How Technology is Changing Fashion From Behind the Seams

4/30/2013
At New York Fashion Week, shades of red, from muted rose to flaming magenta, cutouts, plaids, rounded shoulders, comfort clothing, and fur commanded attention. London Fashion Week dazzled our senses with animal prints, a punk attitude, polished tailoring, furry collars and shiny PVC. But for all the ways the annual shows visually thrill us, just as many fashion-forward developments are happening in the background, and on the backend, that aren't meant to be seen.

From laser etched and 3D printing to gadget-embedded apparel, we're familiar with the ways technology is changing the way fashion looks, feels and acts. But technology's lesser known – and more gradually emergent – role in fashion is the way it's altering the industry's fundamental business practices. High-tech buying and selling transactions will make next season (and all future seasons) more efficient, impactful and profitable for the retailers, designers and voices of fashion.

If you follow business technology trends, the idea of an online supply chain management platform may be conceptually familiar as a tested solution for other vertical industries. The difference now is that the fashion industry – fundamentally rooted in no less than utter creative abandon – seems primed to embrace it as a tool to help drive hard business objectives. Wholesale market technology is critical for those who aim to turn a profit and grow market share while indulging their creative visions; it's a foundation that's becoming essential to competing in the modern, connected marketplace.

The traditional way of fashion buying and selling via trade shows and showrooms isn't going away soon because this is a business dependent upon experiencing the product firsthand. When the economy forced buyers as a whole to reduce their travel, the need for an intimate buyer-seller experience didn't evaporate. Innovators recognized new market realities as an opportunity to create unique ways for those engagements to continue and ultimately introduced incredible efficiencies to the process.


Likewise, a new generation of online wholesale facilitators is focused on virtually bringing together designers and retailers who want to identify sales venues and the right apparel to carry. Wholesale backend technology isn't new, but it is new and significant to fashion. In addition to facilitating matches between buyers and sellers, these platforms are built on technologies that bring sophistication to the industry's ordering system. Until now, and for many retailers and designers it is still the case — the industry standard for wholesale transactions was an archaic process. Without an online alternative, designers had no choice but to use the old pink-yellow-white carbon copy papers for in-person orders, or to use digital lookbooks, emails and spreadsheets to transact and record online orders.

Think of it as e-commerce for fashion supply chain players. The typical solution provider's business model is simple: buyers can use the platform for free, while designers are charged a small percentage of each transaction and usually a one-time subscription fee. Why would a design brand opt to incrementally invest in an online facilitator when meeting in-person is free? Because of the proven advantages: by easily tracking what's selling, designers can keep pace with demand for hot items or modify styles in response to retailer feedback. For example, brands can upload their latest seasons directly to a platform; communicate directly with interested buyers; integrate seamlessly with retailers' back-end systems to manage inventory in real time, and pull up-to-date analytics and production forecasts.

On the retail side, working through a wholesale market facilitator also makes big business sense. The vicious cycle of retailers never selling the product that people want — bikinis hit the show floor in cold January and will be marked down in May — can be great for the consumer, but not ideal for business margins. With an online wholesale platform, buyers have the option to note what they like at the shows; interact with a designer on his or her site and then visit a respective trade show booth or showroom (or vice versa), which can culminate in an online order. With access to collections online and streamlined digital order placement, retailers become more nimble in responding to consumer preferences and behaviors and current in meeting the demands of their market.

Operational efficiencies aside, online fashion wholesale platforms provide an entirely new way for businesses to leverage all of their existing but underutilized data. Popularly referred to as "big data," most customer-centric, product-focused companies gather and store a massive collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools.

But big data is a big opportunity for fashion because when captured and curated wisely, patterns can reveal unexpected relationships between retailer demand, brand design and inventory and individual market performance. These connections can be used as predictive intelligence that inform future sales and marketing strategies and improve the bottom line. For example, with a dashboard view of buying patterns, brands can make real-time shifts in production and inventory that can increase sales and decrease excess product. Retailers can isolate purchasing patterns over periods of time to identify seasonal, quarterly or annual demand trends that can reveal inefficiencies in buying behaviors and allow them to tighten their margins.

Still, even with all the benefits of efficiency, the online wholesale platform is not intended to replace in-person engagements, but rather to complement them. There is nothing that can substitute the impact of a buyer feeling a dress fabric in his or her own hands, or of a designer being able to describe the concept behind a collection, but technology is playing a role in making those live interactions more collaborative and business operations more efficient, overall. Pretty dazzling.

Mona Bijoor is founder and CEO of JOOR, the first online wholesale fashion marketplace that brings the entire buying process for retailers and designers into one sleek, sophisticated platform. JOOR currently works with over 500 brands and 15,000 retailers.

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