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Entertainment fabrics market recovers post-COVID

Fabric companies look for less drama in a post-COVID world.

Features | June 1, 2022 | By: Jeff Moravec

ShowTex Textiles Inc. provided reveal systems and drapes for Maluma’s North American tour, shown being set up here in Montreal. Photo: Showtex

People in the entertainment world make their living around drama, suspense and unexpected plot twists and turns. But the people who make their living supplying entertainers with the tools of their trade—such as theatrical-based fabrics—would rather their business not have the kind of unpredictability that audiences crave. 

But the fabric companies that work in the entertainment industry had little choice when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic affected entertainment events as hard if not harder than any other segment of the economy. The lights went dark, and most business ground to a halt. Only now, more than two years later, are the wheels starting to turn at something close to full speed, yet it’s not been anything close to a steady recovery.

Still, companies are starting to show the innovation, business savvy and ingenuity that has kept most of them going for many decades. It just may look a little different these days. 

“Business is definitely headed in the right direction, but it’s been an up and down ride,” says Paul Grider, director of sales and marketing for Dazian Creative Fabric Environments , which has offices in New Jersey, Florida and California. “About this time a year ago is when the lights started to flicker back on, and we started to see more development coming from the live events industry—all signs were pointing at 2021 as being the comeback year.”

But around Thanksgiving, of course, is when the pandemic perked back up. “It really set back the momentum we were all building,” says Grider. “It was devastating. However, we all expected this new variant spike was going to subside as quickly as it came on. We were looking at the Super Bowl as being that beacon of hope—for live events to move forward, we knew there would need to be fans in the stadium.”

Super Bowl a good sign

“Luckily,” he says, “the Super Bowl happened and it was a huge win, not just for the L.A. Rams but for large, in-person events going forward. In fact, Dazian was involved in the NFL Live Experience at the game, providing various fabrics, rental drapery and installation services.

“Our industry has not recovered completely in any way, shape or form, but it is definitely solidly and consistently on the upward trend,” says Joshua Alemany, director of products for Rose Brand, a 100-year-old company that supplies fabric, decor and technology related to scenery for theater, film, live events and associated businesses. 

Companies that provide theater products beyond fabric say that their diversification helped them weather the crash. “We’re not only a fabrics company but for 30 years have developed the mechanical and tracking systems to move draperies and scenery on stages around the world,” says Nick Pagliante, managing director of Gerriets International Inc., which provides theatrical equipment systems and scenery products to customers all over the world from its corporate headquarters in Germany and U.S. operations based in Ewing, N.J. “We are specified by architectural and theater consultants in applications where normal drapery track in an eight- or 10-foot ceiling is not going to be appropriate. When  the pandemic hit, we still were involved in construction-based projects that didn’t close down, so we kept our sewing shops and our business moving.”

Rose Brand produces these richly pleated Austrian curtains, which the company says create drama and glamour for a timeless look. Photo: Rose Brand

Role of innovation 

Now, as business comes back, companies are able to spend more time and effort on innovation, but that may not mean what it does in some industries. 

According to Alemany, innovation does not necessarily come from the development of new technology, but instead, he says, “It comes in having a deep understanding of what our customers do and a very personal connection to them that allows us to stay very close to what the designer or the production company needs.”

“So the innovation comes not necessarily because a new type of textile, a technical fabric, is being developed from the ground up for the entertainment industry,” explains Alemany. “It’s because a designer or set builder will reach out and say, ‘I need a fabric that can do…’ and our resources both at the mill level and in the industry at large allow us to go find the right material. Or we might say to one of our partners, with whom we have had long-standing relationships, that we’re looking for something that needs this specification.”

Innovation is difficult, too, because most fabric suppliers are purchasing their raw materials from the same places, according to Pagliante. “What really stands out is the staff and the people you have, the ability to think outside the box, and to have the solutions the customers are looking for.”

At the same time, Pagliante says, that doesn’t mean technical innovations are not happening. “We do have some newer fabrics that stand out,” he says. “A new 3D holographic scrim called Holovision is a very fine gauze that is silver coated. When lit appropriately, the material disappears—you can see through it and see what’s behind it, but at the same time if there is a projection on it, it seems to float in space.”

