The Crystal Ball

This topic is not exactly click bait. In fact, I don’t think David will even read this whole post. It’s about a dysfunctional fashion calendar and fabric leadtimes.

For apparel brands that primarily sell at wholesale, the common challenge is estimating raw materials quantities needed to fulfill production orders, within the time frame dictated by the retailers. When a fabric order falls short, the brand loses business. And if the fabric needs are over-projected, the brand is stuck with the liability of excess materials.

Logically, we should know the quantity of products sold before ordering raw materials. But the retail calendar, combined with global manufacturing processes, makes this impossible. Instead of planning efficiently, we play guessing games and hope for the best. We don’t have a crystal ball.

Wholesale market dates are pretty much standardized – September for the following spring in-store, and February for fall seasons. Supply, demand and the prices that consumers are willing to pay have driven apparel manufacturing overseas, mostly to Asia. Shipping fabric, producing volume orders in Asia, and transporting garments back to the U.S. takes months.

Working backwards, for a collection that will be in-store in February, goods need to be in the brand’s warehouse by January. That means they need to be shipped from Asia (if manufactured there) in December. To meet this delivery date, raw materials would need to be in the factory by October. Based on a fabric leadtime of eight weeks, materials would need to be ordered in August. But market week isn’t until September. So ordering fabric after market would be too late.

How can we work with these realistic leadtimes? The best we can do is mitigate the risks. 

  1. Core fabrics can be identified and ordered early on, ones that have have a history of selling season after season. Owning extra could actually be beneficial as ongoing inventory, not a liability.
  1. Some shorter leadtime fabrics can be added to the mix. Not sure how great quality or how special these fabrics can be, but a few fast fabrics can help protect the flow of product.
  1. Samples can be developed earlier and presented to stakeholders before market, so they can give their two cents worth. Their input could provide a better glimpse of what the actual order will be.
  1. Garments can be made in the U.S. The costs and capabilities of manufacturing here can be sadly prohibitive, but this is an option.
  1. We can manufacture at microfactories, or small factories that use technology to make garments on demand. They have exceptionally short lead-times – as fast as 48 hours, are highly efficient, and have a minimized carbon footprint.1 As a fabric director though, I will be skeptical about this solution until it works well with a broad range of interesting fabrics.
  1. The industry can collectively join forces to challenge and change the fashion calendar.

Not only would Option 5 be better for apparel businesses, but it would also be better for the environment. It would help reduce the amount of liability fabric, which often gets made into off-price garments that the business doesn’t need. If those garments are made from non-biodgreadable materials, it ultimately becomes textile waste, future landfill. Also, not producing those garments would avoid the overall carbon footprint of the manufacturing process.

I am not writing this for the purpose of rallying the forces or simply to vent, I am just trying to apply pure logical thought to our industry’s processes. 

But pure logical thought could hurt our industry and make fashion boring. So never mind. Let’s just keep guessing.

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