What See Now-Buy Now Means for the Production Side of Fashion

Jessica Binns
Senior Editor
In addition to its earth-friendly end of life, organic cotton enables brands and manufacturers to be nimble, says Tara St James, founder of the ethical women's wear label Study NY and production coordinator and research fellow in zero waste manufacturing at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator.

From Burberry to Tommy Hilfiger, a growing number of designers is opting out of the traditional fashion calendar and making hot-off-the-runway collections instantly available to consumers. Driven by customers wholly uninterested in waiting around for six months to purchase styles they're seeing splashed across Instagram right now, shoppable runways are a natural evolution of where fashion has been heading.

But how does this new see now-buy now reality affect sourcing and production? At the Apparel Sourcing trade show last month, hosted by Texworld at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, representatives from diverse corners of the industry gathered to discuss emerging options for finding mills, fabrics and factories that can meet evolving production needs.

To enable quicker speed to market, many clothing companies are going to have to re-engineer their supply chains, says David Sasso, vice president of sales for Buhler Quality Yarns of Jefferson, Ga. Spinners such as Buhler are recognizing their role as important partners in the production decision-making process and navigating thorny issues such as figuring out how much yarn and fabric to hand on hand in order to react to demand and how to delay color selection until the very last minute. "This doesn't happen by chance," Sasso notes. "We need a commitment by brands and retailers to say, ‘this will make my supply chain the most efficient.'"

In addition to its earth-friendly end of life, organic cotton enables brands and manufacturers to be nimble, says Tara St James, founder of the ethical women's wear label Study NY and production coordinator and research fellow in zero waste manufacturing at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Brands that work with organic cotton often choose to keep greige material in stock until they know which colors they plan to produce. What's more, brands that choose just a single color can negotiate a better manufacturing price, she adds.

Digital printing allows fashion brands to plan smartly and change up their styles very quickly and has the added benefit of being sustainable. Indeed, it's a throwback to the good old days when customers who wanted a particular item commissioned a tailor or seamstress to produce it, notes Arthur Friedman, senior editor for WWD who moderated the panel discussion.

In the apparel manufacturing exodus from the Americas to China and elsewhere in the 1990s, companies lost sight of the value of time, chasing rock-bottom labor prices instead, according to Sasso. Many brands are "trying to save ten cents and lose a dollar — or two. They lose the ability to capture the consumer desire to buy right now," he explains, adding that many companies underestimate the effect that speed to market can have on maximizing margins and minimizing markdowns. Indeed, small deliveries to retail can encourage the consumer to buy now because the product may disappear from the store quickly, says Kai Chow, director of creative services for The Doneger Group, a fashion and retail advisory firm.

The obsession with cost of goods overshadows many other factors that can drive up overall costs. The bottom line is what should matter most, notes Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy and co-founder of sustainable fashion manufacturer MetaWear. Even if domestic production yields higher cost of goods, factors such as risk, high minimums and long lead times for manufacturing overseas often means producing locally is more profitable in the end. Working with factories and mills close to home enables greater control and flexibility, allowing designers to make changes that would be more costly with overseas suppliers, adds St James.

And while Buhler fields numerous inquiries from apparel companies that want to accelerate time to market, some domestic mills and factories are wary that firms potentially interested in local production aren't going to commit for the long haul. Just as clothing companies hop from one sourcing country to another chasing what's cheap or trendy, some U.S. manufacturers "don't trust that you're going to stay," Sasso says.

However, brands including British fast-fashion retailer Boohoo have found a way to make local manufacturing work. Despite producing 50 percent of its goods in the UK, the company is growing by healthy double-digit percentages, says Chow.

In the future, new disruptive manufacturing models will emerge, evolving the role of the brand and the retailer, says St James. Concepts such as micro-manufacturing — producing one-off items or at incredibly small scale — could become commonplace. Already, brands such as Wool and the Gang are "activating customers to become manufacturers," St James explains, adding that some will remove themselves from the production process altogether. Wool and the Gang sells, in addition to finished garments, hand-knitting kits, activating its knitting community so that one customer who doesn't want to knit an item herself can contract another knitting customer to craft it for her.

"One day we're all going to have 3D printers in our kitchens," St James says. "You're laughing but we're going to be printing plastic objects, our garments. Instead of Amazon drones drop-shipping products, we're going to have 3D printers and make [them]k ourselves."

Rather than creating finished products, the fashion designers of the future will build programs, outlines and templates, St James predicts: "The customer becomes purchaser and producer."

Despite the consumer desire to have "instant everything" — 3D printing certainly is a part of that — fast fashion's days may be numbered. "Slow fashion is becoming the counterpoint," says St James. "The next generation is looking for something different with engagement with their product. They're more conscious of what they're putting on their body.

"This generation isn't going to want the same things that we were entrenched with," she continues. "Fast fashion is only 30 years old. We're going to see a shift. It may not be slow fashion, but it may be investing your dollars in something meaningful going forward."

Jessica Binns is senior editor for Apparel Magazine. She can be reached at [email protected].

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