As lockdown moves into its fourth week for much of Europe, with the US, Australasia and much of Asia following suit, how is isolation affecting the fashion industry’s design and manufacturing teams? What problem-solving solutions are being deployed? What will the impact be on the next fashion collections? We have a view on how they may be shown (virtually, according to part one of this series), but read on for insights from designers, software solution providers, manufacturers, and supply chain experts to hear how COVID-19 is affecting product design, development and production, now and for the foreseeable future.

Design and Manufacturing

London-based fashion designer Steven Tai is currently stranded in Macau at the garment factory he owns as COVID-19 ravages Europe. This is the second lockdown he is experiencing since January. The first was in China following the Chinese new year when machinists from his factory who originate from Wuhan were isolated and unable to return to work. Despite the challenges he and his team have faced since then, including having only two of his twelve seamstresses in the factory to produce his showroom samples for Paris Fashion Week, Tai presented his collection in Paris, albeit to half the number of buyers as usual.  

To reach the 50% of the buyers in lockdown he created a virtual lookbook, ingeniously utilizing a lazy susan turntable to create 360-degree gifs of the collection so that buyers could see the looks in full. The result? Half the orders placed were generated from the virtual lookbook, demonstrating the power of simple digital tools to support businesses during physical distancing.

Everyone is going digital. We did a 360 lookbook so buyers could see the full perspective of the garments. We made low-fi 360 videos that would usually involve 18 cameras on a rig, but we put the model on the lazy susan and spun her. It was happening so quickly.

– Steven Tai, Fashion Designer and Factory Owner

In terms of manufacturing, the biggest impact on Tai’s collection was the lack of fabric availability from China in January, but supply has now been restored, he said. His factory was also able to complete production orders last month for third party brands—fortunately, there were no order cancellations. Tai agrees that manufacturing for their clients (premium and contemporary brands) provides a buffer from the harsh terms currently being dealt to fast-fashion manufacturers hit with mass order cancellations.

Unlike in China, textile suppliers and garment manufacturers are now in complete lockdown in Europe. Spain-based designer Sonia Carrasco launched her namesake label in Barcelona in 2019, following a career at ZARA TRF, Alexander McQueen, and Céline. Carrasco’s womenswear collections sell in Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand, where most of the brick and mortar businesses remain operational but with restricted opening times, making it a challenging time for retail sales.

How is Carrasco handling the COVID-19 lockdown? She told me her next collection will have far fewer designs that are “more creative and detail-focused.” Unable to sample the garments in-house at her studio in Barcelona, Carrasco and her team are now exploring digital prototyping solutions:

We are investing this time in studying innovative ways for sampling digitally, that would be a huge step in our responsible commitment.

– Sonia Carrasco, Fashion Designer and Brand Owner

Carrasco’s collections are produced in small local factories that she says “mostly live month by month.” She continues to support the factories, and says “this is something the whole industry should be doing, supporting their local supply chain.” Her textiles are sourced from mills in Italy and Spain who are accepting orders but “don’t know when they will deliver,” she said. At the time of publishing, an update from Italian yarn suppliers indicates that Industrial lockdown will continue until at least May 4. 

Drawing on her experience as a designer for global fast-fashion and luxury brands, and indicating that now may be the time to design and manufacture differently, she said:

At a certain level, most of us were forced to make what the industry told us to make, but it’s already proven that the industry is broken. We will now concentrate more on making what we want to make and how we want to make it.

– Sonia Carrasco, Fashion Designer and Brand Owner

Supply Chain Solutions

Media coverage in the past weeks has made clear how hard-hit manufacturers in Asia have been by COVID-19. Flora Davidson, a co-founder of SupplyCompass, works with almost 200 factories in India—all of which have ceased production. SupplyCompass is a cloud-based platform that acts as the ‘digital middle-man’ between brands and their partner factories to handle all aspects of garment production. The platform provides tools for design, sourcing and trim selection, tech pack creation, order management and delivery—complete with a real-time status dashboard for the brands placing orders.

At this time of physical lockdown, Davidson urges brands to adopt what she believes are crucial digital tools: “Real-time collaborative design and product development software solutions, 3D digital clothing sampling and virtual fit sessions and digitization of tech packs to manage fit and material libraries for future collections.” SupplyCompass is working to connect its platform to other digital solutions to provide the seamless, end-to-end digitally driven global supply chain that is so urgently needed by the industry.  

The value of such solutions is evident, with Davidson’s co-founder Gus Bartholomew stating that their solution-based digital platform is currently receiving strong interest from investors. 

For us at SupplyCompass, we’re seeing that this crisis is a catalyst for change. Fashion brands need to digitalize to survive and this is pushing brands to do it. So VCs are looking for companies who can help other businesses and consumers in this time of crisis. 

– Gus Bartholomew, co-founder, SupplyCompass

End-to-end digitalization drives production efficiencies, reduces waste and human error and facilitates transparency. With simpler, leaner supply chains winning out during this crisis, COVID-19 appears to be a trigger for brands not yet digitally-focused to begin exploring, if not yet adopting, these solutions.

Made-to-order and mass customization

Perhaps the current ‘best practice’ in supply chain streamlining is made-to-order software systems that connect design and merchandising teams with manufacturing facilities to initiate short lead-time production and one-off custom-made products. Hal Watts, CEO of Unmade, told me that their supply chain software solutions offer efficiency and responsive production so that their clients “can digitize their supply chain to respond to what consumers need and demand.”  

