Fabrics for thobe (an ankle-length Arab garment) account for the largest quantity in Japanese fabric exports, and have particularly acquired an impregnable position in the high-quality zone, overcoming headwinds such as the fluctuation of exchange rates. The variety of fabrics might look to have no remarkable differences at a glance, but accurate development efforts have produced favorable results. Japan’s leading manufacturers and trading firms are leaders in the markets for thobe and abaya fabrics, and their activities are introduced as follows:
Toyobo The Enhancement of Brand Value Highly Appreciated for Differentiation of Hand
Toyobo has been the leader in Japanese thobe fabric exports. According to manufacturer-seller Toyobo STC Co., Ltd., exports to the Middle East date back to the 1960s. Toyobo intends to respond to the market by continuing to increase its focus on product developments, such as the differentiation of hand.
Looking back at its history, exports initially consisted of cotton fabrics, then polyester 65%/cotton 35% blended fabrics appeared from the 1970s, and exports to the Middle East came to gain greater importance alongside shirt fabric exports to Europe and the U.S. Toyobo went on to replace cotton with cellulosic fibers such as Tufcel polynosics with an aim to differentiate its products from those of its rivals, and its efforts were successful as it gained a certain appraisal in the market. This material is known as Luquia. Then, Toyobo developed mix-weaves of polyester staple fiber and filaments and Super Rosanna mix-weaves of polyester/rayon blended yarn and polyester filaments, which came to establish the basic line-up.
The sharp appreciation of the Japanese currency from the latter half of the 1980s and the appearance of other foreign-made fabrics brought about a new age, ending competition only among Japanese fabrics. While pure polyester fabrics encountered difficulties, Toyobo moved to drastically review its operations again to undertake ‘monozukuri’ leveraging on the company’s strengths.
In developments, Toyobo focused on filament/staple fiber combined composite yarn as represented by Manard special spun yarn. The company undertook the development of fabrics that have the soft and supple hand, drape and body that customers demand. When the exchange rate was 80 yen to a dollar in 2010 and 2011, the prices of these fabrics were twice as high as conventional fabrics. Still, Royal Mix was introduced into the market with the company assuming a thoroughgoing attitude of “leaving it up to the customer to decide whether or not to buy”. In the Middle East market where a normal fabric costs US$3.00 at the highest, Toyobo fabrics were well received even at prices higher than US$5.00. This solidified the reputation of Toyobo fabrics as “expensive but with something different”.
A factor that made it possible to maintain such high prices was the limited supply quantity. Exports to the Middle East are extremely difficult to carry out, including the management of whiteness and hand, packing, preparation, heat cutting, etc., and this makes it difficult for Japanese dyehouses to newly enter this business. Toyobo is thoroughly sticking to the sales policy of selling to limited customers who are reliable and have no concern about brand damage. Accordingly, the trust and confidence of the ultimate consumer are higher than other foreign-made fabrics or those of trading firms that can be purchased by anyone.
Katsuhiro Iwai, General Manager of Textile Dept. at Toyobo STC, says, “There were products for which prices were cut amid the depreciation of the Japanese currency, but surprisingly our customers are telling us not to do so.” Buyers should also have a desire to have prices reduced, but they also strongly want to keep the grade and status. For this reason, when the economy worsens and sales decrease, the low-priced fabrics of other countries and fabrics supplied from trading firms are the first to decline in sales; compared to these fabrics, the degree of decrease and slowdown of sales are extremely small for Toyobo fabrics.
Then what is required to maintain brand value? General Manager Iwai points out that product development is the foundation, and stresses that a continuous introduction of products that have been developed in response to customer requests and are different from other manufacturers is what enhances the brand image. Luquia is just the basic line-up, but for Super Rosanna, new items in different yarn counts, density and hand are constantly developed for each season.
When it comes to Royal Mix made with a filament/staple fiber combined composite yarn that is sometimes made of three types of materials, varieties become limitless. Even for pure polyester fabrics, the company is particular about the material, and developments are made using special staple fiber types and no regular items. The three brands are now available in a countless number of items, and development articles number well over 400 every season.
