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Velvet Retailers Are Anything but Blue

Seo is a freelance writer based in New York

With his sporty crimson suit in rich velvet, Santa finds himself among the mass of folks donning the lush and versatile fabric this holiday season.

Indeed, although overall apparel sales have been lackluster so far this Christmas season, velvet’s strong showing in clothing and home furnishings is giving retailers something to cheer about.

Cotton and man-made velvet imports to the United States rose 30% in the first nine months of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to Werner International Management Consultants, which specializes in textile and apparel research. Since an estimated 80% of the velvet sold domestically comes from Asia, the growth of imports offers a good indication of velvet’s rising popularity this year.

The fabric has undergone an image change in recent years as designers seized on new innovations and began marketing it as appropriate for day or night, for work or play, for the budget-conscious or ultra-rich, for the young bohemian, career woman or older sophisticate.

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Velvet has also been tapped for broader uses, resulting in a crush of velvet upholstery, linens, scarves, handbags and shoes. Velvet upholstery, in particular, has flooded the market, with imports in this sector gaining 31% in the first three quarters of the year, over the same period last year.

“I think this is one of the fastest trends to catch on in the mass market,” said Fran Yoshioka, fashion and design director for Sears, Roebuck & Co. “I haven’t seen another fabric go into so many classifications. It’s enveloped our whole lifestyle.”

Velvet has been around since well before the turn of the century, but it’s no longer limited to the stiff feel of days past. Consumers today are buying stretch velvet, cut velvet and crushed velvet, in every color imaginable.

“Velvet has become basic,” said Ron Rose, who merchandises the fabric from velvet mills to designers. “You can have an elastic-waist pair of pants and wear it to the mall, or you can have an unbelievably sexy peekaboo cocktail dress. It’s also very popular in slip covers, window treatments, throw pillows; and the big things this year are duvet covers and shams. It really took off in that area.”

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Velvet made a strong showing this fall and winter at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, the Gap, Banana Republic, Sears and Pottery Barn for home furnishings.

“We believe so much in velvet that in October, we wrapped our whole store in velvet, showing it in all our windows,” said Nicole Fischelis, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

Like most retailers, Fischelis pegs velvet’s popularity to the fact that it is no longer a fashion faux pas to wear it during the day. “There’s definitely been an attitude change toward velvet in terms of what’s appropriate,” said Fischelis, herself sporting a quilted jacket with black velvet cuffs to work.

Despite its luxurious feel, velvet also has shed its image as a fabric reserved for the well-to-do. Sears, for instance, sells velvet apparel at various price ranges, Yoshioka said.

“Our moderately priced velvet is selling phenomenally,” she said. “I would never have thought it would have such broad appeal.”

There are now 17 different products on sale at the Gap, GapKids and BabyGap, including blazers, pants, scarves and dresses. The racks at Banana Republic are also teeming with velvet clothing and accessories.

During the first nine months of this year, $55.3 million in velvet was imported to this country for both apparel and upholstery purposes, an increase of nearly $12.7 million over the same period last year, according to Werner International, the Virginia-based consulting group.

In fact, velvet imports were so strong in the first three quarters of the year that they have already surpassed last year’s total of $53.4 million. Five years ago, velvet imports only reached $33.8 million. Some say velvet’s popularity is linked to the resurgence of “luxe” appeal--a consumer move toward luxury clothes and furnishings. “You could make a connection of velvet to Wall Street and the luxury boom,” said Katherine Betts, fashion news director at Vogue magazine. “Women want a richer look, more elaborate than before. They’ve gotten bored with minimalism.”

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Celebrities also fueled the velvet crush, with actress Juliette Binoche making a splash at this year’s Academy Awards with her sweeping cinnamon velvet dress. Betts said Gucci’s Tom Ford also added to the fabric’s cache this season, with a red velvet pantsuit he showed last winter.

“It was photographed everywhere,” Betts said. “Gwyneth Paltrow was photographed in it, and it was publicized a lot. It got copied and that trickled throughout the fashion industry.”

Apparel analysts say women are reaching for velvet this holiday season because it has been marketed as a basic winter fabric. But Fischelis, the Saks executive, believes velvet might even become an all-season fabric, with some designers introducing pastel velvet dresses for next spring and summer.

Velvet’s widespread popularity came after several developments in the textile industry. About five years ago, Wimpfheiner Velvet, a New York velvet manufacturing company that opened more than a century ago and is one of only two domestic velvet mills, started washing its velvet to give it a more casual appearance and softer feel.

About a year later, textile manufacturers in China and Korea introduced what became known as stretch velvet, a synthetic and elastic form of the fabric suited for everything from leggings to form-fitting turtlenecks. Retailers and designers couldn’t get enough of the comfortable fabric.

Knowing they had tapped into a trend, Asian manufacturers began introducing other variations of velvet, including “burnout velvet,” in which parts of the material are cut out but the backing remains.

“This year, I saw every imaginable color and every possible mutation of velvet,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn. in Los Angeles.

Despite strong demand for the fabric, U.S. velvet manufacturers say they’ve been struggling to stay afloat amid growing competition from lower-cost Asian imports that dominate the market.

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“It’s been a strong year because the fabric is strong, but it’s somewhat distressing because it’s not easy for Americans to compete,” said Dermot Murphy, sales director for Wimpfheiner Velvet.

As velvet becomes more available, quality issues are becoming a concern. “There’s a lot of fabrics that aren’t really velvet, but are called velvet,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of rip-off velvet because everyone and his brother has jumped into velvet.”

*

Seo is a freelance writer based in New York.

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The Plush Life

Velvet imports increased 30% during the first nine months of this year compared with the same period last year. In fact, imports were so strong during the first three quarters of the year that they have already surpassed last year’s totals. Over the last five years, velvet imports for upholstery have risen dramatically, while imports for apparel have been flat until this year. Industry experts estimate that about 80% of the velvet sold in the United States is produced overseas. Wholesale value of U.S. velvet imports:

1996 verus 1997

Upholstery

1996*: $20.5

1997*: $26.9

Apparel

1996*: $22.2

1997*: $28.4

1992 verus 1996

Upholstery

1992: $7.5

1996: $27.0

Apparel

1992: $26.3

1996: $26.4

* Through September

Note: Figures based on most current U.S. Census Bureau data.

Source: Werner International Management Consultants


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