Despite challenges, Sri Lanka’s positioning remains unmatched in high-end apparel manufacture

South Asian nation among handful that scores high in all key criteria – Stretchline
Globally successful manufacturing destinations for high-end apparel have three defining
Firstly, they have robust secondary supply chains – which are critical to ensuring the timely
availability of all required inputs. The importance of this becomes apparent once you consider
that to manufacture an item like a bra, producers may need up to 20 components. Such
components – including fabric, lace, bra wire etc. – must be available at the right time and must
also conform to the correct specifications/standards.
Secondly, having high-skilled staff who can perform the intricate functions required in adequate
numbers, can ‘make-or-break’ the operation. Thirdly, the location should be sufficiently cost-
However, if the first two criteria are not met, only satisfying the third requirement is redundant –
at least from the viewpoint of a high-end apparel manufacturing operation. This explains why
many mass market-focused apparel manufacturing destinations have failed to move up the
value chain, to specialize in high-end production.
Conversely, due to their natural competitive advantages or due to the prudent strategies
adopted at the time of the industry’s inception, some locations score high in all three criteria.
Among destinations in Asia two stand out in this regard; China and Sri Lanka.
“While China is strongly positioned, the country seems to be gradually shifting away from
apparel production to other export sectors,” explains Norman Collier, Director of Stretchline
“Considering alternatives, there is perhaps no better location in the world, with more skilful
employees than Sri Lanka, in producing high-end apparel.”
A veteran who has been in the industry for nearly six decades, Collier has been instrumental in
evaluating potential locations and in setting up many of the overseas manufacturing operations
of Stretchline – the world’s largest manufacturer of narrow elasticated fabric. The company, also
a major supplier of covered elastomeric yarn and textile coating and bonding solutions, has
around 4,500 employees and presence in seven countries.

Stretchline commenced its operations in Sri Lanka in 1996 and now its operations – including
with its local partners – encompass 7 production plants and provide employment to over 3400
“The key players in the Sri Lankan apparel industry, especially companies like MAS Holdings,
with whom we have partnered with, were very strategic in initially building up a robust secondary
supply chain in the country,” says Collier explaining Sri Lanka’s unique positioning in the
“The larger Sri Lankan apparel manufacturers also invested significantly in state-of-the-art
production plants. I remember when I came to Sri Lanka initially more than 25 years ago, I was
taken aback when I saw MAS’ production plants. They were more advanced than many
factories I’ve seen back home in the UK.”
“By handling production for some of the world’s best-known high-end intimate and activewear
brands like Victoria’s Secret, Nike, Lululemon and PVH, over decades, the employees in the
sector have also become highly skilled, which is particularly important for companies like us.
Such a skillset is very hard to replicate.”
“We can also see strong alignment between the high-end segments that Sri Lankan apparel
manufacturers have specialized in and the resources available locally. The country, with a
population of around 22 million people, is clearly not suited for mass-market manufacture and
the industry was quick to recognize this. They prudently moved up the value chain.”
“Focus on higher-margin business has enabled Sri Lanka apparel exporters to provide far better
pay and working conditions to employees, compared with many other developing countries
which produce apparel.”
“This has also created room for the Sri Lankan apparel sector to invest in research and
development, to innovate and further develop its capacities – including in new and emerging
sectors in apparel.”
Despite the ongoing challenges faced by Sri Lanka, Collier remains confident of the country’s
resilience and its strong future prospects in the apparel industry. Under its ongoing five-year
strategic plan for the country, Stretchline has continued to invest in Sri Lanka, including in
further increasing the verticality of its operations to withstand disruptions and has enhanced its
technology capabilities.

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