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Apparel Brands Need to Be More Transparent With Employees

Two words repeated time and again at last week’s edition of Product Innovation Apparel in New York City: collaboration and transparency. Put another way, change is arduous—and its current pace is staggering—but it is achievable if everyone is involved. And if everyone, at every level, knows what’s going on.

“People have been telling you this all day long, about how all these areas (designers, merchandisers, management) need to collaborate, and that’s what makes it work and when a brand knows who they are,” emphasized the conference’s chair, Craig Crawford, a London-based IT strategist and the former vice president of IT strategy, architecture and relationships at Burberry. “It’s not easy. It takes a lot of people and a lot of work.”

Take Burberry, for example. When the 160-year-old British luxury brand embarked on a reboot of its digital strategy a decade ago, it was “a federation of regions and franchises” that were “all doing whatever they could to make money and people were buying it because it was the check.”

“It was very much a siloed way of working,” Crawford pointed out, noting that even when chief executive Angela Ahrendts tried to pull the different regions together and give them cohesive looks, they were still very different.

So the company’s mission became to protect, explore and inspire, anchored by the following strategies: globalize because it has to but regionalize because it can; protect the check; simplify offerings; and break down siloed ways of working.

“Out of that came the strategy of online-first, then the world store and then [the online platform] Burberry World. It became one brand experience on any channel. It wasn’t about different things in different places,” Crawford said.

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Today, Burberry is a brand with a multi-million-pound balance sheet, but that doesn’t mean that other apparel companies can’t follow in its footsteps.

“You’re way more empowered than you think you are, and you really do need to think about how you can start collaborating and working with different tools,” Crawford offered.

Anything is possible when employees feel empowered. That means no more overly restrictive administration regulations. Get off e-mail. Scrap spreadsheets. Trust staff will do their jobs.

“We’re at a point in time now where we do everything on our phone. We shop and interact with brands, our friends, we book hotels, we check-in for flights. You need to let the people who own the data maintain it,” Crawford continued, noting that doing so can lower data entry from five days to one day per style, as was the case with luxury leather goods brand, Delvaux. “That’s because the people who create the data are maintaining it, they’re not handing it off…Designers are not scared of technology. It just needs to be transparent, easy to use, fit for purpose and you can’t bottleneck the data.”

At the same time, he said, you can’t teach people things they’re not ready to learn.

He concluded with two important points: “One, common sense is not common. You do have to remind people that it is work and you have to be professional. The other is that there are limits to man’s intelligence but there are no limits to the depths of his stupidity. And that’s OK—you just coach them.”