The decisive factors for continuing thobe fabric exports to the Middle East, which themselves have their ups and downs, are the enthusiasm toward such developments and the high status that Toyobo’s products have achieved in the market. Negative factors increase as the Japanese currency turns from depreciation to appreciation. U.S. dollar-based prices are set in negotiations directly with customers, and the unit price has risen by increasing the products’ commercial value. As a result, the contribution to operation is high not only for the Shogawa Mill where weaving and dyeing are undertaken, but also for other mills carrying out spinning or weaving.
Unlike fashion apparel, thobe fabrics for the Middle East are made mainly of polyester, the color centers on white cream, and seasonal factors are less important. Distribution is principally fabrics for tailoring, and ready-to-wear thobes are less popular, thus the goodness of the material can be appealed. Favorable aspects other than the weak Japanese yen include population growth and economic growth as oil-producing countries, and the market is promising with high stability.
As far as the outlook is concerned, Toyobo is concerned about a decline in oil prices. There is also the influence of political unrest. However, the population is basically heading upward, and the purchasing power is also rising. If ensured security and stable oil prices are the basic premise, business may not have to grow sharply, but stable growth can be expected. General Manager Iwai says with emphasis, “Our basic line is to respond to customer needs with a focus on the development of each and every product.”
An alienation from thobe is also noted with the increase in young people and their widespread use of the Internet. However, Arabs are very ethnically conscious, and the fact that the self-esteem from wearing thobe is very strong must not be ignored. Thobes are worn in in public places. Toyobo intends to meet market needs by continuously strengthening product development such as the differentiation of hand.
Shikibo Export Quantity Grows Fivefold in 10 Years High Appreciation for Konan Finish
Shikibo Ltd. has a history of approximately forty years in exporting to the Middle East. At the start of exports, it was mainly fabrics processed at the Konan Mill (currently Shikibo Konan). About 20 years ago, the mainstay of exports changed from pure cotton and cotton blends to pure polyester fabrics, and it was a time when major polyester items were switched over to products with plus-α value addition.
In 2005, Celgreen, a blend of HWM rayon (modal) that remains a top brand even today, was virtually its only product, and the company also had no major pure spun polyester goods. However, the range of fabrics was increased for exports to Dubai, which was booming at that time, and this has increased the export volume about fivefold during the past 10 years.
Shikibo Konan produces fabrics possessing unique hand with body by continuous dyeing, the so-called ‘semi-hard’ or ‘semi-soft’. The growth of export quantity is the result of establishing a formulation with continuous dyeing which differs from jet dyeing. In fact, pure spun polyester fabrics with Konan Finish, which have no brand, are highly popular for their reasonable price range and original hand. Osamu Hirata, Deputy General Manager of Textile Division, Sales Dept. II at Shikibo, says, “People who are selling our fabrics are asking us to put a brand on these fabrics.”
Because a “Konan Finish” seal is on the fabrics, it is increasingly being recognized as “Konan” in the market. Its share is particularly large in Doha, Qatar, and occupies a position among top brands. The overall sales volume in fiscal 2016 is expected to grow 30% over the previous fiscal year; therefore, the processing space and personnel at Shikibo Konan have been increased.
Deputy General Manager Hirata highlights the strengths of the Japanese as “overwhelming quality power”. Whiteness management that strictly distinguishes the numerous types of white, which look all the same to an ordinary Japanese, and stringent quality control of products such as hand are unmatched by foreign fabrics. Foreign-made fabrics do not go this far, as the manufacturers consider exports to the Middle East as a market for mass-produced items. This is what supports Japanese fabrics. Furthermore, the final stage of finishing has a special inspection system using a quality criterion particularly for the Middle East, in which the fabrics are visually inspected and felt with the same eyes and hands as the Middle East.
Shikibo is endeavoring to retain the original hand that makes the most of the processing operations of the Shikibo Group, as well as maintaining the brand with the establishment of qualitative aspects. Celgreen is currently keeping a price of slightly over US$5.00 per yard in 58-inch width, but there were times when prices were below costs, such as when it was first introduced into the market. Furthermore, the product variety and methods will also be enhanced. New moves have also begun, such as the introduction of “super anier” deodorant finished fabrics from 2014.
In regard to sales, the preference is to rely on limited customers, and Shikibo will also pay attention to maintain stable prices in the local market. This is because customer popularity was lost whenever prices were revised due to the fluctuation of exchange rates. According to Deputy General Manager Hirata, prices were raised in the past when production costs increased, but local prices remained unchanged regardless of the fluctuation of exchange rates.
Celgreen and other high-priced fabrics are woven in Konan with yarns from the Toyama factory, and the majority is gray fabrics produced at Indonesian subsidiary P.T. Mertex Indonesia. Even in the future, fabric sales are to be expanded with importance attached to the division of roles.
Hirata says, “Although the population will continue to grow, there is concern about the alienation from thobe among the young generation. However, demand is unlikely to fall drastically, and particularly changes in the top zone will probably be slight.” Shikibo intends to continue making efforts in product developments in the future as well.
Ichimura Sangyo IMA Gains Top Market Share Thobe Business to Be Expanded
Ichimura Sangyo Co., Ltd. has a history of approximately 35 years committed to business in the Middle East. A chance to expand its thobe fabric exports came around 1990 with a ‘monozukuri’ tie-up with Komatsu Seiren Co., Ltd. It was a time when the tide changed from cotton blends to polyester fabrics due to their easy-to-care and hard-to-wrinkle characteristics, and by taking advantage of the supply amount and quality stability, the company succeeded in gaining the top share among Japanese fabrics mainly in the volume zone with its IMA brand. This has led to a strong development and sales organization that handles an average monthly scale of 1.5 million meters even today.
Manabu Kitazumi, Manager of Spun Polyester Textile Sect., Textile Dept. 1 at Ichimura Sangyo, says, “We have been offering from former small varieties of mass-produced fabrics to more expanded varieties and highly sophisticated items. Our main item is mix-weaves using spun polyester for warp and spun yarn or filaments for weft, and in the last three years, we have tested everything that was considered to be possible, such as pure filaments, cotton blends, blends of rayon, lyocell and even tricots.”
According to Kitazumi, the share of high-priced fabrics has increased from 30% to 40% during the last five years, as its customers have come to understand that it does not handle only volume-zone fabrics. This has also raised the price range of volume goods.
In the background is the attitude to constantly continue developments. At least four business trips to the Middle East are made each year, and after every trip, meetings are held with the staffers of Komatsu Seiren to closely discuss a concept, such as the smoothness or dry feeling of fabrics in response to local trends.
Manager Kitazumi says with emphasis, “Japanese fabrics are different from the yarn. For instance, the way of ‘monozukuri’ cannot be imitated by others, such as sometimes using different yarn counts on yarns that are beautiful with no uneven yarn counts.” The fabrics made in other countries center on an industrial business of mass-production of a few varieties, and price fluctuation is also intense. This is not the same for fabrics made by Japanese manufacturers, and the risk of losing customers is smaller. Gaining customers in the wealthy class and the presence of services that do not disappoint customers are also factors increasing the market share.
Earlier, the majority of sales was to wholesalers, but Ichimura Sangyo has been strengthening sales to tailors and retailers during the last few years. As a result, the share of sales to such customers has increased 10 points. Offering a wider variety that also corresponds to this movement, today 200 items are arranged for one business trip, and orders are received for about 80 of them. Since repeat orders are sometimes made for items offered a few years ago, it is also necessary to always be prepared to meet such needs; therefore, 200 types of gray fabrics are always in stock.
Among Japanese fabric exports, there is no other business than thobe fabrics that can move in large quantities. Ichimura Sangyo offers an extensive range of fabrics from volume- to top-zone items. Although the scale is small, the company has begun to produce thobe itself, as it expects this business to grow in the future. The current thobe market is mostly occupied by Chinese goods, but the company is working on introducing high-quality Japanese products into this market.
Kitazumi says, “At the moment, our thobe production capacity is limited, but there are customer needs. In fashion business, we experienced a rapid switchover to apparel business, and fabric business was suddenly lost. We will proceed with our thobe business but with a sense of crisis.”
Kuraray Trading Exporting Thobe Fabrics in Addition to Abaya Fabrics Color Variations With Thick & Thin Yarn
Kuraray Trading Co., Ltd. is enjoying steadily growing exports to the Middle East, and profitability has also improved. Its exports center around fabrics for women’s abaya (a traditional loose black robe from head to toe), and the company is making a full-fledged entry into men’s thobe fabrics made with polyester filaments intended for the high-class zone.
According to Tomoyuki Uraji, Manager of Yarn & Fiber (Clavella Division) at Kuraray Trading, abaya fabrics center on Claretta micro-crater fabrics made with Clavella SN2000 polyester micro-crater fiber, of which a characteristic is the black coloration that is seen as a pioneer of silky synthetics. An early recovery from the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the subsequent Dubai debt crisis was possible because these specialized fabrics exhibited their remarkable characteristics.
In addition to SN2000, appealing new qualities and hand have been promoted from fiscal 2014 with the introduction of fabrics made with XYE, a new structure drawn yarn of which changes were made to the polymer to provide fullness and a dry feeling. As a result of such efforts, shipments during January-June 2016 are estimated to have increased over the year before.
The Middle East market for fabrics for traditional women’s garments including abaya and chador is estimated to be approximately 10 million yards per month. Of this, Japanese fabrics are said to account for 10% or 1 million yards, and Kuraray Trading is Japan’s largest supplier with a share of 50%.
In product developments, in response to an increasing number of young people in the Gulf region who are seeking fashion in abaya, Kuraray Trading has tied up with the leading dyeing and finishing company, Komatsu Seiren Co., Ltd. to introduce new products, such as newly adding to its line-up a fabric that is black on the front side and inkjet printed on the back side. Its main markets are Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and are spreading to Iran, Iraq, etc.
Kuraray Trading is also entering the men’s thobe fabric market in earnest. Fabrics that obtain fullness with the use of polyester filaments, such as thick & thin yarn, are being introduced into the market. The colors are not only white cream, but also include an appealing wide variety, such as gray and moss green.
Shipments for this year’s Ramadan sales season were completed by March, and the company plans export sales of 250,000-300,000 yards per month in 2016, as compared with 200,000 yards in 2015.
In addition to traditional black items, Kuraray Trading intends to gain a certain share of the men’s thobe market as well.
Mitsubishi Rayon Growth of Fabric Exports on 10% Level Exports to Middle East Center on Abaya Fabrics
Mitsubishi Rayon Co., Ltd. increased sales of fabric exports during fiscal 2015, posting a growth on the 10% level over the previous fiscal year. While exports to the Middle East and Asia remained flat, the recovery of exports to Europe and the U.S. pushed up the overall figure.
As for fiscal 2016, Keiichi Uno, Director of Textile Sales Dept. at Mitsubishi Rayon, positions the fiscal year as “a preparation period for the next expansion”, because of the limited production space in the Japanese mid-stream sector including twisting, weaving, dyeing, etc., and because of concerns about the Middle East market.
Mitsubishi Rayon exports fabrics mainly made with Soalon triacetate filament yarn. The company is the world’s sole producer of triacetate. Since production started in Japan back in 1967, Soalon has gained a high reputation in the industry, and has always been attracting attention as an innovative fiber enhancing the creativity of fashion. Soalon possesses a unique beauty derived from natural pulp and freely transformable material properties created by science.
Acetate fiber is characterized by its silky luster and feeling. It is generally used together with other fibers such as rayon and polyester for use in women’s fabrics. Triacetate is particularly used for high-class women’s wear, taking advantage of its soft hand and rich drape.
Exports to the U.S. formerly occupied the mainstay, and shipments to Europe have been growing during the last few years. Mainly for materials such as comfortable stretch fabrics and Mission (a material made of Soalon and special polyester textured ultra-fine yarn), Mitsubishi Rayon is moving to secure stable customers as well as obtaining new customers. Exports to the U.S. have also recovered since 2014, and the customer base beginning with specialty stores of private label apparel (SPAs) has also expanded.
What has been leading the development of the European and American markets is its continuing participation in the Premiere Vision international apparel material exhibition from the autumn of 2008. The expansion of customers through this exhibition is said to have a synergistic effect in Japan and Asia.
As for materials presented at Premiere Vision held in February 2016, an emphasis was placed on pure Soalon and Soalon-rich fabrics, and in response to casual wear trends, the company proposed a variety of slub yarns in pure Soalon and polyester blends.
According to its plan, sales from exports to the Middle East market in fiscal 2016 are to be about the same as the previous fiscal year. Mitsubishi Rayon has been conducting sales specializing in abaya mainly with fabrics made with Soalon. Twenty to thirty fabric items are always available, such as blends of triacetate 70-75%/polyester 25-30% and polyester/rayon. This season, a trend from plain dyes to fancy materials such as dobby fabrics can be seen.
In the future, efforts will be made for obtaining a stable supply of fabrics made with Soalon, and in addition to Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar and Kuwait, Mitsubishi Rayon will examine an expansion of business with Iran, on which U.S. and EU economic sanctions have been lifted.
Mitsubishi Rayon also has plans to increase the current Soalon production volume by 25% to about 5,000 ton/year. For this production increase, an urgent need is to prepare the sales and production systems. In regard to sales, the company plans to expand exports mainly to Europe and the U.S. The effects of continuing participation in Premiere Vision and the activities of a coordinator in France have contributed to exports to Europe. The rate of exports has already reached 65%, and in its new medium-term plan, the company will assume an offensive in overseas markets centering on Europe.
Meanwhile, an expansion of the processing space including twisting, false-twisting, weaving, knitting and dyeing will be a challenge. With cooperation from companies in textile production districts, Mitsubishi Rayon will endeavor to enhance the midstream stage.
Chori New Market to Be Developed Garment Business in View
The fiscal 2015 business performance of Textile Material Operations of Chori Co., Ltd. (April 2015 to March 2016) was an increase in sales and profits of about 10%. Fabrics for Arab thobe led business, and Japan-processed items and overseas production operations including apparel manufacturing remained strong. Exports of Japanese-made high-density synthetic fabrics and offshore trade in car-seat fabrics were also favorable.
Even for the current fiscal year, it aims to increase sales by 10% or greater by strengthening exports, on which an emphasis has been placed during the last few years. Sales are to be expanded for fabrics for thobe, outdoor wear and car seats with thorough exit strategy.
The Textile-Garment Dept., which is in charge of exports to the Middle East, achieved increased sales and profits in fiscal 2015. Exports and sales to third countries originating from overseas subsidiaries were factors leading sales. According to Takeshi Kitaoka, Department Manager, the business environment is uncertain even for main overseas businesses in fiscal 2016, so it will focus on offering high-value-added products originally intended for the Japanese market and a combination of production practices. Even for domestic business, efforts will be made to strengthen moves for establishing a sound and steady business.
The fiscal 2015 business performance indicated strong overseas sales partly because of the weak Japanese currency. Thobe fabrics to the Middle East moved firmly. Although the local political situation is unstable, items that have been processed in Japan are in tight supply. Operations having a higher degree of processing, such as the deliveries of apparel handled by overseas subsidiaries, have also contributed to profits.
Exports to the U.S. and China centering on mediumweight materials for high-class women’s wear are heading slightly upward, as trends in the U.S. change from casual to feminine. Among exports to China, the situation remarkably differs for each customer as local fashion companies are growing, but also as overall sales are increasing.
As for exports to the Middle East, in addition to supplying Japanese-processed products, new markets and customers are to be acquired by taking advantage of various commodities and processing operations, such as supplying products made overseas in operations with the Toray Group and sewn goods. In association with these moves, the personnel at Middle East subsidiaries were increased to two this April, each stationed in Dubai and Jeddah.
Sales of fabrics for traditional garments to the Middle East are 95% thobe and 5% black items including abaya. Saudi Arabia and Dubai each account for 40% of thobe fabric exports, and the remaining 20% share consists of exports to Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Thobe fabrics are produced in Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and China.
According to Takayuki Kunugihara, Section Manager of Textile-Garment Dept. at Chori, thobe fabric exports in 2015 recovered from the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and Dubai crisis, and headed upward as a whole partly because of population growth, but it appears that the brakes have been applied slightly in 2016. The decrease in foreign currency earnings caused by political unrest and declines in oil prices have cast a shadow over business. However, market conditions remain bullish as contracts were completed in May for the scheduled shipment volume of Japanese-made products up to the end of this year, and even for other foreign products, contracts are completed for shipments two to three months ahead.
As far as future exports to the Middle East are concerned, Chori will attach importance to: (1) steady sales of manufacturer brand goods, (2) a stable supply of in-house operation goods, and (3) the development of new markets such as Iran and Iraq. The company plans to expand exports of cloaks in any colors and chador to Iran, as well as thobe fabrics in white cream and any other colors to Iraq.
Furthermore, business in traditional garments will be expanded. Production bases in Indonesia and Vietnam will be upgraded to thobes ranging from children to adults. It is assumed that personal income will decrease with the economic downturn, causing consumers to go more for ready-to-wear items that cost less than tailored articles. The limited number of tailors is also a factor causing crowded tailoring space before Ramadan.
Teijin Frontier Vigorous Exports Centering on Saudi Arabia In-House Operation Goods Also Expand
At Teijin Frontier Co., Ltd., Sales Department II of Fiber Materials & Apparel Division is in charge of fabric exports to the Middle East. According to General Manager Taiki Sugimoto, fashion textiles mainly for Europe and the U.S. account for 50% of its export sales, and the other fifty percent is occupied by fabrics bound for the Middle East for application in traditional garments such as thobe and abaya.
Compared to 2010, exports to the Middle East were nearly 20% larger in 2015. In 2015, exports to the U.A.E. encountered difficulties, but those to Saudi Arabia including Riyadh and Jeddah were vigorous, and compensated for difficult exports to the U.A.E.
Among Middle East markets, Saudi Arabia is the largest accounting for 60% of its exports to the Middle East. Next is the U.A.E. with a share of nearly 30%, followed by exports to Oman. By product, thobe fabrics occupy 80% with the remaining 20% being fabrics for black items such as abaya. Thobe fabrics are 90% the brands of manufacturers, and the company also sells in-house operation items, which hold a share of about 10%.
In-house operation goods are sold with the Zen brand. Zen means “good” in Arabic. The gray fabrics are mainly polyester filament fabrics made in the Hokuriku fabric production district, and spun polyester fabrics are from Indonesia or China. Dyeing and finishing are principally carried out in Japan. Each product is available in ten different items. A selling point is the characteristic that the use of thick and thin yarn produces a brushed appearance on the surface, which also adds grade and even beauty to the fabric.
As for future sales to the Middle East market, Teijin Frontier will focus on: (1) expansion of the export volume, (2) a stable supply of manufacturer brand products, and (3) collaboration with manufacturers in Thailand and Indonesia.
The company will take advantage of the gray fabric production capacity of Thai Namsiri Intertex Co., Ltd., a group company in Thailand. It will be an operation in which the gray fabrics produced by Thai Namsiri would be brought to Japan, dyed and finished in the Hokuriku production district and then re-exported. Indonesia is to be developed into a production base for Middle East business by strengthening the relationship with Indonesian weaving mills and dyeing and finishing factories it has been conducting business with, as well as upgrading their technology.