The Malaysian clothing industry is looking to attract more international customers.

The Malaysian clothing industry is looking to attract more international customers.

Malaysia's textile and clothing industry is planning to focus on three key areas - higher value fashion, dyeing and finishing, and technical textiles - to sustain strong growth and continue to compete with significantly lower-cost competition elsewhere in Asia.

The country's textile and apparel exports grew 28.4% to US$3.8bn in 2011, according to the Malaysian Textile Manufacturers Association (MTMA), with a further significant increase expected in 2012.

Exports from January to September alone were worth US$3.7bn. The sector is aiming to lift annual exports to US$7.5bn by 2020, in line with ambitious government plans included in Malaysia's Third Industrial Master Plan.

The high quality strategy was underlined on 1 January when the country's first ever minimum wage law came into effect, with private sector workers on a minimum of MYR900 (US$292) per month in peninsular Malaysia, and MYR800 (US$260) in east Malaysia (on the island of Borneo).

Andrew Hong, CEO of the MTMA, told just-style that the industry in Malaysia is aiming to continue its strong growth by exploiting advantages it has over other Asian countries, and by shifting to increasingly high-value products.

"Although we can't compete on cost with the likes of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and CLMV [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam], we are more reliable than these countries," he said. "Malaysia offers high-quality products and timely shipment."

The country currently produces a wide range of lines including men's dress shirts and trousers, ladies' blouses, sportswear, tracksuits, workwear uniforms, lingerie, and woven and knitted fabrics.

According to Hong, major brands that source from Malaysia include Nike, Adidas, Brooks Brothers, Callaway Golf, Calvin Klein and Victoria's Secret. He said that around 30% of Malaysia's textile and clothing exports go to the US, and 30% to Europe. Other markets include Turkey, Japan, South America and Canada.

High-value design focus
He said that the industry is looking to attract more big international brands through producing increasingly high-value fashion, with a particular focus on design.

"Malaysia can produce high-quality designs at the medium to high end," Hong said, adding that the country is home to seven fashion design schools.

Gillian Hung, president of the Malaysian Official Designers' Association (MODA), told just-style that MODA is working to help translate the country's design talent into increasing commercial success.

"MODA is cultivating young talent by educating designers about how to design for real business," Hung said. "MODA enables designers to learn how to design ready-to-wear collections and corporate uniforms for buyers, such as through collaborations with companies."

Hung also said that Malaysia's batik - a distinct form of textile art often featuring leaves and flowers, and renowned for its geometrical designs, such as spirals - could be utilised more.

"Our national batik has lots of potential but it has to be commercialised," she said, although it might have to be adapted to get more sales. "It's not easy as our batik is one of a kind, as is the songket [a traditional brocade fabric featuring gold or silver threads in intricate patterns]."

While sales of Malaysian batik designs are high in the Middle East, to sell more to other countries, "our designs need to be modern and contemporary, in line with the latest international trends."

Dyeing and finishing growth
In addition to design, Hong said that further value can be gained through expanding Malaysia's dyeing and finishing sector. "If you look at Italy, they have very good dyeing and finishing houses - this is what makes an Italian suit so expensive, even if the fabric is from China or India," he said. "So we are asking the Malaysian government to concentrate on this area as well."

Hong added that due to the high number of engineers in Malaysia, it would easily be able to provide the workforce necessary to develop its dyeing and finishing sector.

He said that the strength of Malaysia's hi-tech workforce would also be a key advantage in growing the country's technical textiles sector.

"With Malaysia aiming to be a developed nation by 2020, more high technology investment will be needed, and this will create more demand for technical textiles for a range of different sectors," he said, adding that the MTMA is to embark on a programme with the government over the next four years to attract investment into Malaysia's technical textiles industry, including from overseas.

Hong said that by focusing on its targeted high-value areas, the Malaysian industry believes it can achieve the government's growth targets.

"The government plans are realistic, because they are very focused," he said. "We're not trying to swallow more than we can chew. We know what we want and we are zooming in on those specific areas."