1 Sept 2017
3D Printing and Digital Technology on Show at New York Textile Event
While some mainland exhibitors were less than enamoured with recent US anti-China rhetoric, many at this year's TexWorld event were captivated by the possibilities opened up by a range of technologies new to the textiles sector.
Overall, there was a significant number of exhibitors from China and across Asia at this year's TexWorld, the annual New York tradeshow said to be the largest textile sourcing event on the East Coast of the US. All of them seemed largely unworried by the Trump administration's decision to pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), believing the decision will have little impact on their current or future business. Despite this optimistic note, though, the general mood at the event was somewhat mixed, with many viewing the ever-crucial US market as more than a little sluggish.
In terms of overall themes at the event, sustainability was clearly of increasing relevance, with consumer concern prompting many brands to burnish their green supply chain credentials. New technologies, too, were seen as making an impact, with digital fabric print enabling short runs and 3D printing beginning to make its move into the clothing space.
Most strikingly, the might of the Chinese manufacturing sector was only too apparent, with mainland textile companies dominating the aisles at the event. Among those keen to make their mark was Shanghai-based Poly Beauty Textile, a specialist in the manufacture of imitation silk fabrics.
As with many of the other overseas companies in attendance, Poly Beauty had its own views on the likely impact of the America First policies championed by Donald Trump, the US President. Less concerned than many, Lex Schoenmaekers, the company's Sales Manager, said: "I'm not too worried about Trump. He seems to be primarily focused on the heavy industries, such as metal and the automotive sector. With the kinds of things we produce – fabric linings and so on – the US is just not geared up for that kind of manufacturing."
One company taking a more combative approach was the Kunshan Duoduo Textile Material Industry, a Jiangsu-based fabric manufacturer. Addressing the US President's anti-China stance, a Sales Representative for the company said: "We don't see it affecting us in particular. If Trump introduces a high duty on imports from China, we will simply stop exporting. What will happen to the US then?
"At present, we still have a problem with over-production, so we still need to service the US market. If all of the mainland manufacturers cut back on their production, however, the China market alone would be enough for us."
Taking a different view, Michael Zulpo, Sales Director for Guangzhou-based Apex Accessories, said: "While there has been little fallout from the TPP, the market here is slow. We are in recessionary territory and it seems as if the price is continually going down."
Echoing his concerns, Ben Chou, Sales Manager for Jiangsu's Wujiang Xinda Textile, said: "Normally, the US is by far our best market. Since last year, though, things have not been quite as good as they used to be. According to many of my customers, demand is significantly lower than it was before."
The Asian perspective of the US market, however, was not universally glum, with Schoenmaekers saying: "Our business is good and growing. We have three agents here and we also work for several big US brands, all of which are buying from us."
Even amid the overall sense of gloom, several companies claimed to have found the occasional bright spot. Highlighting this, Zulpo said: "Certain products are still selling well. Designs with fringes on are particularly popular, as is 3D cotton.
"This year, buyers seem attracted to geometric patterns rather than the more floral styles. People seem to be looking for geometric patterns, but want unique designs, with maybe geometric and floral elements all combined together."
Schoenmaekers had a slightly different view as to the fabrics most favoured in the US, saying: "Our customers tend to be keen on using a lot of satins and chiffon. In particular, they love stretched satins."
As well as the need to meet customers' product preferences, Schoenmaekers was keen to emphasise the importance of being able to quickly deliver high volumes, a facility he sees as crucial when dealing with the many here-today, gone-tomorrow fast-fashion brands. Expanding on this, he said: "In the case of customers such as Zara, we have to adapt extremely quickly to new designs. You have to be able to supply companies like that directly, a requirement that involves up-front investment on our part as, basically, we have to pre-produce.
"As we have everything in stock, we don't need to produce and we also don't specify a minimum order quantity. A lot of our New York customers see us as their warehouse as, within two to five days, we will have delivered their requested fabrics."
One ever-more popular means of handling small orders, while offering a rapid turnaround, is digital printing. A particular proponent of this approach was Dae Chun, Owner of Dae Chun, a Seoul-based specialist in textile digital printing.
Emphasising the benefits of using the technology, she said: "Firstly – and most importantly – it can handle a lower minimum run than any conventional approach. This is particularly useful as many of our customers are now requesting small quantities of a variety of designs.
"Secondly, for e-commerce companies, they often require a smaller quantity as part of a test run. Using digital printing, we can help them try out new designs as they look to see just how the market will react."
One of her company's more recent innovations is being able to digitally print directly onto cotton garments. Explaining the comparative rarity of this facility, she said: "We've become specialists in digital print on cotton, something that is not widely available. While you might see a lot of digitally printed rayon or polyester garments, cotton is still something of a rarity.
"As it's a fibre fabric, digitally printed colours tend to be less vibrant than those created by more conventional processes. While it is really easy to digitally print on silk or polyester – and the colours are truly bright – on cotton, it tends to come out really dull. It's finding the fine point that will bring the colour out that is truly challenging.
"In another plus, the price has come down dramatically over the past five years. It has fallen from US$10 per yard to the mid one digit dollar price, depending on the inks used."
While digital printing is really still bedding itself in to the textiles sector, another technology is already waiting in the wings, poised to make its mark on the industry – 3D printing. According to Sylvia Heisel, Founder of Heisel, a New York-based specialist in 3D-printed wearables, the technology has certainly merited its place in the clothing industry.
Making a clear case for its ubiquity, she said: "Currently, 3D printing is already in pretty much every industry in the world. We are coming to it late, but it is coming.
"One of the real advantages of 3D printing is that there is zero waste. Instead of slicing away at the material when you cut out pieces, you are printing only the garment pieces you need and then assembling them. While, maybe, we are not quite there in terms of 3D printing whole garments, the system already excels at printing flat textiles pieces.
"Significantly, 3D printing also allows for mass customisation. It allows garments to be customised by size, by logo and by personal taste. Potentially, it's a huge development. At present, it's the big sneaker brands that are taking the lead. More than anyone else, Nike and Adidas are showing just what 3D printing can deliver."
High-tech innovations aside, many at the show were also keen to focus on sustainability and none more so than the Trusty Trading Company, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer of low water dyes. At present, its range is limited to lighter shades on lighter materials, making it only suitable for pocketing and shirting.
Despite these limitations, Dorothy McNee, an Executive Director of the company, sees the range as offering several key benefits to customers. Keen to play the environmental card, she said: "Our dyes offer energy savings, water savings and even savings in terms of turnaround time, given how quickly the dyes work.
"Many US brands are now keen to use sustainable fibres and I think our dyes have a similar appeal. The only possible downside is cost. Most companies know that if they are going down the sustainable route, it always will result in a bigger price ticket at the end of the day. The question now is – how willing will consumers be to pay any such premium?"
TexWorld 2017 was held at New York City's Jacob K Javits Convention Center from 17-19 July. More than 520 exhibitors from across the world took part in the event.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York