From the past two parts of this article series, we have learned that the industry has acknowledged that a revolution in fashion production needs to take place. The feasibility of mass customization and on-demand production is possible only because of multiple tech advancements at every stage of the fashion cycle. In this article we will look at the complete “concept-to-customer” process for apparel industry and study the examples of the various technologies that have evolved at these stages.
In order to meet the demand, brands need to study the market, monitor fashion and social media trends, follow where their customer goes, what he or she reads, enjoys doing, listens to – and predict what they would want to purchase next.
There are lots of tools that will facilitate monitoring and listening to customers on social media. Some of them are Talkwalker, Brandwatch, Mention. These tools provide valuable insights into what is trending on social media in the field that particularly interests your customer.
In addition to plugging into customers, it is crucial to know what your competitors are up to: their merchandise mix, pricing and positioning. To get that data, there are plenty of platforms that can help you in your research and even predict upcoming trends for your customer base. These services track millions of SKUs sold around the world and present it into a comprehensive dashboards, customized for your specific needs.
Trendalytics call themselves a “consumer product intelligence platform that surfaces what consumers want today and tomorrow.” Like the examples above, they gather influencer images shared on social media. But also they gather data on online product searches and on products shopped on thousands of e-commerce sites and present this data in an actionable way for brands to make more calculated decisions on their merchandising strategy.
EDITED is one of the most famous fashion trend analytics company and is based in London. Edited collects data from global fashion brands and retailers and presents in a customized way to their clients to help them offer the right product, at the right price, and at the right time. It also has its own Social Monitor feature, a dashboard of social activity by fashion influencers.
WGSN data tool: Instock – Another platform platform that tracks products from main fashion retailers and presents sales data on styles, colors, prices and other important details. WGSN is a top fashion-forecasting agency, also based in London.
Stylesage is one of the youngest companies that tackle the fashion’s big data. They help brands and retailers with deep analysis of their market data and offer ways to optimize merchandising (down to design detail and color) and pricing strategy to be step ahead of the competition.
Now let’s look at some of the technical challenges of just-in-time production, which are important to plan ahead for anyone who wants to get into on-demand and custom field.
One of the biggest pains in offering customization on brand’s website is a lack of consumer-facing sampling and a poor visualization of a final product, resulting in a client’s dissatisfaction with the purchase.
The most recent rise of customization is tightly connected with the rise of e-commerce, where trying on is mainly possible after a purchase and delivery of the product. Today an on-line shopper is becoming more and more comfortable with “paying” for try-ons by spending money on a purchase and knowing for sure that if they would decide to return the item, it can be easily sent back for a refund or a store credit.
E-commerce is very beneficial for the rise of pre-order business model, however it generates real problems of return volumes, unwanted inventory and losing repeat customers. Return of a customized product indicates a high chance of it never being sold again for obvious reasons. Returned items should be either refunded for the store credit or their cost could be included in the marketing expenses. Not offering free returns is widely unacceptable e-commerce practice nowadays. A bad return policy will turn off the new customers from making purchases and eliminates a chance for customers to experience the benefits of a custom-made product risk-free.
To avoid customer dissatisfaction with a purchase, a brand needs to visualize an end product efficiently: create and shoot real live samples, use less Photoshop for alterations and showcase more detail shots. The high quality imagery is one of the most essential features of any successful e-commerce business; great presentation will drive your sales. Investing time and funds in producing the perfect samples and featuring them in good quality shoots is nonnegotiable. The presentation of customization options can be tricky as there could be countless variations of a product after customizing its multiple aspects. Finding a perfect balance between the number of customization options and their quality visualization is a key to success. The higher degree of customization, the more challenging it is to present to the customer the final product without making it look like a cartoon image. It is best if you can realistically plan and limit custom options to maximize life-likeness of a product and encourage customer to focus and make a purchase decision faster.
Another challenge is the fit of the garments. In the non-inventory model, it is tricky to arrange a try-on, especially if the client is not exactly a sample size.
Producing a range of sizes for each silhouette could be a viable solution for a “showroom-ing” way of selling customizable garments: a customer would come in to the showroom, try on a few silhouettes she likes and discovers their fit. When found the best fit or measured by one of the body scanning technologies – a customer would place a pre-order on that garment in desired size, color and detailing.
Taking the right measurements and creating a perfect fit is as important as making the right product selection. The bad fit can turn into returns and what is worse – unsatisfied customers that would not want to purchase again. The body scanners, digitizers and advanced CAD programs can facilitate the pattern and design development.
The most precise technology for creating right fit-individualized products is body scanning. Through body scanning, a three-dimensional image of person’s body is captured and the exact measurements are taken.
