Unseamly timing.

Author:Thomson, Adam
Position:Clothing manufacturer

Jeans & Jackets, a Colombian clothing manufacturer, can't find the right time to go abroad.

WHEN COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT Andres Pastrana appeared last year wearing a Tommy Hilfiger top during an unprecedented meeting with left-wing guerrilla leader, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, Juan Molano and family were horrified. "We wrote Pastrana a letter expressing our concern that he was not wearing Colombian-made clothes" recalls Molano, whose family just happens to own Colombian clothing chain Jeans & Jackets. "We sent him some of our shirts as samples." Several months later, clad in one of the firm's shirts, Pastrana inaugurated the country's long-awaited peace process before a barrage of domestic and international cameras.

Like the president's well-meaning efforts to achieve peace, however, Jeans and Jackets is being hit with one surprise after another as it seeks to gain international prestige. In Ecuador, Molano decided to expand the company's presence right before the country's latest economic debacle. Ditto for his plans to enter neighboring Venezuela, where he is looking to get started just as the situation has taken a turn for the worse. And, years ago, nascent efforts to export to Mexico were similarly cut off at the knees after the currency collapsed.

But sitting in his Bogota office, Molano seems relatively unfazed by the obstacles to what the 28-year-old executive hopes will become the basis of a booming export business. "Within three to five years, exports to our neighbors will be our main business," he says. The strategist of the Colombia-based clothing chain, which exports less than 10% of total sales, says that his product has all the right ingredients to underpin the export drive.

Proper grooming. "Anyone can produce jeans and shirts--and probably cheaper than me--but that is not the point," Molano says. "The point is being able to sell a $9 pair of jeans at $50 or $60. That is what we are betting on."

Through a meticulously groomed image, the family-run business has created a line of casual clothing aimed at the highest echelons of Colombian society. Since it was founded 28 years ago, annual sales have grown to approximately US$15 million a year in Colombia alone. Until 1995, Jeans & Jackets also boasted a burgeoning export business to Mexico worth between $2 million and $3 million a year. The market was abruptly cut off by the Mexican devaluation, but the brief taste was enough to suggest that the clothing brand's appeal transcended...

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