PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — For a glimpse of their future competition, Los Angeles garment makers shouldn't look just at the booming factories of southern China.
Here on this tiny tropical island in the Indian Ocean, factory owners are spending millions of dollars to hire designers, upgrade machinery and build new spinning and fabric mills.
Their goal: to move out of the mass-production T-shirts and sweat pants that are China's strength and into the more expensive, quick-turnaround market that is Los Angeles County's bread and butter.
Mauritians reckon that they will be able to produce trendy shirts and slacks so efficiently that they could be airfreighted to customers in Los Angeles or New York and still cost less than anything stamped "Made in the USA."
J.C. Penney Co., for one, is a believer.
"If they can move and turn very quickly, and have good airfreight logistics to whatever point in the U.S., they can find their reason for being," said Peter McGrath, president of Penney's purchasing arm. "If we can get the price cheap enough, we can airfreight."
Mauritius, with a population of about 1.2 million, developed its textile and clothing industry during the era of import quotas that helped small players compete for orders from buyers in North America and Europe.
The quotas began to be phased out in 1994; the last of them expired Jan. 1. And in the last two years, Mauritius has lost nearly 20,000 apparel jobs as work moved from less competitive countries like itself to huge and highly efficient rivals such as China and India.
But people in the clothing business here believe that the industry on the island can endure if it transforms itself, specializing in fast work or particular fashion trends. And Mauritius' success could come at the expense of factories in Los Angeles County whose profitable domain is express production.
The sample books at Socota Textile Mills Ltd. tell part of Mauritius' story. Just a few years ago, sales manager Razia Sayed-Fakim would have been hauling around books filled with page after page of plain fabrics, one page showing different shades of blue, another browns and beiges.
Today, Sayed-Fakim's sample sheets are ablaze with colors, textures and patterns. Customers see fabrics in collections, which may include a dozen or more different patterns or color combinations.
"We want to bring everything to the customer," she said. "We want to be everywhere, and we want to be able to do everything for them."
Those customers -- including Marks & Spencer Group, Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Carrefour, Gap Inc. and Liz Claiborne Inc. -- demand more than ample color options. They want ever-speedier delivery so they can turn over their goods more often. So Socota Textile is aiming to become just as fast as producers in Los Angeles.
The mill recently cut its delivery time to the United States in half -- from three months to five or six weeks -- and plans to shave an additional week in the coming year by making use of more efficient machinery and advanced weaving techniques.
"If the product is right, a buyer can afford to pay 15 or 20 cents more a garment to have it airfreighted," said Olivier Stekelorom, Socota's general manager.
At Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile, known here as CMT, owner Francois Woo has invested $50 million in the last five years in a new factory and spinning mill that employs 6,000 and is on track to produce 70 million garments a year.
CMT headquarters is a building with a soaring ceiling and open design. Upstairs, there is a huge fabric library, a design center and a showroom that looks like a high-fashion boutique, the walls lined with racks of colorful T-shirts. The racks are a sea of mauve and blue, popular colors for the coming spring. CMT's U.S. customers include Eddie Bauer Inc., Gap and Foot Locker Inc.
On the factory floor, employees, who make about $100 a month, sit in ergonomically designed chairs plucking garments from automated assembly lines, which move the product from a motorized track suspended from the ceiling. Although the automated workstations are costly -- $6,000 to $7,500 apiece -- they can increase productivity by 30%, according to the company's managing director.
Speed is of the essence. Turnaround time on huge commodity orders has gone from six months to three; for fast fashion, it is two to four weeks. By spinning his own yarn for fabric rather than importing it from China or India, Woo has cut five to six weeks off his production time.
Now the Mauritian factory owner is looking for other locales to set up shop so that he can offer buyers more than one low-cost production platform and can better compete with China.
Globalization "is a real fight," Woo said. "We have to fight back."
And if you can't fight them, join them. CMT is building a new factory that will open in 2006 -- near Shanghai.