Nouveau tech takes wrinkles out of French garment production

The historic Marais district of Paris is being renovated. Under the watchful eyes of the preservation authorities, the old town houses along the narrow streets are being modernized into fashionable new digs. But the trendily affluent are not the only inhabitants of the Marais. The district is a major wholesaling center for the French clothing industry. And like its neighborhood here, the industry is undergoing considerable renovation. Indeed, says one industry official, ``Before, it wasn't an industry. It was a craft.''

But computers have come to the rag trade. They help with the ``grading'' of patterns, the process by which the basic pattern for a garment is adapted to a full range of sizes. Computers help technicians plan the placement of ``markers'' on the bolts of fabric, so that the fabric is cut in the most efficient way.

Having designs stored in computers means that it's easier to adapt styles -- even in midseason. It will even be easier to bring back the lapels or hemlines of times past, with a few punches on the keyboard. Still other developments are bringing down prices on custom suits.

All this points not only to improved capacity to satisfy the preferences of individual customers, but also to better cost containment that will at least help to slow the erosion of manufacturing jobs away from France.

``We had two choices,'' says Roger Saboureau, head of the Paris office of Vestra, a men's clothing manufacturer that was founded at the end of the last century but which is looking ahead toward the next. ``We could produce in low-wage countries. Or we could invest in our own country and improve productivity here. We decided to take the second choice.''

Vestra is particularly pleased with its new made-to-measure-by-computer system.

``In the beginning was the tailor,'' said Mr. Saboureau in an interview in his office in the Marais. The tailor who makes a garment from start to finish is an all but vanished breed, but on the other hand, ready-to-wear suits ``have never been entirely satisfactory for some consumers,'' Saboureau said, ``either because they are among the 10 to 15 percent of the population who, because of the way they're built, have trouble finding a suit that fits, or who are unhappy with the lack of choices in th e store.''

There have always been special-order suits. But they have been expensive -- typically 50 percent above the cost of an off-the-rack suit -- and they take a long time.

They are a specialized business, requiring specialized staff. Orders tend to come in bunches -- 10 today, 5 tomorrow, 30 the day after. Fabrics may be out of stock.

But some of these lumps are being smoothed out. Some 300 clothing stores in France have little ``minitel'' terminals connected with the computer at Vestra's factory near Strasbourg. In these stores, the sales clerk takes the customer's measurements and records his preferences for design and fabric -- making sure the desired fabric is in stock.

The speed with which the orders are conveyed buys the company time to balance out its production flow somewhat. Computer-aided design machines help lay out the pattern on the fabric (typical preparation time: 11/2 minutes) and lasers cut the suit -- in about five minutes. The suit is ready in about a week.

Mr. Saboureau quite confidently predicts the day when a custom suit will be available for the same price as a suit bought off the rack. ``We can produce a ready-to-wear suit for 1,000F [about $120],'' he says. ``The retailer, who has to cover his costs -- rent, staff, inventory costs -- then marks it up to about 2,400F.

``When the costs of our capital equipment are amortized, we expect to be able to produce a made-to-measure suit for about 1,200F. But the retailer's costs will be lower, because he won't have to have such a big store, he won't have to pay the salaries of so many salesmen, and so on. So the markup will be smaller. The price tag for a made-to-measure suit in the fabric of the customer's choice, with all the details he wants, will be the same as that of the off-the-rack suit.''

So far, some 50,000 orders have been taken over the minitels, Saboureau says. The system made its US debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in Atlanta earlier this month. Eighteen orders were placed to Strasbourg the first day.

Lectra Syst`emes, an 11-year-old company based in Bordeaux, is one of the companies whose machines Vestra relies on. Lectra machines can help a skilled operator organize the marker on a 20-yard-long table of fabric in just 10 minutes, says Yves Gel'e, adjunct director general of Lectra. The machines are expensive, but by paring production costs some 2 to 21/2 percent, they can pay for themselves in just a couple of years. And if French clothing manufacturers ``want to survive, there's no other way,'' s ays a Lectra official. CHART: Today (Off the rack) Tomorrow? (Custom made) 1,000F Wholesale price 1,200F

2,400F Retail price 2,400F

Production costs at the factory will still be higher, but overhead in the store will be lower. So for the price of an off-the-rack suit, the customer will be able to have a custom-made suit in the fabric and style of his choice.

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