Why On-Time Production for Apparel Brands Depends on Color


It would be an egregious understatement to simply say fashion and apparel purchasing trends have changed a lot in recent years. What was once seasonal, designer-driven and marketed in retail outlets is now an industry of consumer-driven, socially marketed fashion delivered within ever-shortening timelines.

Apparel brands are under constant pressure to condense their product lifecycle and respond to trends at record speed. In fact, a McKinsey survey found 80 percent of surveyed apparel companies have worked on or are currently working on improving speed to market and an additional 19 percent plan to work on this within the next 12 months or in the long run.

What’s keeping brands from quickly turning a designer’s vision into a finished product? Apparel brands large and small are all facing similar challenges in their efforts to achieve quicker, more efficient turnarounds while staying true to their brand identity and maintaining quality. Among these, one often-overlooked, but potentially derailing, roadblock is color. So, exactly how is color slowing things down? And is there anything brands can do about it?

Color selection, measurement and communication

Achieving speed to market begins during the design stage with proper color selection. Chemistry limits the colors that can be successfully applied to specific types of fabric, so special care needs to be paid to palette creation. This chemistry, plus lighting concerns, sourcing limitations and other factors, influences the creation of a feasible color palette. By working with color specialists during the design stage, brands can ensure these technical limitations are taken into account from the very beginning and don’t contribute to production delays. Color shouldn’t be an afterthought, but rather one of the first items considered when preparing for next season’s apparel line.

With a color palette in hand, brands must communicate these colors throughout the supply chain. A simple statement, but far from a simple task. Color perception is highly subjective. Inconsistencies in light source, different backgrounds, even altitude and noise can impact how we see color. Differences in visual evaluations can lead to sample rejections, wasted time and plenty of confusion. As a result, the industry relies upon specialized equipment, such as spectrophotometers, and quality control software to digitally measure and communicate colors between brands and their suppliers. These tools capture accurate, repeatable color measurements that can be precisely communicated down the supply chain — regardless of location, individual color perception or other influencing factors.

The challenge of the “unmeasurables”

Unfortunately, nearly 50 percent of material can’t be measured by a traditional spectrophotometer and, until recently, were considered to be “unmeasurable.” These exceptions included multi-colored prints and textured materials like lace, trim, yarn, etc., and as a result, this category of textiles are evaluated with unreliable, inconsistent data from visual color evaluation. A manual color development process can span several weeks or even months when color measurement is completed visually. It requires brands and their suppliers to physically create and ship multiple rounds of lab samples overseas for approval — a costly, time consuming process that dramatically lengthens the time from color concept to consumer.

Thankfully, new, innovative spectrophotometers were recently introduced to the industry, bringing the benefits of digital color measurement and communication to this previously neglected category. The new technology has yet to fully take hold across supply chains, however its ongoing adoption is already shortening the approval cycle and effectively eliminating weeks in the development and production process. 

Brands will be most successful if they commit to changing their workflows to support modern color management technology and optimal workflows and processes. It requires an upfront investment and supply chain-wide adjustments, which may be off-putting, but the benefits of increased quality, reduced costs and faster production times are hard to ignore.

Color approval bottlenecks

However, speed to market is about more than just digitization. Often, a disconnect in the supply chain is what leads to slowdowns and errors. This can be attributed, in part, to poor transparency, a lack of accountability among suppliers and the absence of real-time data to inform decision making. Choosing the right supplier for a specific project can make or break a brand’s on-time and on-budget production goals.

For example, a quality supplier can help expedite the production cycle by working directly with brands to ensure color-fabric combinations can be achieved, or even to simply approve samples. A common bottleneck in the development cycle is color and fabric sample approvals. This is especially true when a brand needs to match colors from different sources, resulting in a lengthy and challenging approval process. As a result, brands often require multiple rounds of physical lab dips and strike offs until a sample is finally approved — a surprisingly costly process that wastes time and resources.

An ideal supply chain would prioritize certifying mills that brands trust to approve their own colors and that can provide real-time data for tracking purposes. This type of arrangement could radically shorten the workflow by eliminating approval rounds, allowing mills to focus on other issues that improve quality of the finished garment or product.

Improved color management can help fashion brands remain competitive in an industry where speed to the consumer is critical. Color can act as an unseen roadblock in the product development process unless brands take action. By prioritizing color and reducing associated bottlenecks, brands will be rewarded with improved product quality, faster speed to market and overall cost efficiency.

Dustin Bowersox is the market manager for textiles and apparel at Datacolor, and has more than 20 years of experience in the textile and color industry. Datacolor is a global leader in color management solutions and provides software, instruments and services to assure accurate color of materials, products and images. The world’s leading brands, manufacturers and creative professionals have used Datacolor’s innovative solutions to consistently achieve the right color for more than 45 years. Industries served include textile and apparel, paint and coatings, automotive and plastics as well as photography, design and videography. For more information, visit: datacolor.com.

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