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Miami Beach Exhibitors Try to Sew Up Profits in U.S. Clothing
Sun-Sentinel
Doreen Hemlock
October 9, 2002

Pierre Liautaud tried to convince apparel companies to produce in Haiti, so his Miami firm could arrange for shipping through South Florida.

Fashion designer Seidnaly Sidhamed of the African nation of Niger urged companies to buy textiles and clothing made in Africa, now that Washington offers U.S. duty-free entry on certain African garments.

Michael Sloan of Caribe Button LLC of Coral Springs offered buttons made largely in Colombia to factories churning out shirts and pants in Latin America.

The three were among more than 400 exhibitors in Miami Beach this week for Material World, an apparel industry show that highlights fierce and growing competition to supply the U.S. clothing market, the world's largest and one increasingly dependent on imports.

More than 3,500 people from nations as diverse as Cambodia, Honduras, Singapore and Nicaragua are attending the third annual event at the Miami Beach Convention Center that wraps up today. The show will switch to a twice-a-year format starting in March to help executives keep up with lightning-fast changes in the industry, from trade laws to colors for the new fashion season.

For South Florida, much is at stake in the decisions that U.S. retailers, brands and manufacturers make on where to produce and source tens of billions of dollars worth of apparel yearly for U.S. sale.

If companies buy from Latin America and the Caribbean, then apparel and related products tend to be shipped through South Florida ports. That means executives operate South Florida offices to provide support services and to travel in and out of the Latin region easily. More jobs in the Latin region also mean more purchases in general from South Florida, the U.S. business hub for Latin America.

In contrast, apparel purchases from Asia offer few spin-off benefits for South Florida, with gains more likely to go instead to California ports and cities, according to industry specialists.

"If we can get more companies to produce in Haiti," said Liautaud of RS America Inc., the Miami-based booking agent for Taiwan's shipping line Evergreen Marine, "then we can increase sailings to Haiti and Dominican Republic from Miami and Port Everglades. . And the Haitian people need the foreign investment and the jobs" to improve their living standard, now the lowest in the Americas.

The three-day conference offered a glimpse at the complex chain of suppliers involved in apparel — from fabric makers to machine distributors, customs specialists to sellers of appliques used on T-shirts.

Obaid Arghandiwal of Yitco Linen Inc. of Farmingdale, New York, an affiliate of a fabric business founded 52 years ago in Afghanistan, attended the Miami Beach event for the first time to offer European-made linens to clothing producers largely in Latin America.

"This is a good show for us, because linen is back in style again," said Arghandiwal, standing in a booth draped with linens in such varied colors as mango, chartreuse, Fuchsia and sepia.

Harry F. Anderson, vice president of Uniport Industries Inc. of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., offered thousands of appliques in the form of animals, fruits and even Red Hat Society ladies, and in finishes from glittery to furry and quilted — many from China, where detailed handiwork is plentiful.

"We get probably 5 percent of our designs from the United States, because in the Far East, the price and quality are better," said Anderson. "In the U.S., you can't put the detail in" at prices that manufacturers can afford in a U.S. clothing market now rife with excess supply and rock-bottom prices.

At least one exhibitor was trying to buck the trend toward imports and offshore production: American Apparel LLC of Los Angeles, which bills itself as makers of "sweatshop-free T-shirts." With roughly 1,000 workers producing garments from U.S. cotton, the company is one of the largest sewing operations in the United States today, said Jin Kang, marketing manager.

U.S. consumers pay a bit more for the company's baby-soft shirts, however, since its U.S. employees tend to earn at least $8 an hour in California compared with wages that start at less than 25 cents an hour in Haiti and even lower in China. "We're like a novelty in the industry," said Kang. Material World was organized by Urban Expositions of Marietta, Ga., in alliance with the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group that favors more liberal rules for U.S. companies to produce abroad to help them compete against overseas firms selling into the U.S. market.

Said Kevin M. Burke, president of the Arlington, Va.-based trade group: "If the apparel industry didn't make the choice years ago to go offshore, then we'd be out of business."

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at dhemlock@sun-sentinel.com or (305)810-5009.

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel