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Luxury banks on quality

Though the effects of a troubled economy ripple throughout the entire home textiles industry, the luxury arena contains customers who always have money to spend and are thus insulated to a point, most high-end suppliers said.

At last week's Gift Show here in New York, most luxury companies said that buyers are still cautious and ordering less but that overall business has been good.

Luxury companies also don't feel the heat overseas, as more manufacturers from low- to high-end go abroad to source. The high-end market still holds a niche that others can't reach, suppliers said. Even though knockoffs — while frustrating — sometimes flatter these companies, they say that these copies don't deliver the service and quality that luxury companies do.

"We're innovators," said Michael Pappas, vp, sales and marketing, Sferra Bros., Cliffwood, NJ. "If you do something well, people will knock you off."

"We don't make the type of product that is made in China and sells for $15," said Enzo Valfré, owner, Verduno, New York, a manufacturer of bedding, decorative pillows and lighting. "We have products that sell for $190 to $300, and that type of clientele is always available."

"Our throws start at $480 wholesale," said Noreen Greene, owner, Greenhorn Trading Co., Hartford, CT. "So there's not a lot of competition at that level. We use the best cashmere in the world." She added that everyone suffers in a recession, but said her products are at a very different quality level. "Our products are expensive, but they also feel the most expensive."

"People pushing pennies are not our typical customer," said Bill Ker, director, sales, Dransfield & Ross, New York. "The level of workmanship is so high and most things are so specialized; and we stay ahead of curve."

New York-based needlepoint rug and decorative pillow manufacturer Katha Diddel has been importing from China for 22 years now, and Katha Diddel-Warren, president/creative director, is amazed by how many people are now going over[seas] for everything. "It has really opened up."

The difference between her goods and others, however, is the quality. "We use the best needlepoint sources, the most experienced stitchers," she said. "We put a lot into making unique products while others bring in standard China goods."

"I still think the world is big enough for everyone if you stick to a point of view," said Chip Scala, president, Scala Intl., New York. "If I know a huge retailer or manufacturer is going into China, it won't scare me into not going there myself."

That said, everything affects what the company does, he said; but "we stick to what we do" — offering a different viewpoint, say cashmere/cotton sheets vs. poly/cotton.

A high-end product also requires more than just the product itself, these companies said. At high-end bath and accent supplier Habidecor, based in Windsor, NJ, Katie Johnson-Hill, vp of U.S. operations, said, "It's the whole package — our customer service, our great rep organization, our three-year guarantee — besides the quality. And we have custom capabilities and more tools to work with now."

And style. "You're getting design — a very important component," said John Rose, president, Textillery Weavers, Bloomington, IN.

"There are always people with money who want to buy," said his wife Judy, designer. "I find that at the lower end, you work just as hard. And you may sell things for 50 percent less but you are not necessarily selling 100 percent more units."

Pierre Frey releases new product every six months, which makes it harder to knock off, said Roseline Crowley, sales rep and president, Roseline Crowley. Pierre Frey has seen some effects of the troubled economy, she added, in the way retailers stock less inventory or closing altogether.

The trick to the knockoff issue is staying ahead of the game. Jane Krolik, owner, Chateau X, New York, said staying creative is the key. By the time her designs are knocked off, "I've already moved on to new ones."

Her products, which are made almost exclusively in factories, "are very expensive, so most people don't want to touch it — they want a no-brainer."

Ann Gish, founder, Ann Gish, combats it by, when possible, patenting her products, such as her Sea Flower decorative pillow. But "you can't protect everything — not a color, not a fabric," she said.

It does hurt the business now that department stores go directly to the overseas mills, Dever Larmor, president, Ulster Linen Co., Islip, NY, said, so the company no longer goes after that business, choosing instead the more high-end retailers.

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