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Byline: KATHERINE WEISMAN With contributions from BRIDGET FOLEY
LYON, France -- For years, the silk fabric makers from this city were invulnerable, making the most luxurious jacquards, velvets and mousselines couturiers could buy.
But competition from the Italian fabric firms around Como over the past few decades caused Lyon's huge share of the luxury fabric market to shrink, hitting bottom at the beginning of the Nineties when that market fell apart.
Now, say designers, through better service and renewed creativity, extremely low minimum-order requirements and strong financial backing, the fabric producers of Lyon are coming back.
The Lyonnais, as Hubert de Givenchy said, "are waking up" and are realizing that this "service first" mentality applies to all aspects of their business. Instead of waiting for designers or fabric buyers to make appointments, Lyon executives travel more frequently to meet clients. And, most firms are improving their on-time deliveries.
"I am dealing with really creative people who are willing to work with me," says Victor Alfaro, whose much-lauded sky-dye fabrics were conceived by Lyon's Guigou. "The Italian mills are concentrating on big businesses," Alfaro said. "But with Lyon, not only do I get beautiful fabrics, but great service."
Alfaro is not alone in his opinion. Other American fans of Lyon fabrics include Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Carolina Herrera. "There is no room for nonprofessionals. Everything has to be perfect," observed Robert Brochier, the managing director of Tissage Baumann-Bianchini-FÄrier, whose family has been in the silk fabric business since the mid-19th century.
"When the market was healthy, there were fewer demands that had to be met," he said.
What went wrong is a multifaceted issue, said designers and executives. But they said it all seems to boil down to the fact that the Lyonnais had trouble adapting to the changes in the industry, from a new generation of designers that do business differently from the old guard, to the more discerning consumer attitudes that reject luxury for luxury's sake. A year ago, Gianfranco Ferre, who designs couture and ready-to-wear for Christian Dior in addition to his own collection, appeared on France's Bouillon de Culture TV talk show and stated that he "couldn't do much" if he had only the "Lyonnais to build a couture collection."
Now, Ferre is less caustic. "Lyon is improving and becoming more dynamic," he said. Many companies, he said, have been given a boost thanks to acquisitions by larger groups, with solid financial backing.
Even the stubbornly patriotic Italians are buying in Lyon. Dolce & Gabbana sources top-of-the-line fabrics, like printed chiffon and crepon, in Lyon. Deliveries have improved, but the designers feel that the creative standard never suffered. "The big improvement has been carried out through a great renovation in their [company] structures and organization," said Dominico Dolce. During its heyday in the Twenties, Lyon boasted 400 silk fabric companies, which belonged to the trade union Syndicate des Fabricants des Soieries. Today, there are 150 who belong to the union, now called Unitex, and some of the well-known names that were once small, family businesses have been acquired by larger textile companies or industrial groups. Bucol is owned by glass fiber specialist Groupe Porcher; Groupe Perrin is owned by HermÅs International; Soieries Brochier and D'Este are owned by Italy's Gruppo Ratti, and Bianchini-FÄrier is part of silk fabric maker Baumann, which is owned by Mayor-MTDA, a group formed by the merger of Mayor, a Japanese silk trader, and MTDA, a man-made fiber producer. Of course, the Lyon makers haven't won over all the designers they would like. "Their fabrics are often restricted to a 'Lyonnais style,"' said Giorgio Armani. "[This] doesn't often correspond with my own style of fashion."
Still, many designers note that the mills in Lyon now understand they can't simply impose their finished collections on designers and expect them to buy. More firms are working with designers to actually develop their collections, in addition to making exclusive designs. Some firms, such as Bucol and Buche-Guillaud, have come up with less-expensive secondary lines, or have introduced blends into their silk collections. Some Lyonnais firms said they still need to overcome the communication gap existing between them and the designers. They consider that today's designer's are less sophisticated about fabrics than their predecessors, and few can actually describe the fabric they want in technical terms. Longtime textile executive Jacques Brochier cited such names as Yves Saint Laurent, Tan Guidicelli and Issey Miyake as designers in the know. Along the same line, other mill executives complain that they are not always informed about what their fabric will be used for, and that the less-textile-minded designers end up making poor choices. "When we give them suggestions about how to use the fabric, they tell us it's not our problem," noted Yves Joneaux, the chief financial officer of Buche-Guillaud, "But when their fabric choice doesn't work, they say it's our fault." Others also said that certain designers have become "stars" and no longer choose the fabrics themselves, but have a fabric buyer. This upsets the Lyonnais, who were used to working directly with Paris's couturiers or top-ranking international designers. Not everyone agrees with these criticisms, but everyone agrees that to succeed, they must work as closely as possible with designers, no matter how business mode has changed. Sophie VÄron, who owns and manages Guigou with her brother Denis, said this star-designer issue is a "false problem" and that companies raising this point were spoiled in the good old days. Designers, who are now often producing more than two collections a year, have different time constraints than they had 20 years ago.
"Now, every good star-designer has a good fabric buyer, or team, which you must have confidence in," she said, citing those of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. She added that Armani is still one to see all his suppliers. The changes in the international economy also affected the Lyonnais. In certain cases, some producers were too dependent upon certain markets.
