Zurich — Tobias Forster, textile executive from the out-of-the-way Swiss cathedral town of St. Gallen, loses no sleep over competition from Japan or cheap-labor countries.
While most of Western Europe has been groaning about such job-destroying foreign competition, Mr. Forster's medium-size company has boomed.
''We stay ahead by producing what the Asian countries cannot,'' says the descendant of a long line of embroiderymakers. Forster was off for the afternoon to Paris for a meeting with top couturier Claude Montana. Nothing unusual about that, he could as well be flying off to meet Ungaro, Karl Lagerfeld, or Kenzo. Be it pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) or haute couture, there is hardly a top fashion house that does not work at some time or another with the firm of Forster Willi. For the coming summer, its fabrics swish along in the collections of Chanel, Jean Patou, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Lanvin.
The 300-employee company (yearly sales: $27 million) Tobias Forster runs with his two older brothers Peter and Ueli is typical of a group of aristocratic fabric manufacturers who have managed to stay on top, while much of the textile industry around them sinks, by concentrating on the top end of the hard-fought fabric market.
If costs were the only consideration, Switzerland should have moved out of the textile business years ago. Wages here are among the highest in the world. There is no protection of local industry - the country's population of 6.3 million is too small a market to bother protecting. Ninety-six percent of the country's embroidered material is exported.
Indeed, Switzerland has suffered a painful concentration in its textile industry during the last 15 years with a loss of 33,000 jobs and 350 businesses (35,000 workers are employed by 490 firms today), as companies on the cheaper, less innovative side went under. However, cries for government help fell on deaf ears as the pragmatic Swiss went for a ''healthy'' contraction rather than what they saw as throwing good money after bad. They bet on the survivors.
Prominent among the surviving firms are the often family-owned, embroidered-fabric companies that have centered around the rural St. Gall area since the 18th century. Profit figures are not something these conservative private companies talk about. Embroidery-export earnings, however, speak for themselves: Sales have risen by an average of 22 percent in each of the past three years, to around $166 million today. With 3,500 full-time employees, and 2 ,000 women, mainly housewives, working at home, the Swiss are the second-largest embroidery exporters in the world, after Austria.
Sales growth has tapered off this year. There is more competition from Austria, which had concentrated on the Nigerian market, where embroidered clothing from head to ankle is a status symbol. This market collapsed when oil prices did. The Middle East, where sales were growing at an annual 30 to 40 percent clip, has slowed.
''This calming down is no worry,'' says Hans C. Kurschner, head of the embroidery firm of Jacob Rohner. ''The way orders were spiraling, we had difficulty keeping up with the deliveries.'' Kurschner's 100-year-old firm in Rebsteingenerates sales worth $30 million yearly.
Still experiencing an astonishing increase in sales are ultra-fine embroideries for luxury lingerie. Says Edith Stucki, whose firm Rau & Co. exports to the United States from the picturesque country village of Teufen: ''Everyone wants pure silk, colors like yellow, and hand embroidery with images of people, ships, flowers. This is the sort of fabric which is not made in the USA. It is very complicated work, and we deliver in small quantities.''
This kind of quality work is one of the Swiss embroiderers' trump cards. Tobias Forster revels in the demanding job of supplying the world's couturiers with exactly what they want. Often they come to him with an idea, and from it Forster creates the fabric designs: ''We make beautiful things together,'' he explains.
There is not much money to be made from the haute-couture market, but the French and Italian fashion showings lend the Swiss fabric industry prestige and influence - another trump. Says Ueli Forster: ''Through our teamwork with couturiers, we influence embroidery fashion throughout the world.''
At Forster Willi, a computer transposes the 3,000 designs produced a year into technical drawings that are fed automatically into the embroidery machines.
The rumor around St. Gall is that the result was so perfect that customers complained, and Forster Willi had to feed a few mistakes into the computer to keep them happy.
''Rot,'' says Tobias Forster. ''Nothing can be too perfect.''
One shadow hangs over the Swiss embroidery industry, however. ''Growing protectionism has us really worried,'' says Tibor Pataky, Swiss Embroidery Exporters Association managing director. ''That is the only factor which could stop us from keeping embroidery exports at their present very high level.''