Talk about on-demand apparel production or local-for-local production have been trickling out for years now, but in the past year it seems like that trickle has become a stream. Is this really happening in America?
While it’s still too early to claim victory for on-demand advocates, there’s no question that the convergence of new technologies, creative entrepreneurs and changing consumer attitudes are increasing the likelihood that we’ll be buying at least some made-to-order clothing, possibly from virtual samples, close to home in the near future.
I don’t know if the farm-to-table movement in restaurants had any impact on what’s happening in apparel, but the opening of Under Armour’s Lighthouse two years ago, along with the first Adidas Speedfactory, brought the term ‘local-for-local’ into mainstream conversation in the apparel and footwear industries.
The idea or vision was that, eventually, most apparel and footwear would be produced in numerous, relatively small, highly automated, production facilities in close proximity to customers with the ability to customize products to customer desires and/or needs. They would be fueled by artificial intelligence driving decisions to make what customers wanted, in many cases, before the customers knew they wanted them. The industry would, in theory, evolve from producing massive quantities of products in Asia with long lead times—only to be discounted ad nauseum at retail to unexcited and disinterested consumers—to producing smaller, customized capsules of on-trend, in-demand products in close proximity to the customer with no need for markdowns.
Because consumers, the industry in general, and the press have not seen tangible progress with those first well-publicized initiatives (even though they may be fulfilling the expectations of their brand owners), there has been radio-silence on the local-for-local front for a while now.
There is no question, however, that an increasing number of industry observers have predicted that we are nearing the end of the “mass market” in apparel as we have known it for the past 70 years or more.
We are entering an era where an almost infinite number of niche brand offerings, each focused on a unique, common-interest tribe of loyalists, is emerging to replace the clothing offerings of the mass retailers (who, by the way, sense the threat, and are responding with innovations of their own: cue Wal-Mart’s Jet.com acquisitions and Store 8, for example).
So, who are these niche brands disrupting traditional retail? The men’s shirt sector has attracted a lot of attention and investment. Stantt, for one, solves the fit challenge by offering 100 sizes, each named after a street in New York City, made to order in the Americas and delivered within days. Proper Cloth offers made-to measure, quick-turn dress shirts. Mizzen & Main offers dress shirts in high-tech performance fabrics that stretch and wick. Untuckit offers shirts that “look good untucked” no matter how big or small or short or tall you are. Most remain small and niche, but if you think PVH—among the largest global retailers of dress shirts—is not watching, learning and innovating on their own, you’d be mistaken.
And other niches abound, too, like 11 Honore for designer/luxury plus-sized licensed apparel; Fame & Partners in custom-fit formal dresses; Mack Weldon, WearCommando, and pioneer Spanx in inner-wear; Third Love in bras; Everlane in transparency; current/Elliot, joie, and equipment in womenswear; Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, Bombfell and Sprezzabox in subscription retail; Rent the Runway in the sharing economy; appaman in kids. And, that’s not even 5 percent of the brands starting up, gaining almost immediate traction due to social media, famous influencers and loyal tribes of followers.
We are moving, however slowly and imperceptibly, from markets of millions to millions of markets of one: a market that will eventually be ‘You.’
The other related, but separate, phenomenon generating buzz in our industry is on-demand apparel production or, in the terminology of Kirby Best, founder of On-Point Manufacturing, “purchase-activated apparel.”
The concept here is to only produce a garment once a customer has purchased it. So no inventory, no long seasonal calendars, no endless opaque supply chains, no markdowns, discounts or obsolescence. All of these are admirable aspirations, especially considering not only the ridiculous economics of most traditional retail but the potential environmental positives.
It’s a little like showrooming, made famous primarily by Bonobos, where the physical shop has one of each style, size and color and you can feel the fabric and try it on but the actual purchase happens online and you receive the product from a central inventory at home within a day or two. Only here, the sample is ‘virtual’ not physical. A customer peruses realistic 3-D imagery of a style, may be able to customize it to their preferences, and, in some cases, virtually try it on their personal avatar to see how it fits, then decide to buy it which triggers the actual production.
The good news is that some of the back-end technology exists today to enable this, some consumer sentiment supports and endorses the concept, and some manufacturing facilities are willing to give it a go. The bad news? Well, there’s not really bad news for those willing to be patient and invest in the future.
For a long list of reasons, and in spite of the Trump Administration’s trade policies and tariffs, apparel production re-shoring–in the traditional sense–is not happening. I’m a fan of Made in USA if, and only if, made in USA makes sense when considering many different but critical business variables. I am, however, a big fan of made-as-close-to-the-customer-as-possible (kind of like farm-to-table food).
We will not mass produce apparel for traditional retail distribution either here, or in Asia for that matter, in the near or distant future. We will, however, micro-produce apparel, more and more, in region, in city, perhaps someday even in home. The microfactory concept is alive and thriving thanks to visionary companies, their people and their investments. Amazon got a lot of attention for receiving a patent for its “on-demand apparel production” model, but give credit to Browzwear, Optitex, Clo-3D, Gerber, Lectra, Zund, EFI Reggiani, Kornit, and dozens of other companies that started as software or hardware providers but have evolved into comprehensive solution providers. On-Point Manufacturing, Bill Grier’s AM4U, Good Clothing Company, Suuchi, and others are pioneering their way to help our industry evolve to being demand-driven rather than supply-driven.
In the long term, that can only be a good thing for consumers, retailers, producers and, of course, our environment.
Someday we may be able to download and 3-D print apparel at home, or share a style like a tune on Spotify, and when it’s out of style or no longer fits, we can recycle it to the next style we want in the fit we need. Between now and then, we should pay attention to—and support—the initiatives of local-for-local and on-demand production. They just make sense.
Ed Gribbin leads Gribbin Strategic advising apparel retailers, brands and suppliers on growth and business development strategy as well as operational excellence in product development and supply chain. Ed is also senior advisor to Alvanon, the industry’s leading innovations company where he served as president for the last seven years.