Gilles de la BriÅre, the managing director of SETB, a nearly 200-year-old firm recently bailed out by a financial group, noted that back in 1985, sales to the Mideast accounted for 75 percent of turnover. In 1990, when the Gulf crisis unfolded, "orders stopped," he said.
As women abandoned haute couture over the years, and when the luxury market bottomed out at the beginning of this decade, the Lyonnais did not have the goods to tap into other areas of fashion, like diffusion rtw or sportswear. "On our side, there are people that didn't open their eyes or ears," said Pierre Duchenaud, director of communications for Groupe Perrin. "I look at what people are wearing, and it's all very simple," Brochier observed. Simple and reasonably priced is not what the Lyonnais were used to delivering, especially during the Eighties.
These weaknesses helped the silk producers from the Como region of Italy become fashion fabric powerhouses. Designers like Christian Lacroix turned to Italy for quality and innovation. When the house of Lacroix was founded in 1987, Lacroix worked principally with the Italians. It has only been in the most recent collections that Lacroix has worked with the Lyonnais.
"I was very critical about the attitude of the French manufacturers seven years ago," he said.
Lacroix, however, now sees significant improvement in the Lyonnais collections.
"I must say that the new generation of Lyon silk makers have made the necessary jump," Lacroix said. "The last couture fabric collections were on a par with the Italians. Lacroix and others are even starting to see some cracks in Como. Some designers say that some Italian houses are no longer reliable in terms of respecting exclusivity on particular designs.
Others find deliveries increasingly unpredictable. In May, Alfaro had a "crisis" with one of his Italian suppliers who broke the news that it couldn't deliver a fabric used for "one of my most successful groups that I had already shown to buyers."
Meanwhile, the diversification and innovation in Lyons is taking different forms. After drastically reducing its output of luxury rtw fabrics in 1989, Groupe Perrin's Verel de Belval division is coming back to the category for fall 1995. Last April, fabric designer Gianluca Berardi joined Verel to create a small collection of luxury fabrics based on 16th- and 17th-century patterns found in the archives of Lyon's textile museum. "With HermÅs, the strategy was to bring the company back to health," Duchenaud explained. In 1989, Verel posted sales of $7.5 million (40 million francs) at current exchange in luxury rtw fabrics. That was reduced to about $560,000 (3 million francs) in 1993, following a strategy to focus on the niche business of fabric for lingerie and swimwear. At Bucol, known for its silk solids, figured fabrics and prints, executives realized several seasons ago that they needed to complement their evening-dress fabrics with daytime offerings. Two years ago, Bucol came out with a complementary and less expensive line of basic fabrics, many of which were blends of natural fibers such as cotton and linen. The line is now solidly contributing to sales, and last May, Bucol's orders were 20 percent ahead, thanks to addition of accounts, including Nicole Miller, Sonia Bogner, Georges Rech and Plein Sud. Buche-Guillaud was for years a silk taffeta specialist, and as such felt the downturn in the market sharply. Last year, sales were about $3.5 million (19 million francs), compared with $6 million (32 million francs) in 1990. Now, the company is putting together a comeback through diversification, making a variety of 100 percent silk products, including crepes and mousselines, and boasts a wide selection of silk and wool blends in solids. Buche-Guillaud also invested in machinery to produce fabric more efficiently, and company officials said the firm is just beginning to recoup its investment costs. SETB is in the midst of a complete overhaul, under managing director Gilles de la BriÅre. After slashing administrative overhead and reorganizing the production lines, SETB's sales in 1993 of $4.8 million (26 million francs) are back to 1990 levels, and the company could break even this year. De la BriÅre is focusing the company's production on velvets, under the brand Pernet-Velours.
Now, SETB counts Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent Variation and Bill Blass among its clients. Designer Olivier Lapidus, who creates the haute couture for the house his father founded, has done his entire fall couture collection in silks from Lyon, thanks in part to a collaboration organized by the Centre Textile de Lyon et RÄgion between Lapidus and 17 makers from Lyon. While the Lyonnais-Lapidus collection is, in effect, a promotional effort, it has led to new innovations in silk treatments and effects including a fabric that has the luster and texture of suede, a silk astrakhan and a silk velvet mock-corduroy.
Other efforts in reinforcing Lyon's heritage include attracting engineers back into the textile industry, whose population of aging artisans presents a major concern. In addition, Lyon's engineering school, Institut Textile et Chimique de Lyon, has developed an international competition designed to inspire young engineers to design everything from computer programs to machinery for modernizing artisanal and historic techniques. The competition is financed in part by Italy's Gruppo Ratti, along with the French government and the Scientific Foundation of Lyon and the Southeast Region of France.
The "new generation" of Lyonnais have clearly started to turn things around. They have even hired fabric stylists, which, ironically, few firms had before. These stylists work actively with the sales people to be more in touch with the designer clients. "The problem in the past was that Lyon was directed by an old generation that didn't always look forward," said Myriam Pila, the sales director for Soieries Brochier, "[The new generation] wants to dress women younger than age 70."