The ecent recession has made consumers even more money conscious, surveys have shown that good quality in garments are an imperative because of better value for money. Garments with longer life are also more sustainable, not filling landfills with throwaway fashion. Quality and consistent fit contribute to brand loyalty, bringing more customers and increased cash flow. How can better quality and fit be achieved within tight deadlines and changing body shapes?
Expert interview with: Philippe Ribera, Marketing Director, Software, Lectra.
Ben Hanson: One component of fashion that’s often neglected in analyses is quality. The emphasis is so firmly placed on speed to market and delivery of styles that are on-trend and on time, that the actual quality and durability of the garments themselves can be forgotten in the rush to store shelves. Do you believe that quality and durability are as important today as they have been in the past?
Philippe Ribera: Quality and durability are contextual. For example, a high-end tailored coat would be expected to fit well and retain its appearance after years of dry cleaning and ironing. A trendy dress, on the other hand, is developed to last a season. With intimate wear, durability may not be the main concern, but precise fit is crucial. So yes, durability and quality are still as important as ever, but they must be considered within the limits and demands of each market segment.
Ben Hanson: As you and I know, sustainability is the watchword of modern product development. A large part of this is working with sustainable source of material and with partners who abide by environmental legislation, but another “hidden factor” is the disposal of the garments themselves. Presumably increasing quality and durability can have a direct effect on how soon a product is disposed? In a world of quick-fix fashion, do you find that brands and their customers are receptive to the idea of products designed to last?
Philippe Ribera: When did you last throw out a garment because it was worn out, rather than because you just weren’t wearing it anymore? Most clothes get tossed because they are no longer worn, not because they are no longer fit to be worn, aside from children of course! So while there is no doubt that customers are aware of the need to waste less and recycle more, there’s also little evidence to suggest that increasing quality and durability would significantly increase the lifespan of garments in the average closet. Again, this is a question of purpose and market demand: fast fashion trend items are simply not designed to “last,” while a high-end trench, for example, is developed to weather many storms. Markets that demand quality and durability will continue to do so.
Ben Hanson: And how do retailers and brands go about achieving this kind of quality and durability on such tight deadlines, not just in terms of sourcing the materials and ensuring the manufacturing processes, but also factoring in the time required for sampling and quality assurance?
Philippe Ribera: One word: simultaneity. The key to achieving the right level of quality for a specific price point is careful coordination. This means doing things in parallel rather than sequentially. For example, fabric sourcing and testing need to happen as designs are being prepared, colours defined, and trims sourced. And all of this as prototype samples are being made and fitted. This requires precise planning and control, made more difficult by the high volume of styles typical of “fast fashion” retailers. But thoughtfully prepared, an overall development plan is an effective tool for meeting this challenge.
Ben Hanson: Once we assume that the quality of the garments themselves is assured, there’s another key factor in customers’ willingness to hold onto premium products rather than opt for something more disposable: fit. It’s no secret that shoppers’ body shapes have changed alongside their tastes and their demand for new styles; how do retailers and brands go about ensuring that their garments don’t just endure, but fit and feel good enough for customers to want to keep?
Philippe Ribera: Fit is a crucial factor in a garment’s success or failure. The most successful retailers are those who really know what fits their target consumer. Many rely on fit models chosen for their similarity to a target market, but this method is far from foolproof: the model’s shape may change, he or she might not be available at the time of fitting, a model only represents a single size. A more surefire method is to identify “winning” garments, or those patterns known to have a successful fit, and use those patterns as a base for developing new styles. Graded and stored electronically those patterns provide a more consistency and reliability that using a human fit model each time.
Ben Hanson: Lastly, how much of this improvement – in quality, in fit, in durability and in brand loyalty – is enabled by technology? Is it possible for retailers and brands to achieve the same goals by adhering to their existing methods?
Philippe Ribera: The “existing methods” means manual methods, which are no longer sufficient in the face of increasing product diversity and consumer demand. The increasing complexity of garment design and development demands a sophisticated response. Computerised flat pattern engineering systems now allow faster and more accurate pattern generation, but still rely on physical fitting for development. 3D technology, however, offers the possibility to perform fitting on a virtual mannequin specifically adjusted to reflect the consumer target. This enables more accurate fitting across the whole size range while significantly reducing the number of fit samples needed to validate a style. It’s quite common to see a reduction from four samples to a single, final physical sample.
The bewildering array of manual and computer systems that companies relied on in the past to manage collection development just doesn’t cut it anymore. Today, Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems help control and manage the timely completion of the many parallel processes implicit in bringing a garment to market. A competent PLM system presents accurate, appropriate, and filtered data to reduce time wasted hunting down information. In addition to storing information in a single, shared database, PLM systems manage task execution within each process. Data reports keep team members up to date on action to be taken, resulting in fewer errors and late deliveries. PLM implies reviewing and refining process; it is much more than “just” a software implementation.