Body Labs collects, digitizes and organizes all of the data and information related to human body shape, pose, and motion. Body Labs technology integrates with computer-aided design programs, enabling customers to design around your target customer’s 3D body shape and measurements, render garments in 3D and detect fit issues without creating physical samples. With this technology designers can significantly reduce design cycles without the time spent and costs of sampling, shipping, resulting in timely, effective production.
Size Stream is a body measurement system using safe depth sensors to make a 3D body model and automatically measure it in just seconds. Size Stream scanners and software are used for research, size prediction and custom fit clothing specification, as well as body measurement for health and fitness applications and color 3D printing applications.
Styku also provides a single 3D depth sensor body scanning, visualization, and measuring technology for the health and apparel markets.
CLO, Optitex and Browzwear are 3D design tools used to visualize true-to-life 3D garments, generate pattern shapes from scratch, simulate various fabric types and drape, fit ranges, and visualize prints.
FitFyle is a consumer-driven platform for clothing retailers that provides accurate size and fit prediction technology to online stores.
True Fit has mapped the footwear and apparel Genome™, the largest set of connected fit and style data in the world from major fashion brands.
Another significant challenge that stops many companies from getting into on-demand/customization business model is a complete restructuring of the supply chain and production process. The system of manufacturing garments on a mass scale is drastically different form one-off item creation. Not only does it involve higher costs and time spent on creating a product, but also it needs an experienced and scalable production hand of the business to serve both high and low volumes of a custom product manufacturing. For many designers, production is the most stressful field of their business and finding the right manufacturing partner is crucial for a traditional brand. High minimum production quantities that most factories require force young brands to relay on their own, in-house manufacturing that encourages pre-ordering and customization.
Tech developments and advanced production management systems will facilitate larger brands that have their own customization business capacity. There are multiple tools that exist to help making on-demand production more efficient than ever: fabric suppliers databases, digital printing, hardware and trims 3D printing, computer numerical control enabled sewing machines, advanced logistics solutions.
Digital printing has been around for decades and nowadays it is widely used, as it became more affordable than ever. Digital printing enables brands to create any type of patterns and designs on the fabric surface.
3D knitting has also been around for a while, but haven’t taken off the same way digital printing did – just yet. 3D knitting is a way to create complete garment on seamless from a design and pattern converted into a computer program. I believe this type of production is a future of knitwear. Unmade (mentioned in the first article of this series) is one of the best examples of using 3D knitting technology for custom sweaters creation. A New York based vertically integrated brand Thursday’s Finest uses 3D knitting technology to create customizable men’s ties. Stoll is one of the most famous providers of the 3D knitting machinery.
For the woven garments, advancements in computer enabled cutting and sewing machines are currently being developed around the world.
In the near future, the popularization of robotics for apparel manufacturing is going to change the course of the industry drastically, however with this technology has still a very limited capacity. The biggest challenge for robotics creators now is to teach machines how to manipulate and assemble stretchable fabrics and elastic elements of a garment. It requires more precision compared with construction of products made of hard materials, like plastic and metals, used in electronics and automobiles industries.
Various supply chain optimization software and warehouse management systems are shaping the future in the timely distribution space. With the right partners and tools and smart integration, the process of on-demand manufacturing has a chance to become automated, thus quick and painless.
However there are some challenges with these technologies as they are still in their early stages of development, in addition the cost of their implementation can be affecting the margin quite heavily.
Another side of the supply chain challenge for mass customization is effective use of existing manufacturing facilities. Currently factories have a full running cycles of production for the future season (usually, fall-winter collections are produced in Spring and Spring/Summer collection are produced in fall), so interruption of the cycle and appending an on-demand hand of manufacturing facility would involve large investments in both technology and human labor. Openness to a change from the management team, flexibility, increased number of brand partnerships and technology-driven production planning would help factories step into the production cycle of the future, without loosing main source of income from mass production that will be around for years ahead.
We are already seeing mass customization pure-players and direct-to-consumer pre-order brands emerge and win hearts of customers every year. In the coming 2-4 years, we’ll see many larger brand names start tapping the on-demand business model. Rebecca Minkoff, Michael Kors, Theory and Tory Burch are already ahead of the game by accepting customers’ pre-orders right after a new collection releases.
These brands are dominating the contemporary fashion market, catering the individuality-obsessed millennial consumer. Millennials will appreciate more and more opportunities to be included in the design process of their favorite brands garments, customized to match their individual stylistic preferences.
To summarize, let’s review the benefits and costs of on-demand and custom production.
- Elimination of on unsold inventory/stock and warehousing costs
- Access to first hand customer information for their specific needs and customization preferences
- Adaptability to new fashion trends and fads
- Avoiding lost sales due to out of stocks and markdowns
- Better quality product
- Investment in technology for visualization and order placement (UX & UI), product management and integration with manufacturers’ systems
- Smaller batches lead to higher costs of raw materials sourcing and production
- Logistics costs, such as shipping few pieces is not as cost effective as shipping a large batch of a seasonal inventory order.