Tina Barnett Howell decided to fight back after the home fashion store she owned went out of business after Sept. 11, 2001. So she came up with an idea no one had thought of before.

She will find out how well it works May 16-18 when she'll display hundreds of high-end cotton fabrics at the Garden Plaza Hotel on the Hwy. 45 bypass in Jackson, Tenn.

Howell is the former owner of Designer Fabrics, Etc., a retail bolt company in Jackson, which sold mostly 100 percent-cotton fabric from U.S. textile mills. Business prior to Sept. 11, “was fabulous,” she said.

Then 19 terrorists took the lives of 3,000 Americans and helped send the country into an economic slide.

“It caused a lot of people to quit spending money,” Howell said. “Interior fashions are not a necessity. They're a luxury. When it comes down to brass tacks and you have to pinch pennies, the ‘want’ items get put back.”

With consumers spending less money, Howell's overhead and inventory costs squeezed her business. She, along with eight other design firms in Jackson, soon went under.

Howell had persevered through two other business closures in her 25-year design career. She didn't let this one get her down either.

Howell and her sister came up with the idea for a trunk sale — displaying a large assortment of the latest cotton fabrics for customers in a weekend sale. “The response I was getting from my consumers was regret that I had to close up shop and concern over where they could shop for fabrics in the future,” Howell said. “My customers were just devastated, which shocked me.”

A trunk sale could give Howell's loyal customers what they wanted — the latest, high-end fabrics at a lower cost while eliminating Howell's fixed inventory and overhead costs.

In addition, “I don't have the limitation of inventory. If I were to display a fabric in my store, I wouldn't stock all four color rays. Customers have to rely on what I think would look good. Some people may have a totally different concept of what they want in their houses.”

Traditionally, textile mills sell their fabric designs to jobbers, which can be book companies or retail bolt companies like the one that Howell owned.

Book companies produce books containing swatches of various designs offered by textile mills which are sent to design studios. These studios don't like to carry fabrics in stock.

Of course, by the time a design reaches the general public, there are as many as three markups in price from the mill, the designer and the shop making the fabric, noted Howell.

Retail bolt companies are stores which purchase large bolts of fabric. The fabric comes straight from the mill and is sold at a discount “because there's not a middle man (as there is in the case of the book companies),” she said. The general public is the biggest customer of the retail bolt companies.

“It's a very popular way of doing business with the mills.” At least it was until Sept. 11.

According to Mark Messura, vice president, strategic planning with Cotton Incorporated, the rate of growth in consumer spending on home textiles declined by half from 2001 to 2002. Today, the market is no longer expanding and, in fact, is shrinking.

Some of the decline is due to Sept. 11, but most of it is due to the general economic situation, according to Messura. “We think consumers are being very cautious about the economy, even though we have very low interest rates, which is usually a very positive driver for the home fabrics market.”

In addition, a larger percentage of the home fabrics market is being filled by imports, according to Messura. “Typically home fabrics have been a strong market for U.S. production. But U.S. production of woven upholstery fabrics dropped from 634 million square yards in 2000 to 498 million square yards by the end of 2002. That's a 21 percent drop.”

You don't have to look far to see where the drop is coming from. Over the last 12 years, “the volume of imports of upholstery products had grown by more than 5000 percent, while the imports of curtains and drapery went up by almost 3000 percent. That's huge.”

The imports are flooding in from countries like China, Mexico, India and Pakistan, which are mostly lower-value products, Messura added.

Howell's trunk sale alone won't turn these trends around, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. She will display hundreds of U.S.-made, 100 percent-cotton textile fabrics at prices hard to pass up.

“I'm a designer by trade. I understand the quality of goods and the quality of looks, and I understand why people pay for higher-priced goods,” Howell said. “But why should I pay $50 a yard, when I can get it for $25 a yard everyday as a consumer. What I'm trying to do is give the general public the access to designer fabrics without having to pay for designer fees.”

In addition, “It takes almost eight months to a year for this fabric to get booked and to the design studios. So it's not going to be until next spring before designers have this fabric.”

On the other hand, to Howell's knowledge, a trunk show for home fashion has never been tried before. “But women's ears perk up at the mention of the trunk show,” said Howell, who has named her event the Home Fabric Source Trunk Show.

Customers will shop through a wide array of patterns, along with four to five color rays of each. “When they choose a fabric, I special order it. Customers then contract with a work room or a re-upholsterer.”

There will also be work room representatives at the show, with whom customers can contract to produce a finished product from the fabrics they choose. The workroom representative can also help customers in deciding how much fabric they'll need for a particular job.

Home consulting is available to customers who don't feel comfortable choosing a fabric for their home, noted Howell. “I'll go to a home to figure out what color scheme works.”

The show is open to the public on Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

There will also be close-out material not sold during the Designer Fabrics, Etc., liquidation sale.

Howell has also set up a Website for on-line shopping called www.homefabricsource.com. Samples of fabric will go on the Website after the trunk show, according to Howell.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.