For Margann Dodge, president of Batik Walla Ltd., a local firm which imports clothing from India, June 27 started off without urgency.
She carpooled children to summer school and a day-care center, then headed downtown for a "bank release" needed to clear several packages of clothing from India at Dulles Airport.
She got to the customs office about 4 p.m. A customs agent made a routine computer check of her bundles against the quota level, and found - to her surprise and to his - that at 12:11 the same day an embargo had placed on all mill-made garments from India.
Not getting to the airport earlier, she says, temporarily cost her receipt of a $7,000 shipment and threw into limbo her entire fashion season, during which she expected to gross $100,000.
Apparently it was all a matter of elephants and circles. Clothing imports to the United States from India must be accompanied by a visa stamped with an elephant, for handloomed fabric, or a circle, for mill-made fabric. The Indians were responsible for making sure the shipments (and visas) were kept within the levels agreed to by both countries.
Well, somewhere along the way, someone, in fact a lot of people, got their visa stamps mixed up. Dodge and other importers noticed elephant stamps where there should have been circles - and the other way around. And on June 27, at 12:11, the computer at Dulles registered that all of the circle stamps visas had been used up.
"Early in the year we saw that imports from India were arriving at a much faster rate than they should have been," says Arthur Garel, head of the office of textiles at the Department of Commerce. Garel isn't sure just why. Maybe it was that the Indians certify many people to stamp the visas, far more than other countries; maybe it was the boost of imports for a Bloomingdale's promotion, speculates Garel.
Whatever the reason, says Garel. "The level for the apparel group has been filled. Once filled, no more [goods] can enter."
The Indian government pleaded a mix-up in the visa stamps, the United States held fast. "We told them we could not correct errors on an ex-post-facto basis because the good had already been entered. We had no way of telling what was correct and what was incorrect. We couldn't recall all the items and check them," explained Garel.
Margann Dodge sensed a problem when documents arrived mismarked, but a month ago, when the rountine computer check indicated that the level lease a skirt shipment, she began to worry. To add to the injury, she had to pay storage on those items held up in customs.
She was not alone. Subhash Sachdev of India Imports of Rhode Island found he couldn't get $250,000 of Indian merchandise past customs after June 27, and now is concerned about an open letter of credit for $1 million more.
Imports from India are enjoying a boom thanks to the current fashion thrust for lightweight, natural fabric and generally loose-fitting garments. While the big success has been for summer items like the gauze fashion of three years ago - which also almost got wiped out in a customs mix-up at the time, according to Garel - the items for fall, currently in limbo are important to India's economy.
"It's a hearbreaker," says Koko Hashim, a vice president of Neiman-Marcus, who made several buying trips to India last year. "Those people are trying too hard to keep factories going year round. Before now, only Australia was a big market for them when our warm weather was over."
Stores counting on merchandise from india may have to find some way to replace these items. For some catalogues, such a switch isn't possible. More than one million FBS fall catalogues were mailed last week with an Indian-made suit from the firm India Nepal (and currently held up in customs) on the cover, a double-page spread of Indian garments plus other Indian itmes, including some from Batik Walla, inside.
"We're disappointing customers by advertising goods we may not be able to deliver and losing money by allotting space in the catalogue for goods we may not have to see," said Seymour (Sy) Zuckerman, general manager, who learned of the problems when he got back from vacation this week.
"We've lost items before," lamented Zuckerman, "but never a whole country."
The embargo may be lifted as quickly as it fell, says Garel, if the Indians accept a U.S. proposal delivered yesterday for a more flexible quota system.
"I hope it happens soon," says Dodge "High-fashion merchandise can't sit around and wait."