The Uncommon Good: Making Apparel in the 21st Century

If you’ve been watching the apparel industry for a long time, there are things you’ve likely come to realize about it. One of them? The inexorable march of time does not care about your apparel business model. Time doesn’t really care about anything, but I’m going to stay focused.

I am reminded of that often, as when I see how microfactories and automation are transforming the industry or how is delivering product via drone or how consumers are creating their own personalized sneakers, and I was reminded of it yet again listening to Gerson & Gerson’s Barbara Zeins speak at the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN)’s regional meeting in Charlotte early this month.

Apparel and textiles, she reminded us, have always been a changing game — one that favors better products and speed. Today’s fears that automation will eliminate jobs or that tariffs will cause supply chain disturbances are nothing new. Consider that, as far back as the 1600s, when ready-to-wear was not yet a twinkle in the eye of a needle, the East India Company caused a major fluff-up when it introduced calico to the British market. Unlike the wool fabric that predominated, the new cotton fabric imported from Asia was cool, comfortable, easy to clean and cheaper! Despite the 400 percent mark-up, consumers still paid one-third the price of that itchy wool. Needless to say, the woolen trade was decimated, but it didn’t go without a fight.

Enter a series of laws dubbed the Calico Acts in 1700 and 1721 that first banned the import and then restricted the sale of most cotton textiles into England; it even banned the wearing of them. And yet the exemption of raw cotton from the ban on imports triggered the development of mechanized spinning and weaving technologies in new cotton mills. The Flying Shuttle (1733) mechanized weaving and the Spinning Jenny (1764) spun thread at eight times the pace of a single worker. In 1769, the Water Frame, the first “purpose built” factory in the world, was the first business to operate based on a clock instead of daylight hours. But these advancements displaced people who performed these tasks by hand, and soon workers were rioting and breaking machines. Meanwhile, yet other laws were passed against the export of these productive machines, even prohibiting those with the technical know-how to construct them from leaving the country.

But eventually, a young man memorized the designs of the textile technology and brought it to the United States, designing the first mills in this country and opening the first spinning mill, in Rhode Island. Samuel Slater became known as the Father of the American Industrial Revolution.

And so it goes, from the U.S. Northeast, to the U.S. Southeast, to Central America and to Asia, the industry has chased low costs and technology, juggling duties and tariffs and quotas and yarn-forward rules, wrangling with political, legal, logistical and environmental risks, playing out the Flying Geese Theory, which shows “that almost all dominance in world markets is temporary and … the most impressive stories of national … victories end with sobering postscripts of shifting comparative advantage,” says Zeins, quoting from Travels of a Tee Shirt in a Global Economy.

And yet this theory may not hold. Zeins asks: “Is it possible that we are at the end of the chasing of cheap labor?” Why would we be? “Because at the exact moment in history when we have moved from a market of millions of consumers to millions of markets of single consumers, our supply chains are incapable of supplying what they want.”

Consumers want personalization and customization — and they want it now. They also want a view into the people and places where their products come from to make sure they are sustainably and responsibly produced.

Working a world away is jammed with costs that are antithetical to speed and customization and transparency, including higher costs and time to ensure quality, to communicate, to sample, to perfect pattern and fit. Far-flung supply chains require endless travel and often are accompanied by unexpected delays. But, Zeins says, you can also be fast and still not be right, and you can produce nearby and still not be fast. Some of the distance/time gap, particularly in design and pre-production, too, can be closed up with technologies such as 3D. We need to work better and smarter within the supply chains we have, she says, which requires listening to the voice of consumer and identifying demand signals. We also need to change the math by looking at all costs holistically, rather than each in isolation.

Keep this in mind. “The 20th century was about making goods common,” says Zeins, quoting from Custom Nation“but the 21st century may very well be about making goods uncommon.” Likewise, competing in today’s apparel industry will require a new — and uncommon — way of thinking about how to do business.

More Blog Posts In This Series