Innovation Yin-Yang: Celebrating the Physical and the Digital

I’m writing this having just dropped my daughter off at a woodworking camp for her first week of summer break, and I’m reminded of just how satisfying it is to create something with your own hands — something that has feel and dimension and takes up space. After just one day of sawing and chiseling, the floor is covered in wood curlicues, and the scent of shavings wafts out from the artists’ loft. The space is part of a beautifully remodeled old building called 701 CCA (Center for Contemporary Art) here in Columbia, S.C. It used to house The Carlton Shirt Co., but is now a multi-purpose venue with an art gallery, event space and a few businesses and residences. Across the street are several buildings that now house living and retail spaces but once were textile mills.

It’s nice to see these buildings come back to life, even if for different purposes than they were originally constructed. Across the country, we’re seeing revival of this sort everywhere. Happily, it does also include a return of apparel and textile manufacturing to cities where it once thrived, and even to new locations. In fact, several of the 28 winners of Apparel’s Innovator Awards featured in this month’s cover story are bringing apparel to life here in the United States — and they’re doing it sustainably, with people and planet in mind. India-based AKR Textiles is building a state-of-the-art cut-and-sew facility in Fall River, Mass., that will create jobs in the region and also serve as an education incubator, while Fashions Unlimited has stayed the course of U.S. manufacturing for more than four decades by creating unique and difficult-to-sew garments. You’ll read about the return of indigo production to South Carolina at Chi Design Indigo, and, at Courbe, the development of apparel made with hemp — a versatile fiber that is finally getting its day in the sun.

Beyond the tactile parts of the apparel supply chain — the textiles and apparel themselves, of course, but also the shop-floor equipment and the ships and the pallets and the trucks and the conveyors and the packaging and the hangers draped over an arm on the way to the dressing room — lies something with zero weight but more heft: data. Today’s businesses rise and fall on their ability to collect, analyze, use, view — and act — on one version of data, in real-time, across the entire apparel lifecycle from concept to consumer, and across channels. All of our Innovator Award winners are information gatherers, of course. Many of our winners were selected because of the smart ways that they are syncing up their supply chains and using data across them to improve everything from order management and fulfillment to personalized marketing and sizing. Or, put differently, they are streamlining their processes and technology to get one view of inventory and one view of the consumer.

By achieving that unified data and single view, these Innovators are not only improving their business operations by eliminating data redundancy and speeding their supply chains — they, too, are also operating more sustainably, by eliminating wasteful processes, duplicate work and production of apparel that nobody wants to buy. They are also freeing up time — a resource in limited supply — for employees to be more creative and devote their time to building value within their companies as well as their communities, both local and global, and, ultimately, to delight the customer.

That is, of course, is what it’s all about.

We congratulate all of this year’s Innovator Award winners for their creativity, ingenuity and perseverance and hope you, our readers, enjoy their inspiring stories.

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