Fashion Trends are Reciprocal, but is the Fashion Supply Chain?

Here WhichPLM’s fit expert, Mark Charlton, shares his views on the changing ways apparel is manufactured in fashion, and what the future could look like.

I have a passion for great fitting apparel and, for over 20 years, I have been helping brands fit apparel, understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings.

Most of my articles thus far have addressed the complexities of creating, perfecting and executing fit across a diverse and ever-changing consumer landscape. In this article I would like to address a movement I am witnessing towards nearshoring (producing product near to the shore of the consumer, as opposed to off shore or overseas production) and outline more benefits I see other than speed to market.

Way back in the 1800s the way to obtain apparel was to visit a tailor (reserved for the wealthy), seamstress or make it yourself. Was this fit for purpose? Yes. Built for your body shape, size, and proportion? Yes. Was there visibility to the supply chain? Yes.

Today, apparel is manufactured in quantities of tens of thousands, thousands of miles away from the consumers’ purchasing country/ies, and in a relatively small range of sizes based on averages. Is this fit for purpose? Maybe. Built for your body shape, size, and proportion? No, as it’s based on averages. Is there visibility to the supply chain? No. Whilst there have been advancements in this area (see Everlane or H&M), in most cases it’s to level 1 suppliers (garment factories) and does not include the end-to-end chain (trims, fabrics, linings, packaging, etc).

Known as “the caravan of manufacturing”, apparel manufacturing, for years being mainly labor intensive, has moved away from the country of consumer purchase to the country of inexpensive labor. Then, as that country develops and the cost of labor increases, the caravan moves to the next country and so the cycle repeats.

Cause and effect; from custom to clustered compromise

As an apparel fit leader, I believe this evolution has led to a compromise in apparel fit. As opposed to knowing your individual consumers and creating product for said individuals, the industry is using averages to balance the question of, “how do I fit the maximum number of shapes, sizes and proportions with the minimum number of SKUs?”

I like to think of the size constructs offered by brands as a position on a ratio scale: at the far left of this scale (a 1:1 ratio) would be bespoke made-to-measure, one body, one fit. On the far right of the same scale (1:infinite ratio) would be “one size fits all”. Think of a beanie hat here.

All brands would fit somewhere on this scale. If “infinite” represents your entire consumer base – existing and new consumers – then most brands sit somewhere towards the far right with a ratio of, say, 7:infinite (for an example of XS-XXXL, like with sportswear) or 21:infinite (for an example of 24-36 inch waist offered in short, regular or long leg lengths, like with a jeans brand).

Movements in the industry

There are movements I am witnessing in the apparel industry, and in society as a whole, that could add to the benefits of nearshoring.

Consumer centricity

No longer is “product king”. No longer do we manufacture great product and push this product onto the consumer. The consumer is now king; what the consumer wants, the brands have to cater for (and if they don’t their competitors will). I refer to this as a shift from “brand push” to “consumer pull”.

Instant gratification

I read somewhere that every generation’s attention span is halved compared to the previous one – a point that doesn’t seem completely farfetched. I believe, linked to instant gratification, the consumer expects products purchased to be readily available.

The death of fast fashion

Consumers are more ecologically driven than ever before, and so ‘throw-away’ fashion has to evolve. Consumers are searching for brands with purpose, with strong ethics and policies regarding “doing the right thing for our home planet.”

Customization and personalization

Looking at this from a lifestyle perspective, our Netflix / Amazon / Hulu selections are personalized to our preferences, our Spotify / Pandora selections likewise. Consumers are overwhelmed by the amount of apparel available and, I believe, are looking for personalized selections.

Looking at this from the perspective of an apparel fit leader, consumers are dissatisfied with the “average” approach to shape and sizing – not to mention the pleather of sizing offered by brands. No one ‘Medium’ is comparable, as I wrote about recently, and I believe consumers are looking for brands that fit them as individuals.

The equalization of labor across the globe is forcing a change to the nomadic practice of caravan manufacturing. Manufactures are forced to look at technology solutions to augment labor. Think about 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) of trims and even fabric. Think about the concept of the digital twin, proving manufacturing methods, mitigating manufacturing risks in a digital environment. Think about 3D sampling: no longer is prototype after prototype required in physical garments. Most garments can be digitally created and rendered, to enable virtual / digital approvals.

I share all of this to say, I am a huge proponent of nearshoring, but this is not the current mass production model relocated to a shore near you. It’s a different breed of manufacturing, an agile small batch manufacturing model allowing for customization, personalization, capitalizing on consumer centricity – and fast enough to manage instant gratification. It’s a lesson from manufacturing over the past century to take us into the next.

If you’re not evolving your supply chain with an awareness of the evolving consumer, societal habits and investigating emerging technologies – well, to put it simply, you should be