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Bill Ghitis

Fibre and fabric manufacturer Invista says its new Xfit Lycra will revolutionise the way people wear clothes. President of global apparel Bill Ghitis discusses how working in partnership with labels and designers has given it a leading edge in technological fabrics

Picture the scene just two weeks ago. At the same time as Invista is pulling international punters to its stand at no-nonsense fabric show Texworld in Paris, the company behind Lycra is making a presentation to journalists and buyers at the most glamorous of fashion catwalk events, Milan Fashion Week.

nvista president of global apparel Bill Ghitis makes this contradiction seem like perfect sense. “We are a true consumer brand, but also the best industry trade brand, so we can help leverage our knowledge to the benefit of all,” hesays. “The strength of Invista is that we understand the value and benefits of every step in the value chain - and we adapt our offer to satisfy consumer need.”

In any discussion with Ghitis there is always some management jargon to wade through, but underneath it all he is thoroughly textile trade. Although qualified as an engineer, he is part of a textile industry family. He has worked in the fibre and fabric sector since he joined DuPont in the early 1970s, before moving with Invista to US chemicals company Koch Industries when it was bought from DuPont three years ago.

The Milan Fashion Week event - where Ghitis is perfectly at home having been born in the city - was organised to put Invista’s latest innovation, Xfit Lycra, well and truly on the fashion map. The 360 degs stretch technology had already been presented to a similarly chichi audience at New York Fashion Week, having been launched through a limited number of designers and brand collections for autumn 07. The early adopters include Lee Cooper, Pal Zileri Lab, Serfontaine, Zac Posen, Love Therapy by Elio Fiorucci, designer Tim Van Steenbergen and Marithe & Franaois Girbaud.

“Innovation is the key at Invista,” says Ghitis. “We are among the most well-known clothing brands internationally and are at the forefront of technology. Science is in the DNA of the business. But how do ideas start? They start with consumers. We spend millions of dollars listening to consumers and then ask ourselves how we can translate that into product.”

Xfit Lycra has used denim as a platform for its launch, but it is being developed for other categories such as flat wovens. Xfit comes soon after the debut of another product prompted by consumer research - Xtra Life Lycra, which gives chlorine resistance to swimwear.

“Consumers prove that they are right again and again. They said they wanted more comfort, and Xfit Lycra will revolutionise the way people wear clothes. We talked to people about what they wanted from swimwear - people don’t want to worry about the way they look. So we adapt our offer to satisfy consumer needs. We have improved swimwear and denim because we listened to consumers,” he says.

Ghitis talks about Lycra as a transformational brand both for consumers and for the textile and clothing industry. For Xfit Lycra, which has been in the pipeline for three years, Invista developed a new way of working with the trade. All the brands involved in the launch are licensees of the Xfit Lycra technology. “Weare now engaging with the industry through partnerships and collaborations, so that we share the risks as well as the rewards of the inventions. We’re in this together,” says Ghitis. “One of the problems with the textile industry has been the lack of supply chain partnerships -unlike the automotive industry, which has modernised through supply co-operation.”

Lee Cooper is the only denim brand involved in the launch. Head of brand Andy Rigg says: “We are already leaders in stretch denim, including for men, and Xfit Lycra gives us a real point of differentiation from our competitors. It’s a particularly great story on womenswear.” He is also a big supporter of the licensee deal with Invista. “The closer we are to Invista, the more we will be able to move forward as it seeds developments with niche brands. And this partnership is part of the new Lee Cooper -weare progressive and forward thinking.”

Veteran designer Elio Fiorucci says Xfit Lycra fits with the “ergonomicsexyjeans” concept of his Love Therapy brand. “Xfit matches the spirit of the collection and enables me to interpret the concept in denim with the perfect fit and the best denim on the market,” he says. “I can put it through any kind of treatment without compromising the handle. I always want to be ahead of the rest of the market.”

Another of the early partners is Pal Zileri, which has used the technology on two styles in the Pal Zileri Lab collection for autumn 07. Antonio Buffagnotti, brand manager at Lab, says: “The Pal Zileri Lab collection is open to this kind of innovation. It’s a real novelty, but we want to be part of it. The styles in the collection are both skinny, but we want to put comfort into other shapes and expand the offer in spring 08. Invista continues to research and, for the Lab collection in particular, we want to be involved in innovation.”