Unmade’s software merges all essential product data to allow the creation of new SKUs without reinventing the wheel. Essentially, brands can tweak a design digitally and then ‘press go on the production button’ via the Unmade platform, with full confidence that the software is ensuring the output product will look and perform as intended, based on previous iterations.

Their software solution is particularly effective for brands using digital manufacturing machines, including knitting (eg. Stoll and Shima), embroidery and printing, as the data points from these can be combined with the digital designs, tech pack and materials data, facilitating the creation of iterated products easily and accurately.

An additional advantage of the Unmade digitized supply chain is that: “You can move production from one factory to another very easily,” said Watts. Citing a COVID-19 example, knitwear product orders at a factory in Indonesia were put on hold as coronavirus spread through China early, so the production order was redirected, via the Unmade platform, to a manufacturing facility in the US (before it was hit by the pandemic).  

Unmade, whose clients include New BalanceRapha, and Farfetch (also investors), are seeing healthy interest in their software solution during the coronavirus outbreak, and interesting business models are also emerging as a result of factories being connected to the Unmade platform. Instead of booking production runs with factories, brands can book machine slots (essentially renting a knitting machine, for example, for specific days each month) to initiate production of any of their digitized products, depending on consumer demand. This flexibility and adaptability could be crucial for the future of the fashion industry as it predicts fewer styles per collection with more SKUs and smaller production quantities, particularly for online retail, post-COVID-19.

On the subject of how the industry is likely to shift after this crisis, Watts believes that consumers will become much more discerning with discretionary purchasing and their connection with brands will be important, as they “will want something meaningful.” Watts also foresees trouble ahead for the low margin fast-moving trend-based retailers:

Boohoo and (those brands at the) bottom of the market don’t have sustainable business models. The environmental and social impact is not priced in. As legislation evolves to include this, those brands will struggle.

– Hal Watts, CEO, Unmade

Another software provider in this realm is Platforme, which offers a made-to-order solution for luxury brands like Gucci and Zegna, who require photorealistic renders of their products for eCommerce that meet the highest standards and level of detail. Platforme connects these ‘life-like’ renders with the factory floor, typically manufacturing and delivering the product within 2 weeks after the online purchase.

How does the software solution work in practice, I asked CEO, Ben Demiri? When a product is purchased online, a dynamic SKU is created with the accompanying tech pack, which is sent to the brand (or the brand’s factory) who then starts manufacturing it. There is a live dashboard that tracks progress so that all stakeholders can see the production status.

What are the limitations? It relies on manufacturing the entire product under one roof and an inventory of raw materials must be held, meaning only certain products can feasibly be offered as made-to-order. The benefits? Research indicates that made-to-order, particularly with customization, attaches more meaning to products and return rates are comparatively low. Another huge advantage, according to Demiri, is the “Typical uplift of 42% on full price for made-to-order, compared to equivalent items that are readily available to purchase.” Demiri and co-founder Gonçalo Cruz are optimistic about the future of made-to-order:

We think in a 5-year pivot, 20-25% of overall production will be made to order.

– Ben Demiri, Group CEO, Platforme

Their current clients include Farfetch (Jose Neves is a Platforme co-founder) and Nordstrom, for whom 30% of their $15bn sales in 2019 were generated online. Demiri explained that although at the moment, made-to-order is focusing on the luxury space, Platforme are working on mass-market launches.  

We are not a solution for the elite (although) we are occupying the top of the pyramid with luxury. The bottom of the period in (terms of) volume is more exciting. A consumer and behavioral shift there will be even more noticeable.

– Ben Demiri, Group CEO at PLATFORME

Research conducted by Platforme (across 25 brands in footwear and accessories categories) indicates the return rate on made-to-order products is 5-7%. Demiri explained to me that In the footwear category, 18-24% of returns are typical, but Zalando report returns as high as 50%, making made-to-order extremely enticing.

How is their business being affected by the COVID-19 crisis? Demiri says they are signing new contracts with brands in Italy and the US as the industry is “forced towards digital solutions.” He said: “This gives (us) a lot of reassurance that this is the right solution if we are getting new business in these circumstances.” He concedes, however, that there are concerns over supplies to their production facilities in Portugal from Italian tanneries and other components manufacturers in Italy. This is no doubt more acute now, as the country has moved into complete lockdown since our interview.

How do brands typically start working with Platforme, I asked? “It’s about creating a compelling proposition, creating an evergreen digital category with no season, drops whenever you want, never on discount, creating a healthier production system. A level of inventory is needed to fuel this in terms of raw material.” He believes the shift to this method of production for a large number of brands will be gradual but says it has commenced. Similarly, during my conversation with Hal Watts, he indicated that their clients usually digitalize the design and production process of one or two products initially, then expand from there.

Who are the brands making the made-to-order model work for them, I asked? Demiri mentioned Son of A Tailor (knitwear and t-shirts) and Fame and Partners (dresses). In terms of 3D product visualization, he believes The Fabricant and Sketchfab are notable. Also notable is Demiri’s collaborative attitude to solving the manufacturing problems the fashion industry faces. Demiri says they want to work with “All complementary technologies, acting as an interconnecting platform.”

Sustainability and climate change in the face of COVID-19 will be the subject of the next article in this series.

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