The fashion industry is caught in an increasingly unprofitable cycle of design, produce, sell. Though these days it would be more accurate to say it’s design, produce, hope to sell. It’s a wash, rinse, repeat cycle that’s sending profitability right down the drain. And as the saying goes—and the last few years can confirm—hope is not a strategy.
Thanks to the so-called retail apocalypse of 2017, the industry woke up to the need for a new business model.
In the wake of unprecedented store closures, executives at major chains like Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s all embraced the idea of speed to market, repeating the phrase like a mantra during every earnings call. They rejiggered their merchandising teams, embraced data and used their private-label collections as testing grounds. And they were rewarded with better sell-throughs.
Speed, they learned, equals relevance in the market. By designing closer to need, these retailers were able to produce pieces consumers actually wanted and deliver them before they fell out of favor.
But taking days out of the calendar alone hasn’t proven to be a radical enough change on its own, in part because true speed to market is still a work in progress. But also because today’s consumer has been trained to expect a fully curated experience in every facet of their lives. From music and movies to coffee and car services, custom is king.
Meanwhile brands are still producing a steady stream of cookie-cutter clothes that nobody asked for. The result is endless markdowns and a mountain of unsold goods headed to landfills or worse. It’s all building toward a fashion emergency, according to Craig Crawford, IT strategist and founder of CrawfordIT.
Speaking at the Lectra VIP event this month, Crawford recounted an incident that happened at a retail event right after Black Friday that left him appalled: The room applauded a 25-percent sell-through in men’s wear.
“That’s not worth clapping about; you should be crying,” he said. “The numbers should be reversed. We should be selling 75 percent at full price.”
But that can’t happen with the current model, he said, adding personalization is the key to unlocking sales of that caliber. “When we have personalized product, we get that, and customers are willing to pay a premium,” he said.
Crawford cited Deloitte’s Made to Order report, which found 81 percent of shoppers will happily pay a premium for personalized clothing, and 14 percent will spend an extra 40 percent or more for these goods.
In its State of Fashion 2019 report, McKinsey & Company said the trend toward personalization is gaining speed. “Reduced lead times will be key drivers of competitive advantage. Small-scale players will likely lead the way, while larger brands pilot in selected markets,” the authors wrote. “We expect rising take-up of on-demand production will lead to a spike in personalization, and a new generation of customized clothing start-ups, creating a new definition of ‘made to measure.’”
Céline Choussy, chief marketing and communications officer for Lectra, said personalization could solve a host of challenges currently facing the apparel market.
“Personalization means we’re no longer in push mode hoping it will sell. We produce based on what our customers are willing to buy,” she said. “It means inventory and stores are linked with very little returns and markdowns. It’s a great opportunity to make a more profitable business.”
But it’s an opportunity the industry is currently ill-equipped to capitalize on. Having been built to exploit economies of scale, most apparel supply chains are not set up for one-off garments—and even small runs are out of the question in most circumstances.
This challenge is what led Lectra to develop Fashion on Demand, a new cloud-based platform designed to harness machine learning and the IoT to digitize and streamline everything from orders to cutting. The platform is adaptable for businesses looking to create capsule collections through those ready to scale personalized offerings. With the Made to Order package, brands can create small series of standard products. Made to Customize allows for customization of patterns and design elements, and Made to Measure provides for truly personalized looks and fits.
“It’s a kind of revolution,” said Christine Dandieu, sales director fashion for Lectra. “Everyone [has been] doing personalization for ages but you didn’t have the right technology, and now it’s a reality. With Fashion on Demand, you gain collaboration and automation, and you simplify what you do.”
The platform is designed to give the whole team visibility into the process and the right data to make decisions.
“In the platform, there’s no paper, no errors, no recuts or human intervention and it allows for extreme quality and speed,” said Frédéric Gaillard, vice president, cutting room offer for Lectra.
The process begins with the order manager, which can automatically pull orders from companies’ ERP systems and place them into the production queue. The materials manager then takes information either entered manually or through and ERP and creates editable markers, which are sent to the cutting machine. Finally, the system manager controls offloading, picking and bundling workflows to optimize efficiency, limiting the manpower needed in the cutting room.
The automated tasks compensate for some skills that are becoming increasingly hard to come by in the industry like marker making. “It is highly skilled labor that’s required for that, especially when you’re cutting stripes and checks and printed fabric so we put that know-how into the materials manger so you don’t have to worry about making the right decisions about how the pieces should be placed,” said Carlos Jimenez, a professional services manager at Lectra.
By automating the steps, fashion brands can have more confidence in their workflows, according to Luis Magana, Lectra’s professional services manager. “It provides process security because you no longer have people redoing the fabric each time you need them, especially with matched fabrics,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential for error that you’re eliminating. We’re taking non-value-added tasks out of the operation.”
Ultimately, this automation shortens lead times, he said. And because the process is digital, changes can be made on the fly.
“Brands want more agility. They don’t want to create uniforms so with Fashion on Demand, you create small series, limited editions and quick assortments. It allows you to be very much reactive and adapt your collection to what your consumer wants,” Dandieu said.
And zeroing in on what shoppers are looking for is exactly what makes personalization so effective, according to Crawford.
“Fundamentally, customers don’t want choice. They want what they want,” he said. “When customers get what they want, you get customers who are loyal to you.”