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Survival or Meltdown: Execs Ponder Future Of U.S. Manufacturing

U.S. apparel production is being decimated by the explosive growth of imports, which have left the industry fighting for its life in Washington.

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Leaders of the textile industry continue to fight trade deals they claim will sacrifice more U.S. jobs. As reported, a coalition of industry trade groups on Thursday took to the steps of the Capitol building to announce they were asking the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements to activate the safeguard measures to slow the explosive growth of Chinese imports.

Jack Mulqueen, a longtime Seventh Avenue figure who’s working with Ciccarelli to launch a line of custom-made women’s suits for department stores, said history suggests the odds are against the industry’s fight to put the brakes on imports.

“In a million years, it will never happen,” he said. “I’ve heard that for 40 years.”

Chinese imports have been up dramatically in four categories of merchandise that are no longer regulated by quotas: knit fabrics; robes and dressing gowns; bras, and gloves. U.S. industry executives fear that in 2005, when quotas on all textile and apparel categories are dropped by the 146 World Trade Organization nations, China’s massive textile and apparel industry will swamp the rest of the world with low-priced goods. With this concern in mind, China’s accession agreement to the WTO included a provision allowing the U.S. to reimpose quotas if Chinese imports threatened to cause market disruption.

Even with quotas still in place on most categories of merchandise, Chinese imports of textiles and apparel have been growing strongly. For the year ended May, they were up 46.3 percent to $10.25 billion, at a time when overall imports rose 11.2 percent to $76.07 billion.

The continuing pressure of quotas has driven many domestic suppliers out of business and led others to seek ways to diversify. This year, a contingent of contractors from Chinatown went on a trade mission to China, figuring cultural ties would give them a leg up in joining forces with that nation’s manufacturers. Companies including Made In New York Group, the producer of Lafayette 148, have opened their own factories in China, contending the cost structure required to operate in the U.S. is untenable.

These trends have many market observers starting to wonder if the domestic apparel manufacturing industry will eventually disappear.

Keith Hull, president of domestic textile maker Avondale Mills Inc., based in Graniteville, S.C., said he fears the erosion of the U.S. apparel manufacturing base will continue.
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