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Better Sourcing Starts with Design

If your goal is to win either a CDFA award or the praise of Anna Wintour at your next runway show, this article might not apply to you.

A designer typically thinks a lot about what design trends are new and fresh–that‰Ûªs his or her job–and tries to patch together the best and most creative collection possible. The problem is that retailers and consumers often aren‰Ûªt interested in paying for the newest or freshest designs. We live in a retail-centric world, where price tickets are fixed and ingenuity is rarely rewarded with increases on wholesale prices. So, for example, if a jacquard strip knit is hot this season and replaces last year‰Ûªs y/d stripe t-shirt as this year‰Ûªs staple buy, the consumer will likely expect to pay the same price they paid the year before for the wardrobe upgrade. That consumer has no sense of the additional production costs that make one garment more expensive than another, nor do they care.

It‰Ûªs just as likely that the average consumer doesn‰Ûªt factor in the costs of the design team that conceived of the garment in the first place, or the salesmen who then pitched it. In order to remain relevant, our industry has to constantly innovate, coming up with new ideas and products just to survive. Things like specialty yarns and new printing techniques are unavoidable, but shoppers bristle at the upcharges that come with them. We‰Ûªre stuck with a consumer who demands consistently better products but is unwilling to pay for what produces them. How do we square this circle?

I‰Ûªm not interested in rehearsing the now familiar complaint that consumers need to pay more and that margin compression is slamming struggling brands. My point is that we need to work smarter and figure out a way to continue to produce great products at reasonable costs. We should all finally accept that the factories will not work for less. Would you take a hit in compensation to bolster a company‰Ûªs margin goals? Neither will they.

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One reliable way to find a solution is to follow the lead of the industry‰Ûªs current frontrunners: the kings of fast fashion. In their world, the typically distinct roles of design, product development and sourcing are collapsed into one function, a streamlined integration that delivers greater efficiency. At most fast fashion companies, these positions aren’t isolated into separate silos: they are combined into the one position or they work very closely together, traveling together, visiting factory floors as a team.

Whenever an inexperienced designer sits down with me, I know exactly how the conversation will unfold. They ask for the world–a fabric with this much stretch, this or that wash, metals zippers, etc.–and then blithely request that it all be produced for a song. I‰Ûªve often complained on this blog that sourcing executives don‰Ûªt take a more active role in supervising the process of production, neglecting to actually visit the factories the success of their business strategy so heavily depends upon. But the same standard could be applied to designers. They, too, need to spend time on the factory floor, if only to educate themselves about what the costs of production are.

If a designer does, in fact, visit factories, he might finally understand the costing of the garment he created. This means he might understand how, instead of making ‰Û_åÊ ten different fleece fabrics, he can use just three basic fabrics across a whole line of styles. The designer needs to factor in manufacturing costs at every stage of his creation, working in tandem with both those who are responsible for its physical construction and subsequent sale. Only this synergistic collaboration will result in an intelligently created product.

To this end, I think schools should teach their design students how a factory arrives at its costs with the same commitment with which they teach them how to creatively sketch their designs. I‰Ûªm not suggesting, of course, that every designer become a seasoned sourcing executive or supply chain expert. But a new generation of designers armed with a basic comprehension of fabric construction, trim costs, printing techniques, different washing treatments and the like, will transform the profitability of the industry. As it stands now, designers ignore the primary drivers of cost, which leads to pricing disaster.

We need designers to maintain their artistic integrity, which is the precondition of the amazing work they do. I would never suggest we hamstring their creative powers, or stymie their opportunities for artistic expression. But even the most basic knowledge of manufacturing costs would make their lives much easier since more of their design styles would inevitably be adopted, they would avoid constant intramural fighting with their sales and sourcing counterparts, and their work environment would be a more efficient, more successful, more harmonious place. And our industry could make some money again. It‰Ûªs a win-win proposition for all parties involved.