Hosiery Market Feels Heat from Global Competition


Exhibitors at IHE fight back against competition from cheap foreign imports with fashion and technology innovation.

The downturn that hit the U.S. textile industry in earnest three years ago gradually seeped into the hosiery sector, an area once considered less vulnerable to the vagaries of global trade. Now, reeling from consolidations and curtailments brought on by cheap foreign imports, U.S. hosiery and seamless fabric manufacturers are aggressively seeking innovations in fashion and technology that might offer a competitive advantage.

Against this backdrop, the International Hosiery Exhibition & Conference (IHE) convened for the first time in three years in Charlotte in early May. As evidence that this industry niche is seeking something new, the four-day event drew about 5,000 people, exceeding even the most optimistic estimates of its sponsor, The Hosiery Association.

"We are absolutely delighted to have achieved this high level of attendance, especially given the challenging economic climate which currently exists within our industry," said Sally F. Kay, president.

Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD Fashionworld, says that hosiery, like all apparel, is confronting a new consumer with changing ideas about how to spend available income. He says that hosiery will be competing for consumer dollars with such non-apparel categories as entertainment, electronic products and home furnishings, and that "people are being forced to make a choice between family, home, entertainment and image."

In efforts to attract some of these dollars, manufacturers are placing renewed emphasis on adding value to their products through increased performance features, and many of the innovations in hosiery and seamless apparel are coming from the fiber and yarn manufacturers.

As an example of this, DuPont Textiles & Interiors (DTI) debuted several new concepts in Charlotte, including "energizing" socks, which use DuPont's Lycra spandex. These socks, which feature a combination of specially formulated Lycra yarns and new design and knitting techniques, enable a form of graduated compression to be built into the sock fiber that actively massages legs and improves blood circulation.

"It has clearly resonated with brands and retailers looking for new functionality," says Margaret Jacob, DTI global marketing director for legwear, who reports that the new socks drew considerable interest at IHE, following a successful European launch earlier this year.

Nilit, the Israel-headquartered maker of nylon 6.6 fibers for fashion legwear, intimate apparel and bodywear, featured its Sensil Eversheer and Sensil Cupelle products at IHE.

"Sensil Eversheer is used to create pantyhose that give a fine sheer appearance that complements all women," says Molly Kremidas, Nilit's merchandising manager.

Sensil Cupelle integrates two newly designed polymers that achieve two distinct colors in one regular dyeing process. Nilit developed the concept to meet the need for affordable, high fashion, multi-colored knit products. Kremidas says that Cupelle is ideal for fabrics in stripes, colored patterns and two-tone, piece-dyed jacquards. Furthermore, adding other yarns to the knitted fabrics allows for more than two colors in the same dyeing process, she says. A new line of seamless products incorporating Cupelle and made by Italian designer Favardi was featured at the show.

Also presenting a variety of seamless apparel was Sangiacomo, an innovative Italian manufacturer of machinery for hosiery and seamless fabrics. The firm displayed sportswear articles using Contifibre Yarns made of DuPont's Tactel Supplex fiber.

As for the future of hosiery, upcoming runway trends may give a much-needed boost to the hosiery business, stated Debra Johnston Cobb, Unifi's New York merchandising manager. Interestingly, the movie "Chicago," which featured the use of thigh-highs and over-the-knee socks, has helped revive interest in hosiery, she added.

"The return of the mini-skirt is the best thing to happen to the hosiery business in a decade," Cobb said, in her preview of Fall/Winter 2004 hosiery trends. "The season's fashion references from the '20s, '40s, '60s and '80s offer lots of inspiration in yarn, texture and styling and a range of vibrant color. Layering is a new direction, with knee socks and legwarmers worn over tights.

"Leggings take on new sophistication, draping over the shoe or finished with cuffs, in more substantial yarns and constructions ranging from satin to velour to stripe or jacquard patterns."

Bob Keller, president and CEO of Alabama-based DeSoto Mill, a division of Russell Corp., sums up the general mood of the industry: "The hosiery industry is in the middle of significant consolidation, both with the manufacturers and retailers. I anticipate this trend to continue, much as it has in other apparel categories. Hosiery companies are sorting out how they want to play in this emerging consolidated industry. China and other emerging global supply markets are certainly on the minds of industry executives."

JOHN W. MCCURRY is an Atlanta, GA-based free-lance writer and editor specializing in textile and apparel issues, and a former managing editor of Textile World magazine.


International Hosiery Exhibition & Conference (IHE)

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