in Paris, Messe Frankfurt Texworld took the same dates as Première Vision. Will it happen the other way round next year in Beijing?

By Marie-Hélène Corbin.