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With America’s nail-biting debt crisis playing on TV screens around the clock this week, the last place you might expect to feel the fiscal pinch is at a lingerie exhibition.

But the semi-annual Curve Expo trade show in New York City offered a revealing glimpse into the nation’s downshifting economy — and the opportunities it creates for foreign competitors.

It was in many ways the most successful Curve exhibition yet, with 315 brands on display (a 30% jump from the winter show), more than 3,000 U.S. retail buyers attending, and a bright new contingent of swimwear labels that added a blaze of color to the show.

A lot of the business conducted, however, will see Yankee dollars headed offshore to dozens of foreign lingerie and swim brands that are now clamoring to enter or expand operations in the U.S. market.

The three-day Curve show was awash in foreign labels, many of them taking their first shot at finding U.S. retail channels. But why the sudden interest now — with America still in the grip of a recession? Primarily, the U.S. dollar’s two-year slide on foreign currency markets has boosted the value of almost everyone else’s currency and lowered barriers for fashion brands looking to expand stateside.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of them for years,” said Laurence Teinturier, vice-president of Curve, “but many of these brands simply were not ready until now.”

No one was more eager to make new friends than latin countries like Colombia, which benefits from a free-trade agreement with the U.S. For the first time, the industry group ProExport Colombia subsidized costs for 14 Colombian labels to attend Curve and show off their colorful and creative swim and lingerie looks.

“It is going to take some more time, but we did get some orders — and the media likes us,” said Chechy Benedetti, whose Cartagena label Pitahaya creates dramatic swimwear prints based on traditional designs of indigenous tribes.

And Colombia was just one of many countries with a strong presence at Curve. The marketing collective Lingerie Francaise brought a record 22 premium French labels to the show, while multiple brands from Brazil, Australia, Canada, Great Britain and even Poland were on hand.

If all this sounds a bit ominous for U.S. manufacturers and designers, there were also plenty of upbeat signals. The show featured numerous product innovations — which is always a dependable sign of a healthy and growing marketplace.

New sportswear label Red Daisy debuted a line of running gear with a built-in charm that reminds women to do breast self-exams, Veronica Brett unveiled a sensational collection of swimwear for breast cancer survivors,
and Irely showed off its patent-pending briefs with a secret pocket. Yes, American ingenuity is alive and well.

There was also good news for U.S. customers who will finally be able to get their hands on international labels that have proven hard to find over here. Chief among these is the glorious French loungewear label Marjolaine, whose highly coveted slips and wraps will finally get broad distribution in high-end stores. Other big names docking at Curve Expo: Pain de Sucre swimwear and its lingerie label Suggest, as well as long-time French apparel brand Daniel Hechter, whose new-ish lingerie collection is finally available in the U.S.

Less well-known newcomers used Curve to make a nervous, but hopeful, debut in North America.

The new Irish label Embrace made a quick, last-minute decision to come to New York after its debut set won the prestigious Innovation award at the Mode City lingerie show in Paris just a week earlier (that’s Embrace’s Reenagh McCall in the photo above). The popular Australian shapewear label Nearly Nude, which features ultra-light cotton blends that have surprising compression features, showed up at Curve with its new North American licensee, and the flamboyant Thais Gusmao — an established designer lingerie label in its native Brazil — showed curious visitors its utterly unique collection of undies inspired by chef’s uniforms.

Most of the crop of Curve newbies said they enjoyed a warm reception from retail buyers and browsers, but not all foreign labels are ideally suited for the American marketplace. Traffic was slow at the booth occupied by Polish label Kris Line, which sells ornately decorated foundations for larger cup sizes, and which had the poor luck to be situated across the aisle from the feverishly busy Donna Karan booth and its sublime collection of minimalist undies.

Of course, Americans don’t have to look as far as Europe or South America to find foreign brands taking a bite out of the market. Canada was richly represented and, in many ways, stole the show: the Montreal swimwear label Shan was flying high after its luxurious resort collection won the top prize at the Paris lingerie exhibition, while Toronto retailer Secrets From Your Sister claimed one of the best-store awards announced by Best of Intima magazine during the Curve show.

And while everyone else was holding the door open for offshore labels, Canadian lingerie label Blush was looking in the other direction, with a spinoff label for the European market called Suite B. That’s right, a Canadian lingerie label taking on the Europeans!

And Canada also showed off its entrepreneurial spirit in the form of innovative men’s underwear brand Saxx from Vancouver. It’s big idea? A hidden pouch which, according to sales rep Michael Topliss, “keeps your package from rubbing against your legs.”

I like that idea … but I LOVED finding a sales rep named “topliss” at a lingerie show even more.

Here’s a few more random shots from Curve Expo NYC.

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