What would the world's top weavers talk about if given the chance to chat among themselves on neutral ground? When organisers of the autumn 2002 Premiere Vision in Paris brought together a panel consisting of the EU market leaders in each fashion textiles field, the opportunity to eavesdrop on the exchange drew a packed house. And what emerged from the meeting were dramatically different views on the present state of the market and the future prospects for the industry overall, as Sonia Roberts reports.

Under the chairmanship of Daniel Faure, president and director general of Première Vision, the panel included Adrian Brook, sales and marketing manager of the Yorklyde group, representing the UK woollen industry; Michel Brunel, president/director general of the De Cathalo arm of the French Chargeurs group; and Olivier Fournier, director general of HTH, the holding company for Textile d' Hermes.

Jose Vincente Royo from Valencia based Tejidos Royo SL represented Spain's denim and sportswear fabric sector. Edoardo Miroglio spoke as a member of the founding family of the Italian house of Miroglio SpA and as a pioneer advocate of re-location as the answer to the problem of spiralling wage bills. And Ronald Weisbrod from the Swiss house Weisbrod Zuerrer AG talked on behalf of specialist producers servicing niche markets within the EU and beyond its boundaries.

Germany's delegate was Antonious Schmid of KBC, a group that will shortly celebrate 250 years of trading in the field of printed fabrics with an annual turnover in excess of 100 million euros.

Equally upbeat, Alain Vermeesch, director general of the Belgian UCO sportswear fabric group, was keen to point out that "given the right products" even the geographically smallest nations in the EU can still hold their own in the international textile market. "The group of which UCO is now a part is currently earning 187 million euros a year, to which the sportswear division contributes l02 million euros, with 89 per cent of our income deriving from exports. As a group we provide jobs for l,339 workers." 

Location, location, location
While extolling his own company's shift from northern to southern Italy, and more recently into Bulgaria, Miroglio warned that "long haul" relocations inherently place production far distant from a company's customer base and make it difficult to maintain strict day-to-day quality control. 

"Many US manufacturers who rushed down to Mexico in the late l990s are now struggling to return to their old stamping grounds, often at such considerable cost that the whole future of their companies is placed in jeopardy," he commented.

"Relocation to areas such as Morocco, Mauritius or Madagascar may work well for garment manufacturers whose only skill requirement is to be able to operate a sewing machine," said Miroglio. "Setting up a weaving operation capable of producing fabrics to the standards today's competitive international market demands is much more complex. The initial budget has to be big enough not only to purchase state-of-the-art equipment, but train a workforce with no tradition of textile manufacture to operate such machinery."

Innovation can give European weavers a competitive edge

He adds that it cost his own company 475 million euros to get its Bulgarian operation up and running.  "And of course the more remote the location the more it will cost to get finished goods to customers on time."

Alain Vermeersch of Belgium's UCO sees little point in relocation. Instead he views the skills of a home-grown workforce as an asset worth paying premium wages to retain. He even suggested that in the current economic situation such production expertise harnessed to servicing the needs of customers in the high fashion and hi-tech sectors will be the make or break factor in the survival of textile manufacturing within the EU. 

This was a view fully supported by fellow denim producer Jose Royo. He believes there is little point in European manufacturers attempting to beat their Asian competitors in the basic denim sector.

"Basic denim is merely a commodity market relatively little touched by innovation - either aesthetic or technical. But these are the areas in which Europe can score most strongly - not least because of the close cooperation which exists between fabric producers and customers in the increasingly retail led casualwear sector, " said Royo.

National overview
Stressing that his remarks must be interpreted as a national overview rather than reflecting the position of de Cathalo, Michel Brunel painted a gloomy picture of current and future prospects for French woollens specialists. He described the present situation as "the worst the French wool trade had faced in 30 years, and indeed possibly the worst in its entire history".

He continued: "In France over the last 12 months we have seen raw material prices rise by as much as 30 per cent. And whereas once our labour costs were comparable with those of Spain or Portugal, now only Germany pays its textile workers similarly high rates."

French silk weavers share some of these problems, admitted Olivier Fournier.
"However, you have to remember that in global terms silk is a niche market with only two per cent of worldwide textile production falling into this category. It also services the luxury end of the fashion industry, which is always the last to feel the pinch of financial crisis. And this is particularly true of my own organisation, linked as it is with the world famous Hermes brand," he continued.

Daniel Faure, president and director general of Première Vision

There were, however, Mr Fournier felt, some silk trade parallels with what was happening elsewhere on the EU textile scene. "Just as Tejidos Royo feel they must distance themselves from volume production of basic denim, the Lyons weavers most at peril are those whose past prosperity rested on volume production of plain colour taffetas," said Fournier.

"Those with the staying power to survive their present difficulties will essentially be those with the ability to find new markets by creating new looks for silk," he believes, citing as a hopeful sign the number of Lyons producers "who are now experimenting with silk as a blend partner for other fibres."

Innovation not domination

Several panel members, however, warned of the dangers of assuming that innovation meant a permanent lead over competitors.

Ronald Weisbrod told of a specialist in tie silk who assumed the production of such fabrics was so specific no new entrants would ever challenging him. "Only to watch - over the last l2 months - a 30 per increase in sales of ties with a 'made in China' tag flooding into the market."

Similarly, Adrian Brook recalled a woollens specialist who pioneered the introduction of stretch wool/Lycra blends, then rested on his laurels. "That was 12 years ago. In the interim everyone else in the business has climbed aboard the stretch bandwagon and left the originator struggling to maintain even a modest market share," says Brook.

As regards his own group's offer, Adrian Brook believes the secret of survival is in "getting the look right."

Expert Analysis

World Textile Fibers to 2005
This study analyzes the 34 million metric ton world textile fibers industry. It presents historical demand data for 1990, 1995 and 2000, with forecasts to 2005 and 2010 by type (e.g., polyester, olefins, nylon and aramid, acrylic and modacrylic, cellulosic fibers); by region and for 27 individual key countries.

While many in the UK were quick to blame poor export sales on the strong pound and on Britain's failure to adopt the euro, Mr Brook swept these arguments aside. "If it is what the customer wants, he wants it regardless of the currency in which the price is calculated, or even the price itself."

Ronald Weisbrod, too, accepted no easy excuses for poor export performance. "I am tired of hearing that all our present difficulties date from 9/11," he commented. "As far as we are concerned the tragic events in New York merely underlined a general lack of customer confidence that was evident for at least six months previously.

"As one of Europe's smallest nations [the Swiss] have never been able to rely on home market trade to bolster business. We live by exporting and long ago learned to calculate in the currency most convenient to the customer. Financial flexibility is indeed an asset the Swiss should be capitalising on,"concludes Weisbrod.

By Sonia Roberts.