With Technology, Staying Ahead of the Curve

"Brand is everything," says Bill Brewster, president of software solutions for Gerber Technology, based in Tolland, CT. "You've got to protect your brand."
And that's precisely what the apparel technology firm aims to provide with its product lifecycle management (PLM) and product design management (PDM) software offerings. It's imperative, Brewster says, for companies to protect their patterns and specs -- which is their form of intellectual property.
"The industry is becoming more tech savvy," says Brewster, "and the technology needs to be simple, easy to use, intuitive. It needs to support the creative and business processes. Designers don't want to be bogged down with entering data."
Gerber's biggest priority with its software is facilitating the creative process in a productive way. "You use technology because you see value in it," says Brewster.
Indeed, many companies have found value in implementing Gerber solutions; at the firm's annual ideation conference in New Orleans this fall, a few of them revealed how technology has eased the pains of the pattern collaboration process and contributed to a private-label success story.
"Pattern-makers are like the janitor in the back, cleaning up the mess"
Sherri Finlay, head of patterns for New York & Co., shared how in 2005 her company decided to streamline its operations by reducing inventory, which meant replacing high order volumes with chase orders. Patternmakers were taking shortcuts to get patterns and samples made. "We were losing control of the development process," she says.
New York & Co.'s key objectives during the 2005 overhaul: shorten the calendar time while improving the product development process, and manage over-development strategically, while maintaining control of overbuys. To achieve this, 95 percent of pattern development was moved to vendors, although all corrections were handled internally. Finlay was quick to note that development for key items and important buys was done in-house.
The most difficult part of the patternmaking transition resulted from mistrust and miscommunication between the in-house staff and the vendors. "We in the U.S. say they don't know what they're doing, and [the vendor] in Asia says the same thing about us in the U.S.," Finlay says. "Patternmaking is a very promotional field. No one wants to be told they don't know what they're doing."
Overcoming the language barrier -- which Finlay says is one of the most challenging aspects of the apparel design business -- was an integral part of retraining internal staff and external vendors to use AccuMark and webPDM. It was a significant time investment; New York & Co. actively supported the new process, considered vendor feedback and documented best practices on its extranet site. The site was particularly useful for setting guidelines for sending and receiving patterns and markers. And to help with that pesky language barrier, Finlay encouraged her team to illustrate and demonstrate whenever possible, posting videos, screenshots, etc., to help communicate to the vendor what changes were needed.
As of fall 2010, the company has approximately 800 patterns, and the vendors are producing an average of 85 patterns per week.
The key takeaways from the process?
1. Listen to vendor and factory requests. Ask what you're doing right and what could be better.
2. Document everything and make it accessible.
3. Illustrate and document whenever possible. Educate all stakeholders, internally and externally.
4. Establish and live your best practices before you expect this of your vendors.
Staying ahead of the curve
Walter Meck, owner of Pennsylvania-based private-label apparel manufacturer Fessler, shared his philosophy on achieving success in this business. First, the past doesn't count: 90 percent of what matters is what you do next, whereas 10 percent of what matters is what you did. Rule number two: plan, don't react. Forty percent of the time companies need to "play it straight" but 60 percent of the time they should be striving to stay ahead of the curve. And finally -- get out of the box and be creative.
To that end, Meck says it was important to Fessler both to identify an apparel niche that could remain in the USA -- in light of how NAFTA and CAFTA shook up the industry -- and to source new fabrics. Its commitment to flexibility and delivering a quick turnaround enabled Fessler to deliver 500 units, for example, to customer Lucky Brand a mere two weeks from the order date.
In addition to being highly efficient in its business practices, Fessler aims for efficiency in its operations as well. "The goal is to be off by the grid by 2015," says Meck, of plans to run a sustainable, energy-efficient facility. Currently, the company's water and sewer lines are off the grid.
In looking forward, Meck voiced concerns about the corollary impact of rising cotton prices on synthetics -- Fessler relies most heavily on fabrics that are a polyester/rayon blend, but rising cotton prices could force more companies to turn to synthetics, driving up the costs of those as well.
And despite the growing consumer interest in all things organic, Meck says there's a lot that retailers need to learn about marketing earth-friendly apparel. "No one knows how to sell organic," he says, claiming that most big retailers shy away from organic clothing. "We sell most of our organic [apparel] through the internet."
Jessica Binns is associate editor of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected]
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