They fan out in Florence, weave through the streets of Osaka and tread down the sidewalks of Shanghai, sharp-eyed women who can spot a fashion trend quicker than a farmer can turn a cotton picker.
These young women are Cotton Incorporated's fashion marketing team, a “snip squad,” armed with scissors and savvy, looking to extract a different twist on a cotton fabric or a new color or shape, to bring back to New York City.
Their talent is part art, part science and a part of Cotton Incorporated that cotton producers don't think about too often. Nonetheless, their fashion sense is where the fight for market share between man-made fibers and cotton will be won or lost.
“Their job is to forecast trends in fashion apparel and home fashions,” said Robin Merlo, director of marketing communications for Cotton Incorporated's marketing office in New York City. “They travel the world looking at what people are wearing on the street. They go into stores to see what's selling. They talk to manufacturers, sourcing people. You name it, they've been there.”
For example, Tokyo, where “the youth are very trendy and very fashion-bold, is a good place for research,” Merlo said. “Australia has a lot of influence on fashion. Because of the warm weather, they wear a lot of cotton.”
To pay women to shop for clothes seems on par with paying men to watch a season of college football. But no matter how you spin it, this is work. The ladies lug luggage through airports and hop from one country to another. For every three weeks home, there's a week away. For every spring day in Amsterdam, there's a winter weekend in Iceland.
“They're traveling. They're by themselves. It's not as glamorous as one thinks,” Merlo said. “They bring along a second suitcase to buy things along the way.”
When the ladies return to New York, the group, which numbers 10, collectively discusses what they've seen and heard. “Then they go back out around the world, to visit stores, mills and fashion shows all over the world, to share information and offer their opinions. We have a booth at Premiere Fashion, a fashion show held twice a year in Paris, where we present trends.”
According to Paula Resario, vice president in charge of fashion and retail marketing, the trends the women find in sprawling faraway cities and remote countrysides are used “to tell the world what cotton colors and styles will be hot in two to three years.”
The women often come from within the fashion industry, and have one thing in common, according to Merlo — talent. “They operate on their instincts, but they're on the Internet, reading Women's Wear Daily, going to fashion shows. They are making their forecasts long before a designer is involved. The apparel forecasts are 18 months prior or longer.”
Cotton Incorporated's consumer marketing office is located on fashion-trendy Madison Ave., on New York's Manhattan Island. There are 28 people working in four departments, specializing in retail, fashion, communications and advertising.
Many cotton producers are aware of Cotton Incorporated's advertising activities in New York, since its biggest budget item is money spent on television advertising such as the recently retired “Fabric of our Lives” campaign.
The marketing communications department inspires and creates news stories promoting the use of cotton. Retail marketing goes to the point of sale, “the last three feet” of marketing. According to Cotton Incorporated, “this critical point of contact is fertile ground for building effective retail experiences that increase consumption of cotton and enhance the visibility of The Seal of Cotton.”
Retail also “pursues major clients to make presentations with the decision-makers in management at firms that are big cotton users, like Levi, Banana Republic, Federated Department Stores and J.C. Penney,” said Ric Hendee, vice president of marketing services.
The fashion department is both a predictor and promoter of trends, finding the very latest uses of shapes, colors and styles, then taking them to a larger audience.
“The presentations, the dialogue with designers, keep cotton in the forefront of people's minds. I don't know of a company, a textile company or a trade organization, that provides these kinds of services,” said Merlo.
Indeed, every effort in the New York office is designed to give cotton a voice, Hendee says. “That's why Cotton Incorporated was started. If it was just a commodity sold by the grower or ginner, and there wasn't anybody there to give it a voice, then we would have no control over how it was going to be used.
“Obviously, the synthetic companies were giving their branded fibers a voice as part of the service of paying for them. So the design of Cotton Incorporated was to fight for cotton. We're not trying to just find a homerun. We're trying to disseminate cotton everywhere, spread it in the wind.”
The marketing office also tracks consumer attitudes and behavior through its lifestyle monitor, an annual survey which asks 125 questions by phone of over 4,000 consumers a year. “This tracking of behavior is very important to our effort,” Hendee said. “We publish articles every week in Women's Wear Daily.
“The articles appear on our Web site, www.cottoninc.com under the lifestyle monitor. We have articles on the menswear, children's and home furnishings markets and target publications for these segments.
“There are also other research methodologies that we pay for to help us track what the consumer thinks to determine awareness of our advertising, what the trade knows about Cotton Incorporated and what the trade thinks about us, both in the United States and overseas.”
Cotton Incorporated's New York and international offices also maintain a Cotton Works library containing swatches of fabric “which receives daily calls from retailers, designers and manufacturers requesting access. All of the information in the library, plus much more on cotton fabric availability worldwide is also online.”
Predicting trends is what the cotton industry has to do to maintain its edge over polyester, according to Ira Livingston, Cotton Incorporated's senior vice president, consumer marketing. “Cotton is engaged in a never-ending battle to maintain its No. 1 position against some extremely determined competitors. This competition has gotten better, not at promoting their product, but at imitating cotton's attributes.”