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Fashion’s Digital Transformation Could Usher in Era of On-Demand Production

Digitization has become a prime topic of conversation in the fashion industry in recent seasons, with the challenges posed by the pandemic accelerating moves to the virtual realm all across the value chain.

At a panel on fashion’s digital transformation that took place at Kornit Fashion Week in Los Angeles, experts weighed in on the importance of adopting new technologies, especially those that allow for quick turns and on-demand production.

Hosted by Kornit Digital, an Israeli-American manufacturer that specializes in high-speed commercial printing solutions for apparel, the discussion centered around how cost and resource-saving solutions can help brands design and produce for maximum efficiency, while mitigating their impact to the environment. “We’re in the middle of a transformation,” Kornit chief marketing officer Omer Kulka said.

“On demand is really the solution to make a sustainable model possible,” Gerber vice president of global marketing Ketty Pillet added, noting that rampant overproduction has caused a truckload of unsold or unsalable apparel to be dumped in landfills every second. “As a business model mass production is not going to disappear, and we say will remain for some basics but on-demand is really an answer to everything.”

“With the pandemic where we see that the sourcing is really a nightmare, it makes it possible to near shore, get your production closer to you,” she said of made-to-order manufacturing. Gerber’s software and automation solutions help apparel makers streamline design and manufacturing processes by managing and connecting their supply chains, but according to Pillet, brands are often intimidated by the economics of adopting new processes.

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“You cannot think of on-demand the same way as the mass production process,” she said. While manufacturing garment by garment means fewer upfront discounts for brands, it also eliminates the eventual cost of markdowns and unsold merchandise, which can wreak havoc on a company’s bottom line.

Sherri Berry, co-founder of full service fashion design, development and production body Arizona Fashion Source, said that developing the capabilities for on-demand manufacturing is “really, really hard,” which is why the industry has been slow to adopt the model more broadly.

“Imagine if you had mastered how to cook a burger and you invited 100 people to lunch and you decided to serve them burgers,” she said. “You could probably figure it out, because it’s just a couple of ingredients.”

However, being tasked with providing lunch for the same 100 people without knowing what they were going to order in advance would create an issue. “Imagine what your kitchen would look like trying to keep track of all those ingredients, all the different recipes all the different ways—that’s what on demand manufacturing is like every day,” Berry said.

Still, “the advantages of figuring it out are so enormous,” Berry said. Made-to-order production gives creators the freedom to produce exactly what they want to make—and offers the consumer the chance to purchase a more personalized product that they are likely to value and enjoy. “There are thousands of decisions we can all responsibly make in getting something made sustainably, but the most sustainable product we can create is a garment that’s loved, that’s durable, that’s going to be worn over and over again.”

Michael Sanders, president of Digital Bias Consulting and a former executive at Los Angeles’ Cal Pacific Dyeing, one of the West Coast’s largest dyeing, finishing and printing firms, said that the rise of digital could offer American makers a chance to win back business that has migrated overseas. The shop once served California surf brands and household names like Lucky Brand, but Sanders noted that he “saw the whole thing kind of change in the 90s when things started going offshore.”

However, on-demand services like digital printing offer American makers a chance to remain competitive, he said. A longtime customer of Kornit who began using the brand’s first machines, Sanders said that the speed and efficiency of the systems allow producers access to “a whole different way” of doing business, without massive minimum order quantities. “You’re manufacturing for the consumer—you basically get your money upfront before you even build anything,” he said. “You know where it’s going, and you don’t have to have to worry about people marking it down,” he added. What’s more, producing product to demand eliminates the risk of waste being send to landfill.

Designer Julia Clancey agreed that in the modern retail landscape, brands “need to cut out carrying stock.”

“The model has changes so much, because wholesale is just a small part of what we do and it’s really more about direct-to-consumer,” she said. The designer’s luxury resort wear, which includes opulent caftans, turbans and frocks, is the opposite of mass produced, she said—and that lends to the brand’s value.

While Clancey shied away from on-demand manufacturing in the past, she believes the industry’s evolution to a “one-stop shop” mode of manufacturing—where products are only produced once they’ve been purchased—represents the way of the future. She also believes that solutions like Kornit’s on-demand digital printing have accelerated amid growing interest from designers. “I wanted to do it for years, but to get the colors and get what I wanted and have it done ethically—I didn’t see any amazing options,” she said.

While Kulka is confident in his firm’s capabilities, he believes that on-demand manufacturing will succeed through trials by the industry’s trailblazers. “There is not going to be a one winning model—there will be different ways of doing things, different business models and different production models,” he said. “I think we need to figure out what are the substantial fundamental values that we need to work on.”