The sewing room at Rose Brand Inc. shows that it takes some space to provide entertainment fabrics. These operations have only recently ramped back up following the pandemic. Photo: Rose Brand

Trying to keep staff 

As for most industries, post-COVID staffing is an issue to varying degrees for these companies. 

“When COVID came, everyone thought it would be a few weeks, then a few months and it became longer and longer, says Thomas Van Lokeren, CEO/managing director for ShowTex North America, a Belgium-based company that specializes in flame retardant textiles for the entertainment industry and which has expanded in recent years into North America.

“At a certain moment, people realized they could go to industries with better work-life balance. Maybe the salary was better; maybe the benefits were better. A lot of corporate events were canceled. We did everything we could to keep our staff. You have staff that works for 15 or 20 years—they’ve built so much experience and so much knowledge, you cannot afford to lose them.” 

Van Lokeren says ShowTex was able to keep most of its staff, but challenges remain. “People say, ‘Don’t go to the entertainment industry; there’s no certainty there. It’s weekend and night work.’ So finding new staff is difficult.”

“The workforce was kind of left to wait it out or move on to another industry and start another career path,” adds Grider. “That left a large void in the live events world. New people are coming into the industry but without traditional theatrical or events backgrounds. It’s a learning curve we have to work with.”

ShowLED curtains from ShowTex Textiles Inc. provide a classic starry night or starry sky backdrop, colorful venue masking and decoration, star tunnels and walls, and animated video effects. Photo credit: Showtex

The well-known supply chain issues affect this industry as well. “A lot of product is floating off the coast of L.A. and New York right now,” says Grider. “And we are ordering a quarter’s worth of inventory in advance where it used to be ordering every six or eight weeks. The good part is there is high demand for our products and what’s on order has already been sold before it arrives.”

Besides the supply chain, inflation remains a big question. “Can our suppliers hold prices at a level our industry can afford?” asks Alemany. “That remains to be seen. We’re doing everything we can to minimize the impact on our customers. We have very few casual supply relationships; most of them go back 20 years and some 50 years or more, so we are an important part of their business and they are an important part of ours. We’re really working together to try to get through what we hope will be a temporary crisis.”

There is optimism, though. “Right now, things are picking up very quickly,” says Van Lokeren. “I don’t know that I’d call it the ‘roaring 20s’ but it’s clear that people are willing to again organize events, shows and meetings. If we look to what we have in the pipeline for 2022 and 2023, I think it’ll be a big bang. It’s going to be very impressive for our industry, I’m convinced.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn. 

SIDEBAR: Sustainability takes forefront

The role of sustainability is increasing in the world of entertainment fabrics, as it is in many places. It’s important to a wide range of entertainment stakeholders, according to Joshua Alemany, director of products for Rose Brand:

“Architects and theatrical consultants we work with were asking if we had some way of addressing their clients’ interest in sustainability. So working with Milliken Textiles in South Carolina, we took one of our most popular velours—particularly used as the go-to fabric for stage draperies in new construction—and Milliken was able to manufacture it using a recycled fiber. The new fabric, ReVive™, is a performance velour that is not only recyclable but made from recycled fibers.

“Often a theater needs to show their donors and their patrons what their money bought them. You get pressure from stakeholders to show that you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world. Suddenly, now they could take a package of draperies that was not just the main curtain that you see but hundreds and hundreds of yards of black draperies that live backstage as masking and reveal fabric, and tell them these curtains were made using plastic bottles pulled from and recycled from the waste stream. 

“We can even give them a calculation that for every yard of ReVive used in their curtains, they are pulling 12 bottles out of the waste stream. A typical curtain package might result in as many as 10,000 bottles pulled out of the waste stream.

“It’s not green washing. It’s a real material difference we’re making because we sell millions of yards of velour a year. Even if only a small portion of that is specified as ReVive, we’re making a meaningful difference in the number of bottles floating around the waterways of the world.”

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