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Asian Manufacturers Getting ‘Intimate’ With U.S. Market

May 12, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Low-wage Asian factories are cranking up production of panties, negligees and teddies in an export drive that could spell trouble for still-dominant U.S. manufacturers of unmentionables.

Concern about the overseas threat was just offstage Monday at a lingerie fashion show at which leggy models showed off shiny black peignoirs, petal- shaped push-up bras and girls’ sleepshirts decorated with ″polkadotasauruses.″

Asian nations have run up against their quota limits in other apparel, such as sweaters, and are targeting underwear, challenging U.S. manufacturers that have plants in places such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

From 1982 to 1986, imports of bras grew 21 percent; imports of all underwear, not just women’s, grew 84 percent; and imports of all nightwear doubled, according to the American Apparel Manufacturers Association.

″It’s a rapid increase,″ Carl Priestland, the group’s chief economist, said in a telephone interview from Arlington, Va. ″It’s quite possible that half the jobs in existence could go before we hit bottom.″

The strong foreign competition comes as overall sales of lingerie have picked up. In addition, television networks last week began allowing commercials with live models dressed in lacy underthings.

″Lingerie has really captured the imagination of all women. It’s getting great press,″ said Samuel Weinberg, publisher of Body Fashions-Intimate Apparel magazine, which sponsored Monday’s fashion show of imported and domestic lingerie at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

″The menswear look for women has really had its turn. Women want to look more feminine again and the manufacturers are responding to that,″ said Noelle Lloyd, designer for New York-based Albert J. Betesh and Sons.

There are 1.15 million U.S. apparel-making jobs, and about 70,000 of them are in the area of underwear and bras, Priestland said.

Lingerie makers are hoping to benefit from the ″Crafted With Pride in U.S.A.″ advertising campaign and buy-American programs of major department stores, led by Sam Walton, chairman of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Women can afford to buy American when it comes to panties because the price difference may be no more than 30 cents a pair, said Steve Chernoff, president of Newton Manufacturing Corp., which employs 2,000 people in Newton, Ga.

The dollar’s recent skid hasn’t helped lingerie makers because most imports come from nations whose currencies have not risen much against the dollar.

In fact, the Chinese yuan actually has decreased in value against the dollar, and China last year became the United States’ No. 1 source of textiles and apparel imports. After China come Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.

U.S. apparel workers get paid about $4 to $6 an hour. Labor costs are about $2 an hour in Hong Kong and as low as 25 cents or 30 cents an hour in China, Priestland said.

″There’s no way in the world, even with enormous productivity, you can compete with that,″ he said.

Despite the big gains of imported lingerie, U.S. factories last year churned out about 125 million dozen pieces of underwear for men and women, Priestland said. Imports totaled about 22 million dozen.

In nightwear, domestic production is about 20 million dozen pieces and imports are about 5 million dozen, Priestland said.

The U.S. government is more protective of industries where foreign manufacturers have taken over more than half the American market, such as sweaters and woven shirts and blouses, said Donald Foote, director of international agreements on textile and apparel in the Commerce Department.

″We’re not trying to stop imports. We’re trying to prevent growth to the point where it disrupts the market. It’s up to the industry to be competitive. We’re trying to create a climate where it can operate,″ Foote said.

The Reagan administration opposes a bill in Congress that would limit growth of imports of textiles and apparel this year to 1 percent above 1986 levels in each category. Besides pushing up prices for consumers, the bill would force the United States to violate agreements with foreign governments, Foote said.

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