Invista’s new owner, Koch Industries, is a privately owned business and reputedly the largest private company in the world by revenue, with a turnover of US$80 billion (£40.8bn). From its headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, itoperates in trading, manufacturing and investments across an immense portfolio that includes commodities trading, petroleum, chemicals, energy, intermediates and polymers, minerals, fertilisers, pulp and paper, chemical technology equipment, ranching, securities and finance, plus fibres and fabrics through Invista.

No figures for the Invista business are available, but Ghitis says: “We are the largest and most profitable elastane producer and marketer in the world. We offer the lowest prices and have the most efficient cost base. Since the Koch acquisition, we are leaner and quicker, and we’ve got a parent that is extremely interested in growth and backing us. For the past three years, the textile industry has lost money. But we managed the storm that the industry has gone through and are growing.”

Last October, Invista opened its latest Lycra plant in China, part of an investment that will boost production capacity by an extra 50,000 tonnes by October 2009. Total capacity figures are not released, but Ghitis claims that Invista’s closest competitor has a maximum capacity of between just 50,000 and 60,000 tonnes. A new plant represents between US$400 million (£204m) and US$500m (£255m) of investment, but Ghitis says the Invista investment goes “waybeyond” cash for production facilities.

Ghitis hints at a major announcement on branding in June. “Our R&D ideas will be backed, and the same goes for advertising and promotions.” That Xfit Lycra might enjoy the same kind of consumer push that the Lycra brand has had over the past 20 years will be welcomed by its brand partners.

Of course, Invista is not just about Lycra. Other fibre and performance fabric brands including Dacron and Tactel, Coolmax, Cordura and Supplex also have their position in the globalised textile industry. But one of the difficulties for Invista is that it operates in a commoditised sector. At the textile shows, several mills talked about 360 degs stretch that were not part of the Xfit programme. Ghitis strongly maintains that Invista’s position as a provider of premium products and recognisable brands has held up. “The challenge for us is to keep growing. Kochis organised through market-based managements and as long as we can justify aninvestment there are no constraints on resources. Since the Koch acquisition, we have retained all the right people and have added about 40 new people in the past year. We’re a very modern, contemporary company in the way we are joining experience with enthusiasm and new skills,” he says.

With the push towards organic fabrics and sustainability from retailers, brands and textile mills, Ghitis is conscious that it is an area that Invista will need to tackle in the future. It is investigating the possibilities of the organic market, but is not convinced that the majority of consumers are ready. “We have been confronted with consumers who are not prepared to pay the price of organic. At the moment it’s a minority interest. But we are looking at how we can bring about products that are truly natural and can transform into garments in a way that consumers would not be unhappy about,” says Ghitis.

And the pull-and-push marketing of the brand will remain the strategy as it moves away from a linkage with simple “stretch” to one that encourages consumers to talk about fit and quality, and the textile industry and brands to partner their way out of commoditisation.

“Lycra is a transformational brand for consumers, but it is also transformational for the industry in terms of margins and pricing. We’re in this industry for profits and those who work with us improve their margins too,” says Ghitis. “We’re in the differentiation game and the quality game. Fabrics have a good future, but if you want to commoditise then you are in a market where it will be tough to win. We talk about comparative rather than competitive advantage. In our market, there is even more need for quality, for style and for differentiation. With those elements you can be a global player and maintain a decent bottom line.”

Curriculum Vitae

Bill Ghitis, 59, married with one son

2001-current: president global apparel, Invista

2000: president global home and industrial textiles, DuPont

1998-2000: vice president new business development Lycra, DuPont

1996-98: Dacron global director in staple, fibrefill, and branded specialities, DuPont 1971-96: global marketing and business roles in Europe, South America and the US.

Ghitis attended the University of Massachusetts and Leeds University

THE FACTS

Invista:

- is the world’s largest producer of nylon and elastane;

- is the world’s third largest producer of synthetics;

- is split into five businesses: apparel, interiors, performance materials, polymer and resins, chemical intermediaries.

Lycra:

- is one of the top 10 apparel brands, according to consultants Interbrand;

- operates in ready-to-wear, lingerie and underwear, legwear, sports performance, swimwear and corporate clothing sectors.

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