Product samples have long been a necessary evil within the apparel world. How else would designers, merchandisers and buyers communicate with one another and ensure the end product would accurately reflect their initial designs?
Today, though, speed to market, sustainability and margin concerns have the industry looking for ways to work smarter. Hoping to decrease the number of samples they create, many companies are introducing or leveraging new technology that promises to alleviate some of these woes.
Among the biggest concerns today is the way in which sample after sample slows down operations, noted Jeff Rosenstock, president of denim manufacturer and importer General Sportwear.
“The big push is speed, and if you have to wait to see or touch a sample, that slows down the decision-making process,” he told Sourcing Journal.
Color-management provider Datacolor, for example, offers software that lets brands create virtual samples using colors from a company’s color palette on both calibrated and non-calibrated monitors. This affords brands and retailers the ability to edit choices without needing to produce superfluous samples.
Not only does this save in development time and materials costs, but it can help companies advance their sustainability efforts by reducing dyes, fabric and energy usage, the latter of which has become particularly important to millennial and Gen Z consumers, noted Todd Lee, Datacolor product manager.
Daniella Ambrogi, marketing VP, North America at Lectra, agreed. Lectra offers its own end-to-end personalization software, known as Fashion on Demand, that can help reduce samples and increase efficiencies.
“Being able both to bring products to market faster and create [them] efficiently through the reduction of physical samples is a major competitive advantage in the fashion market,” she said. Manufacturers using this type of tech can communicate more productively with brands and retailers, as can internal designers and product development teams.
Not surprisingly, the ability to reduce product samples is more challenging for some categories than others. In denim, for example, softness and stretch are hallmark characteristics, and some designers believe virtual samples aren’t equivalent to the hands-on testing expected throughout the development process.
For this reason, General Sportwear is still exploring how to use of 3D technology and virtual samples. In the meantime, the jeans maker does employ Gerber PLM and AccuMark technology for pattern and marker making. Now in its third year of use, the Cloud-based platforms have enabled the company to reduce remakes by 20 percent by introducing more accuracy into its processes, said Rosenstock. The tech’s enhanced efficiencies, meanwhile, have cut the company’s typical development cycle from two to three weeks down to one to two weeks.
Xcel Brands, which counts the Isaac Mizrahi, C. Wonder and Halston brands under its umbrella, is implementing a multi-pronged approach of using technology in order to be smarter about what it makes, Robert D’Loren, CEO and chairman, told Sourcing Journal. As part of this, it’s using 3-D design software to reduce the samples it produces and to test designs at the consumer level even before they go into production.
The company has quite a bit of experience using 3D in this way, having already fully integrated the tech within its jewelry lines of business. D’Loren said he expects to have the technology fully incorporated into its apparel process within the next 12 months.
With jewelry, 3D tech is used all the way from concept to e-commerce sale, enabling the company to post 3D renderings of products to gauge consumer reaction within 24 hours to finalize a design. According to D’Loren, consumers can’t tell that the website image of an earring or necklace is a 3D design. Using 3D in this way has a direct impact on margins since the company is less likely to go into full production on pieces that don’t sell through.
“The images are that good,” he said. “We believe in time we can get there with apparel, and that will enable us to truly be smarter [about what we make].”
Xcel currently uses Browzwear’s design technology, which D’Loren said it chose because of its open-source platform. Although there remains a bit of both a skills gap and a learning curve for the tech—as well as the typical change-management challenges associated with new transitions—he’s optimistic that these barriers to success will be overcome.