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Using Fit for Faster Fashion

With the increasing desire to cater to fast fashion, many retailers, hungry to get products to stores sooner, forget how much fit can factor into tightening the supply chain. Getting a garment to fit to specs and standards without multiple sample rejections can mean considerably shortened production lead times.

In an interview with Sourcing Journal, Ed Gribbin, president of fit specialist Alvanon, said there’s a big disconnect on the subject of fit and no one can even agree on exactly what it means. “Most people within the product development process at a brand or a retailer know there’s a conflict because they live it every day, they just don’t know how to solve it and how to address it,” he said.

The only way to address the problem and improve efficiency, Gribbin said, is to get fit right the first time, and for sourcing offices and brand headquarters to collaborate on executing the process.

Every rejected fit sample not only delays development time, but can potentially add to the cost of a style considering the added overhead required for redoing. A typical brand goes through the fit approval/rejection process four or five times and “if you just think about the time and money involved, it’s a huge, huge drag on the profitability and speed to market issues that most business are facing,” Gribbin said.

The fashion industry has been turned upside down a bit with fast fashion, Gribbin said. “Companies have changed the model where they’re getting to market much faster and it’s putting pressure on everyone else to be faster.”

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Inditex-owned Zara, the brand to beat when it comes to fast fashion, became an Alvanon client last year and has since further improved its fit process.

Zara has twenty-six collections a year–every two weeks there’s a collection, Gribbin said. He could not commit to revealing the retailer’s exact technique, but did say Zara goes through a very different process than a typical retailer like a Macy’s, for instance.

The most important thing in helping shorten production time is defining the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the process so there’s a clear handoff from creation to execution, Gribbin said. As an expert industry insider, Gribbin has a detailed understanding of how global companies operate in this respect and explained, “You can’t afford to go back and forth if you’re going to be fast, and Zara is a good example of that.”

When Zara makes a prototype, they approve it for look right then and there, it gets handed off to the factory to make–and they trust the factory to make it correctly–and it goes from the factory directly to the warehouse and gets shipped to the store, Gribbin said. All of that happens in about fourteen days. For typical brands, that process takes anywhere from sixteen to twenty-four weeks.

“The reason a company like Zara can do that is that the creative team trusts that the technical team will execute, the technical team trusts that the factory will execute and they work together closely,” Gribbin said.

A vast majority of Zara’s product is made in its Spain homebase. The company has various factories in close proximity to its main distribution center in Arteixo that all contribute product.

In addition to local sourcing, Zara has key vendor factories in Portugal, North Africa and Turkey, to name a few, “so they’re not sourcing everything in the Far East the way some companies do,” Gribbin said. “They’re sourcing a lot of things locally with companies that are dedicated to making for them, so they’re well trained, they’re reliable but they’re not always the cheapest.”

And in a world of ever-increasing sourcing costs, where even low-cost countries are getting pricier, many brands won’t catch up to Zara based on cost alone; the cheapest factory often wins the order.

But some companies, like Gap, are making strides in the fast fashion department. “While traditionalists may not consider Gap as fast fashion, you just have to be a frequent shopper to see that they’ve stepped up their game in terms of getting new products developed faster,” Gribbin said. “They are in the midst of a great, mostly unexpected comeback, partly by focusing on design and partly by focusing on process. Their sourcing offices and vendors all being on the same page as the headquarters is a big reason for their comeback.”

H&M has also used elements of fit to help speed up the production process. “H&M is a great example of a company that still understands and values the art of pattern making,” Gribbin said. “Their focus on developing and using the right pattern blocks and ensuring their vendors can execute using them allows H&M not only to get to market with new collections faster than almost anyone else, it allows them to be much more consistent in their fit and sizing, as well.”

For 25 years, brands have been chasing the lowest cost place to make things, switching suppliers and battling on price. As a result, turnover along the supply chain has been high and new factories mean new training on the ways of the brand, making consistency difficult to keep, Gribbin said. Fortunately for the production process, Gribbin said he sees the cost-chasing trend starting to end. More retailers are cutting their number of suppliers in favor of fewer dedicated factories and consumers are also beginning to see that low cost is not always the answer.

Another major challenges with fit and sourcing is that brand hubs are often hours away, in location and time zone, from sourcing offices making for little real-time collaboration, Gribbin said.

“You can’t address in a typical email the nuances of whether a garment has the right fit or not,” he added.

Brand teams also tend to muddy the assignment of responsibility when it comes to fit and many think of it as a joint effort. Designers pipe in on construction and technical experts voice opinions on how the garment looks. “If you have that kind of collegial responsibility, there’s a lot of room for interpretation, there’s a lot of room for subjectivity,” Gribbin said. “And the end result is that the product becomes very inconsistent and that’s a very frustrating thing for most shoppers.”

The best way Alvanon has found to remedy some of these fit issues is through the use of highly technical fit forms and blocks. Since fit models for a brand are rarely, if ever, present at the sourcing factory, making a form based on a comprehensive body scan of the fit model to be sent to the factory is the second best solution.

Alvanon has scanned almost 400,000 consumers in twenty-four countries and compiled data on average measurements and bodily features of these unique shoppers. So, if a fit model’s specs are to be used to make product for customers in China, average measurements based on body scans from that country will be factored into the final fit form in order to achieve the best fit for most people likely to buy that product.

To really settle the conflicts between sourcing offices and brand headquarters, and to get a prototype that is exactly right the first go-around, brands not only have to use the right fit form, but the right pattern blocks and the right grade rules, too. They also have to provide better training throughout the supply chain in terms of how to use those tools properly.

“If the factories are all using the right tool, the chances of them getting that first prototype done correctly go way up and that’s what enables fast fashion to happen,” Gribbin said.

But some retailers use the right tools in their supply chain and still find samples rejected, a problem, Gribbin said, really has nothing to do with fit.

Many times, designers just want to change design elements, constantly seeking to stay trend-right and reject samples as a way to make aesthetic adjustments.

“They go through this redesign and remerchandising process,” Gribbin said. “But now they’re eight weeks into the season and in that same eight-week time frame, Zara has put out four new collections.”

Gribbin, along with Darioush Nikpour, vice president of product management for Yunique Solutions, hosted a free webinar titled “Aesthetic vs. Technical Fit–What’s the Right Mix?” last month at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA). The discussion was centered around how apparel retailers and brands can best synchronize the aesthetic vision of their creative team with the technical needs of their sourcing team.

There are three definitions of fit, Gribbin said: fit for aesthetic, technical fit and commercial fit. Brands should be able to look at each aspect of fit independently and understand that the creative team should own the aesthetic look, the technical team should focus on the garment’s construction and one should have little influence over the other.

“The whole theme of separating aesthetic and technical fit is about letting the designer do their job and get the look that they want but let the technical team execute it in such a way through the supply chain that a 10 is a 10 is a 10,” Gribbin said.