Over the past month, the famously fast-moving fashion industry has been forced to slow down, or in some cases, come to a screeching halt.
UK fashion giant Topshop furloughed 14,500 of its 16,000 staff at the beginning of April, with many other high street retailers following suit. Depleted design and production teams are proceeding cautiously, looking to reduce their production runs by up to 50% for next season. International supply chains have stalled — and many manufacturers will never be able to reopen.
But while ‘normal’ ways of working have been turned on their head, there is a short window of opportunity for experimentation and change. I am hopeful that this crisis will be a catalyst for change, and that the next few months will usher in a new, better era for the fashion industry — a transformation which places sustainability and technology at its heart.
An appetite for change
With factories on lockdown, the industry has shifted its focus towards technology. Working from home has highlighted the inefficiencies in manual, old-school processes and widespread furloughs have encouraged depleted teams to be more resourceful and efficient.
With time to explore new solutions, we’ve noticed a change in attitudes — notably an openness and appetite for change. When we started SupplyCompass over three years ago, we’d often sense a reticence to change the status quo. Systems and habits have been entrenched over decades, and the attitude was often, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Having reflected a lot over the past six weeks, I now feel that the main barrier to change wasn’t a lack of want, but was actually time. Teams were too busy launching season after season to try something new, too busy to change ingrained habits because it was easier in the short term to stick with what they knew. Now our new business enquiries have shot up by 300%.
“Systems and habits have been entrenched over decades, and the attitude was often, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.”
Even for digitally native brands, the process of designing, developing and producing next season’s collections remains fragmented offline. Excel is commonly used to design collections and manage orders — but often doesn’t meet the unique (and creative) needs of the fashion industry. But with production on hold, brands are now exploring new solutions to bring the design, production and supply chain parts of their businesses into the digital age. In particular, they’re interested in product lifecycle management, team collaboration softwares and exploring new product lines with sustainability at the core.
It was sometimes hard to get brands to see the benefits of using cloud-based software, but now everyone has been forced to work from home, they can’t go into the office to manually look something up. Overnight, working from home has brought about an immediate need to design and produce online.
Reinvention at speed
If we look at how fast everyone has adapted to this new normal in response to the global pandemic, imagine how fast businesses could adapt in other areas?
“I’ve seen brands react fast to lockdown and experiment with digital fashion shows, virtual catwalks and virtual showrooms.”
Rather than reverting to how things have always been done, there is a huge opportunity here for brands to reinvent, adapt and experiment with new technologies and methods of working. This ranges from the radical — such as buying virtual clothing from companies like The Fabricant — to the practical, such as using virtual sampling software like Clo3D whilst closed factories are unable to produce physical samples. I’ve seen brands react fast to lockdown and experiment with digital fashion shows, virtual catwalks and virtual showrooms.
The reinvention won’t just be limited to retail; we think this will transform parts of the supply chain too. We’re exploring virtual showrooms for factories so they can better showcase their capabilities whilst brands aren’t able to visit — and we wonder whether tools like this could last beyond the crisis.
The impact of Covid-19 highlights, with renewed importance, the need for digitalisation within the fashion industry.
Brands will have to cut costs; they can’t push down unit prices of products any further. That means they’ll have to source smarter and find efficiencies across the value chain and produce lifecycle. Many businesses may not be able to scale up their teams to pre-Covid-19 size, so will need to up-skill staff and use technology to drive efficiency and enable them to make more informed choices.
They will also need to gather more supply chain data, to better anticipate, manage and mitigate risk should a situation like this pandemic happen again. The only way to successfully achieve this is to digitise often informal supply networks, ensuring data is gathered beyond tier one factories.
Brands which rely too heavily on certain regions or factories will need to diversify their supply chain, or look for new supply chains to launch new product lines. Traditionally, this process of finding new partners is quite an informal process, either through recommendations or requiring teams to go to trade shows or travel to visit factories. As global travel is restricted, brands will need to look to access vetted digital supply networks.
“Brands which rely too heavily on certain regions or factories will need to diversify their supply chain, or look for new supply chains to launch new product lines.”
The sustainable future
Driven by necessity, the fashion industry is looking towards sustainable solutions for help to survive. Unsold inventory will be the biggest issue for retailers over the next six months. In light of this, we’ve heard brands talk about focusing on trans-seasonal pieces, designing timeless classics that can be sold whatever the season, and doing smaller, more regular drops of clothing — reducing the amount of products that go unsold, only to be heavily discounted at the end of the season. This is what customers want — and it makes both environmental and financial sense.
Now is the time for the fashion industry to take a good hard look at itself — and an opportunity for it to emerge on the other side of this crisis in a smarter, more sustainable shape than ever.
Flora Davidson is cofounder of SupplyCompass, a product development and production management platform for fashion brands and manufacturers.