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Dry cleaners thrive as Americans dress up

About 10 years ago Raleigh Powell, an Atlanta dry cleaner, could almost hear his long-established business literally going down the drain. For Mr. Powell -- and for countless other dry cleaners -- the American dream was suddenly dripping dry into bathtubs all over the country.

But the 1980s seem to have put some starch back in the business.

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The reason for the falloff was polyester, which in the early 1970s began ushering in what seemed to be a new no-care life style.With polyester blend ladies pantsuits and men's leisure suits that could be washed and dripped dry; with young people in blue jeans that could be washed and tumbled dry the dry-cleaning industry was reeling.

"We went from 22 to 9 employees," Mr. Powell recalls. What helped save him, he feels, was the diversified services he offered. In addition to cleaning apparel, he offered to clean household goods, draperies, pillows, and hats and set up a coin laundry and a hotel valet service. Other dry cleaners who were not as flexible did not survive.

About 1975, as the popularity of polyester blends began to decline, the dry-cleaning industry was hit again, this time by the energy crunch resulting from the shipments embargo imposed by oil-producing nations. Utility rates skyrocketed, as did prices of equipment, plastic garment bags, and petroleum-based solvents. The rising minimum wage also cut into profits.

Yet today as the industry prepares for its annual convention -- "Clean '81" -- to be held in Atlanta, the mood is one of optimism. Dry cleaning is healthy once more. According to a survey earlier this year by the trade publication American Drycleaner, over 80 percent of the respondents reported their gross incomes had risen over the previous year. Beyond the factor of increased prices is the even more significant increase in the number of garments requiring professional drycleaning care.

"There's a new emphasis today on quality and durability in everything the consumer purchases," notes American Drycleaner editor Earl W. Fischer. "People want good clothing that will last and dry cleaning does preserve fabric life." Mr. Fischer adds that Americans now are purchasing more garments for which dry cleaning is the only means of care, such as wool and wool blends, furs, suedes, leather, and silks.

Even young people, whose preference up to a couple of years ago was jeans and tee shirts, now opt for pleated skirts, blazers, and wool pants.One dry cleaner even expressed thanks to John Travolta and his three-piece white suit.

While escalating costs and double-digit inflation have crimped every dry-cleaning operation, one of the major problems voiced by dry cleaners is a shortage of competent help despite the high unemployment rate.

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According to industry officials, the two major factors necessary for a dry cleaner's continued success are quality of work and diversification. And they urge cleaners to branch into uniform rentals, shirt processing, shoe repair, and garment alterations. Some cleaners use extra space to sell tickets to sports and cultural events or to sell neckties, clothing, and accessories.

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