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Topson Downs on Manufacturing Success for Half a Century—and Surviving a Pandemic

After a disorienting whirlwind of a year, Los Angeles apparel design and manufacturing firm Topson Downs is looking forward to a vibrant 2021 as it marks five decades in business.

The supplier, founded on Jan. 25, 1971, spent its early days in L.A.’s legendary downtown garment district as the city’s fashion scene flourished. While most of its clothing was produced locally, Topson Downs expanded into Mexico in the late ‘70s and planted a stake in China during the country’s apparel production boom 20 years later, making it a pioneer in the realm of global fashion sourcing.

Serving mass market retailers like Target and Walmart as well as fashion labels like Rachel Roy, the company has relied on its ability to provide quick turns and large quantities through its now extensive network of worldwide production partners in markets like Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. But the events of 2020 changed the retail landscape, forcing even industry stalwarts to evolve.

“The retail climate has changed tremendously,” John Poyer, Topson Downs’ president, told Sourcing Journal. “Through these unusual, unprecedented times we’ve had to manage our way through this. I’m very proud that we’ve gotten through 2020.”

After 50 years serving brands in the fashion sector, the pandemic threw a wrench into the supplier’s well-oiled operations, halting production in China for a period of months after the country’s usually prolonged Chinese New Year celebrations. The spread of the virus also drove down consumer spending, Poyer said, with department stores, boutiques, specialty stores and off-price channels putting business on hold. “We had to switch on a dime, he added, “and figure out what we were going to do.”

According to Poyer, the company’s customers panicked, pulling back on orders for spring product, then pivoted, with the help of Topson Downs’ extensive network of producers, to the garments that have now become Covid-era staples: masks and loungewear. “Active, athleisure, loungewear, soft and cozy fabrications were things that [shoppers] gravitated toward,” he said. During the early days of the pandemic, Topson Downs relied heavily on its partners in other markets to fulfill these orders, ramping up production in China again once the country stabilized.

And while physical retail channels continued to falter, e-commerce began to accelerate more quickly than the company had experienced in decades past. Topson Downs’ private-label businesses for big-box stores with an online presence grew quickly, as did production for Amazon-sold goods. “I don’t think it’s a secret that you and I and most people are shopping online more than ever before,” Poyer said, adding that the company’s business for online accounts tripled during 2020. Even as shoppers began to pull back on apparel spend, the company was able to remain competitive with reasonably priced, everyday staples.

But for fashion clients like Rachel Roy, juniors denim brand Tinseltown, and contemporary women’s wear brand Love, Fire, the fight to save margins and brand equity proved more challenging, he admitted. Deep discounts proliferated across the sector, making every hard-won sale a little less meaningful to a company’s bottom line. Poyer said Topson Downs was “careful to protect” the image of brands like Roy’s while pushing products that resonated on the levels of cost and function. “Once you’ve gone down the ladder” on price, he said, “it’s hard to go back up” and recapture the same perceived value.

The company relied on relationships with overseas vendors to leverage better outcomes for all parties, Poyer said. “It was about realizing we’re all in this together and we’re trying to do what we can to get through a crazy year,” he said. Shoppers were not shelling out for items to wear to work and out to social functions, and brands, suppliers and vendors had to adjust to that new reality with styles—and price points—that resonated.

The company has also been doubling down on its sustainability profile in recent years to appeal to a new generation of values-driven shoppers—a contingent that hasn’t quieted, even as the pandemic took hold. “We’ve almost had a paradigm shift” with young shoppers after a decade of fast-fashion dominance, said Topson Downs sales director Danny Abramovitch. For Gen Z shoppers, “it’s very important that fashion is not disposable.”

Consumers are keener than ever to understand the origins and the makeup of their garments, he said. The company’s production partners use Better Cotton Initiative-certified organic cotton and sustainable fibers like Repreve, a polyester alternative made from recycled plastics. “Those have become table stakes when it comes to our sourcing strategies,” he said, as the company’s customers have come to view Earth-friendly material innovation as a requirement.

Supply chains haven’t been the only part of the company’s operations to receive a sustainable revamp, Abramovitch said. Product development and selling have also evolved, especially during the pandemic. “My sales team is not flying on a plane on every whim” to trade shows, he added, and instead of meeting customers in person, buyer meetings are taking place on Zoom. The need for physical samples has dropped dramatically as the company’s design team has adopted more 3D software.

There are also new efficiencies in the company’s logistics that have curbed some of its carbon footprint, he said. If retailers are able to plan more thoroughly, allocating products to their stores ahead of shipping from overseas, it eliminates the need for Topson Downs to repackage shipments for each store when they arrive stateside, saving on loads of packaging supplies like cardboard boxes and plastics. “There’s a lot more thoughtfulness, and our regional partners are doing a great job,” he said.

While the company continues its sustainability evolution, Camille Bergher, creative director and design lead, said the industry as a whole may see slow progress on fashion trends this season.

“When Covid hit, we immediately switched gears and changed everything we were working on to book athleisure,” she said. “One of the biggest highlights was being able to pivot,” she said, as the firm had not previously played in the casual-active space. Bergher sees spring trends remaining very much unchanged—a focus on cozy loungewear, knits, and tie-dye will be key, she said—but fall may present shoppers with new reasons to celebrate. The world should finally see the impact of the vaccine rollouts, she said, and the holidays could provide a sense of normalcy—and the occasion for frivolity—that they’ve been craving.

“We watched, this week, the colors that were happening at the inauguration,” she added, referencing the vibrant blues, purples and pinks seen on First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former first lady Michelle Obama, to name a few. “I think that’s going to play a part in how people buy into trans-seasonal and fall 2021,” she said.

As shoppers have adjusted to the new normal, which involves much working and studying from couches and home offices, there have been some bright spots for fashion brands. The need for work-ready staples—especially shirts and blouses—has actually grown, she said. “We heard that the sales of woven tops have increased, because a lot of people are wearing sweats on the bottom half and wearing beautiful blouse on top” during Zoom meetings.

And after so many months clad in sweats, Bergher believes shoppers are also beginning to take opportunities to dress up simply for the fun of it. “We are in the situation we are in, and we have the choice to take ourselves out of it” with a simple outfit upgrade, she said. “Even if you’re working from home, you can pull yourself together and it feels really good.”

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