With the speed and complexity of today’s fashion business, companies have no choice but to improve the ways they handle design, merchandising, compliance, sourcing and operations issues throughout the business. Product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions are rapidly becoming essential tools for balancing the conflict between customer tastes and efficient, responsive operations.
Leading fashion companies generate a special kind of momentum, a phenomenon where recent success fuels current success, which in turn sparks future success. The ability to rapidly turn today’s hit product into tomorrow’s durable brand is no accident—it’s a specific set of practices that companies can identify and repeat to achieve lasting competitive advantage. Except when you just plain “get lucky”–and who can count on that?
There are many obstacles to generating momentum. One of the biggest is the escalating complexity of the fashion industry itself. Today’s fashion business demands a degree of collaboration and global business skill that were once unknown in any industry.
Also, the economic pressures bearing on fashion companies come from both ends of the value chain—consumers and retailers have helped the consumer expect lower and lower prices, while the costs of sourcing, manufacturing and delivering finished goods will increase if not closely monitored.
Corporate social responsibility issues of human rights and environmental compliance are core to the brand image of many fashion companies and also add to the pressure. The ethical sourcing movement, concerns about conflict minerals and laws about supply chain transparency, along with the common issues of corporate governance, all weigh against the sense of forward motion fashion companies need to stay competitive. They also create both forward-looking and retrospective risks that no fashion company can afford to ignore.
A new generation of product planning
The business discipline we now call product lifecycle management (PLM), has long been an element of success in the fashion business, even among people who didn’t practice it formally or use the term consciously. In simpler times, owners and managers of fashion businesses performed PLM functions in their heads, on spread sheets, or with lots of written notes dealing with design, production, collections, sourcing, and more, through an intuitive, seat-of-the-pants approach that worked well enough to get new products out the door, keep track of older products and keep the business running year after year.
In the same way that few businesses can manage finances entirely with spreadsheets, no fashion business can fully keep pace with competition today using an informal approach to PLM. The process just has too many moving parts and requires coordinating too many far flung resources. The opportunity costs are too high and the risks too great. There’s simply no substitute for advanced PLM software for sustaining momentum and improving a successful fashion business today.
What fashion companies should look for in a PLM solution
An advanced PLM solution supports and integrates more than the entire product development process. Companies looking for an advanced PLM solution, should look for:
- Concurrent processing. Speed up the overall product design and production process by using an advanced PLM solution to manage and track the progress of different phases of each collection simultaneously, rather than sequentially. That allows companies to shorten the time from concept to consumer and stay more agile to keep up with the latest consumer trends.
- Natural workflow. Look for a high degree of configurability to ensure that every person gets to work the way that works best for them. That will help speed overall workflow throughout the business, and improve employee motivation.
- Automation of repetitive tasks. Seek a solution that helps focus staff attention on designing, developing and delivering new and better products, and adding value. Let the software handle common tasks, so that employees can focus on creating innovative and profitable new products. Also, look for solutions that make it easy to build and use libraries of colors, fabrics, trims, and other supplier details to speed your efforts.
- Collaboration across teams. Unify the efforts of creative, technical, and commercial teams using social collaboration to streamline the design, development, and sourcing process.
The path to the future
There’s virtually no way to compete at the top levels of today’s fashion industry without a well-developed and fully supported product lifecycle management process. In this increasingly competitive marketplace, every fashion company needs to strive for better responsiveness to consumer trends, more efficient design and production, smarter sourcing, and improved capabilities for monitoring compliance and sustainability requirements. To achieve those goals, every firm needs to bring as many different contributors as possible onto a common platform for sharing information and collaborating effectively. As product cycles get shorter and supply chains get longer, the likelihood of lasting success gets greater with the help of an integrated product management system.
Bob McKee has more than 40 years of experience working in and with apparel, footwear, home textiles and fashion accessories companies. He has hands-on experience sourcing apparel products around the globe and was one of the first U.S. apparel executives to start sourcing in China in the early ’80s. His knowledge and skills span retail, sourcing, manufacturing, and product development within the fashion industry.