The good thing about making social-occasion dresses is that the category is one of the few these days that department stores haven't chosen to knock off with their own private label lines. The main reason is that they're so difficult to make.
The bad thing is that they're so difficult to make.
"Social dressing is quite a challenging endeavor because the bill of materials required to make these garments includes several different fabrics and many different kinds of trim," says Matthew Gerson, CEO of Manhattan-based Gerson & Gerson Inc., which makes dresses primarily under the Bonnie Jean label. "Then getting it all to come together and finding contractors who can sew these garments effectively is another challenge along the way."
Dress making also involves working with hundreds of SKUs each season in a wide range of sizes and in small quantities.
Gerson, a second-generation owner whose company is celebrating its 70th year in business, attributes Gerson & Gerson's success to having the "right people in the right place," and spending "an awful lot" on technology. "It's the combination of the two that has paid off quite well for us," says Gerson.
Keeping fashion turning with technology
Barbara Zeins, the president who's been heading up the technology push since joining Gerson & Gerson 15 years ago, describes the IT effort as a "relentless drive" to shorten product cycle time, reduce expenses and keep fashion turning.
"We've tried to reduce our turn time dramatically every year," says Zeins. "We offer a very large and somewhat customizable product line, so we work individually with each store to tailor things to match their requirements."
Most of the technology is designed to improve collaboration, and is developed internally. Zeins says she believes "homegrown technology" develops solutions "tailored to our particular business needs and our culture."
The Internet has played a huge role in improving collaboration with factories. Factories can log onto a password-protected web site to access advance ship notices, production and shipping schedules and other relevant information. (The company sources primarily from El Salvador, Colombia, Sri Lanka, China and the Philippines, and has one plant in North Carolina, where its distribution center is located.)
Gerson & Gerson is also working with TukaTech to integrate pattern making and product development software to work more efficiently with overseas vendors. Zeins says she hopes these systems will reduce the amount of air shipping required to finalized pattern design, grading and marking with factories.
From the retail IT perspective, the firm uses an application that allows Gerson & Gerson to review its weekly selling figures at major department stores.
"My sellers and designers can pull up pictures of the styles that turned fastest for each of the stores," says Zeins.
With department stores' demanding margin assistance for slow sellers, it's become more important to have the right items in the stores, says Zeins. "If we're profitable for the stores, we have no problems. We're going to get more and more business, and we're going to have great relationships," she notes. "We really study what's selling, and make sure they have more of it, and less of the stuff that's not. It's a pretty simple proposition, but it's hard to do. You have to get a lot of good information fast."
Internally, Gerson & Gerson has developed visual applications to allow employees to view any style or bill of materials instantly at their desktops, says Zeins.
The aim is not only to cut expenses but also to prevent employees from getting bogged down in dealing with issues such as airway bill numbers, faxing, sending packages and duplicative work.
"You're letting the computer do all the grunt-work while your employees do the real "brain stuff,' " says Zeins. "We want them just making decisions based on good information."
She also says better technology has allowed her staff to collaborate faster. Indeed, Zeins says the "old-fashioned way" of bringing fashion to market -- a prototype is passed around the design, sales and production teams several times for changes and approvals -- doesn't cut it anymore.
Time is of the essence, says Zeins. "Everybody has to be able to work collaboratively and quickly, and put an order to bed. Otherwise, by the time you complete all the normal steps we all used to take, you lose the order, and the customer loses interest. That's what it's all about, and that's why technology is critical."
All garment companies basically have the same issues, she says, but those companies that can respond "the fastest and the best" get the orders.
Classic product and can-do attitude
Besides quick turnaround capabilities, Zeins credits the firm's success to the Bonnie Jean creative team and says customers are responding to Gerson & Gerson's traditional take on girls' clothing.
"Parents are tired of making girls look like harlots and pleased that they can get something that has a little bit of fashion but is not stomach-bearing and shoulder-bearing. It's clothing that still lets them be little girls," says Zeins.
Gerson also applauds the firm's employees for their willingness to accept new technologies.
"We're not always leading edge; we're more like "bleeding edge' because we dive into stuff," he says. "We're excited by new software and hardware and how it will help us build a better product and get information across the lines of the company more effectively. As a firm, we're not afraid to charge forward.