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Decorative fabrics remain a cut above

The retail decorative fabrics business is on the upswing, led by an abundance of quality fabrics at sharp price points from China, elegant prints and a color palette that moves away from the long-dominant neutrals.

Sheers continue to gain market strength, especially with the technological innovations that have taken place over the last few years as well as from new styling. Velvets and cut velvets, both domestic and import, are moving up in the ranks of popularity. To maintain their exclusivity, a number of fabric retailers are increasing their direct imports from Europe and India, the latter for silks.

Chenilles, a number reported, are falling off from their dominance of recent seasons.

Another growing challenge for fabric retailers is acting as the showroom for consumers who shop their in-stock fabrics and jobber sample books, get decorating advice and then go online to order from a growing number of websites.

Calling business "better than last year," Bob Weiser, owner of Designer Discount Fabrics, Dania, FL, added, "What's selling best are goods from China. Prints are okay, and velvets are coming back." Another very strong item for Weiser is the exclusive Microsansuede from Spain. "And we see silks getting stronger every day, especially for draperies and bedspreads."

Overall, Weiser said, upholstery fabrics are very strong. In colors, while naturals still are selling, "reds and blacks in combination and red and gold as well as taupe and blue are important."

Weiser also sees an uptick in business on his websites, which are generating more and more sales from the item requests.

Jason Asch, owner of Los Angeles-based Diamond Foam and Fabric, said, "Business is okay, a bit slower; but we see people staying at home and doing their homes."

For Diamond Foam, emerging trends include blue and white block prints, two-tone polyester sheers, hand-done crewels, cut velvets and vintage tropicals, "which are really great."

Asch also sees yarn-dyed stripes and paisleys as being "classic and warm-feeling" for now. Prints in general "are nothing great across the board. But we're waiting for the comeback of chintz prints."

As for sourcing, Asch looks to offshore suppliers, especially in Europe, calling American fabric people "accountants. They don't step out to take a chance."

"We're selling more $100-plus-a-yard fabrics — our mid- to lower-priced clients are not walking in my door," said Richard Harary, owner of Richards, based in New York. Jobbers, an important fabric source, "are raising their quality and style, and we're upgrading to more D&D Building and private label suppliers."

A growing challenge, Harary said, "is to control the customers who come in, look through our sample books, get our decorating advice and then go on the Internet to buy." One solution, he related, "is to have the jobbers remove their names from the books, which we are doing now."

Leading the sales winners for Harary are direct imports from Europe and silks from India as well as linen velvets, "which are very strong, and classic elegant prints from Brunschwig et Fils and Lee Jofa."

Colors, he added, are moving to jewel tones and reds and navys.

At Fort Myers, FL-based Boca Bargoons, "Business never dropped off for us," said Ed Wolstein, owner of the 15-store chain. "When things get tight, discount fabrics become more important," he noted.

The company, which has stores in Florida and Georgia, will open a 10,000-square-foot store in the San Francisco area in about four months, in Fremont, CA. "It will be interesting to see what customers there will want."

Currently, Wolstein sees chenilles "falling off and cotton prints picking up. Sheers in colors are trendy, and silks are pretty good."

Noting that "things are not the easiest," Lucy Spector, owner of Britex in San Francisco, said, "We had our yearly sale, and there was an outpouring of response. It was clear that people wanted to buy — but at a better price." But, she also, emphasized "customers are not shying away from higher-priced fabrics."

Spector sees linens and lighter fabrics as emerging favorites, and, in colors, "rust, red and gold are the rage now."

At Lewis & Sheron in Atlanta, Bobbi Sheron, co-owner, remarked, "People seem to be more enthusiastic. And Atlanta has so much home building, purchasing is up over last year."

Sheron added, "We're optimistic, but not buying like there's no tomorrow." As for product directions, Sheron said, "Prints are coming back strong, sheers are growing because of innovations and colors are clearer and brighter. There's a little shine, dressier feelings. But we still sell a lot of washed goods."

Lewis & Sheron has upgraded its store, adding some 15,000 to 20,000 square feet to bring it to 60,000 square feet. "We have a new silk department, a new trim department and have brought together our big remnant business into a half-price store-within-the-store," Sheron explained.

At Forsyth Fabrics, Atlanta, "Chinese goods are offering great quality, and the chenille hand is terrific at $8 vs. domestic goods at $15. And other price points are terrific. The Chinese have made a big change in the overall fabric market," said Robin Chandler, vp.

Business, Chandler said, "is picking up, and March is our busiest month. We're being more careful with what we buy. Recent conditions forced us to take the time to be more thoughtful."

As for fabric favorites, Chandler said, "We're probably the biggest seller of toiles in the area, and silks are still important. And we've always had a good print business."

As for colors, greens are emerging, especially green with a hint of blue. "And we can't keep black ground prints in stock. We've designed a trim to go with them and can't keep that in stock either," Chandler added.

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