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Archive for the ‘Apparel’ Category

Gustin

One of my favorite topics to teach is the newsvendor problem, an inventory model for very short-lived products like newspapers and fashion goods. One of the points that gets made in that class is that variability is costly. Having to commit resources before knowing what will sell means risk and risk may be a reason not to be in the business. But that risk also suggests an opportunity: If one can find a way to reverse the order of things and commit resources only after knowing what will be demanded, then an otherwise unprofitable business can be a profitable one.

That is essentially the idea behind Gustin, a maker of high-end jeans. It initially sold its jeans trough boutiques, which bought jeans at a wholesale price near $80 but then marked them up to around $200. Gustin had to front all the cost of production and then wait for stuff to sell. Now, they have reversed the order of things and take orders directly from customers ahead of production. As the founders tell it on Marketplace, they have positioned themselves as a totally crowdsourced fashion company (Burning down the house that Levi’s built, Apr 8). You can hear the story here:

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“Where does that come from?” sounds like an easy question to answer and at a high level it is. Which car models are produced at which plants is public knowledge so whether your Toyota was built in Kentucky or Alabama is easiest enough to figure out. But if you want to take it to another level — to know where different components came from and where the stuff that goes into the components comes from — is a lot harder. That is the conclusion reached in a blog post on Nautilus (The Secret Life of Everything: Where Your Stuff Comes From, Oct 29). Modern, global supply chains are so far reaching and support so much complexity that transparency (at least to the outside world) is lost.

I’d thought of [supply chains] mostly in terms of delivering Amazon orders and keeping Staples stocked. Those are just endpoints, the final few steps of a waiter carrying a meal on a tray. And what I really didn’t get was that supply chains don’t just carry components and ingredients, but synchronize their movements. Shipping a box of pens to Staples is the obvious part. Coordinating the arrival of barrels, caps, boxes, ink cartridges, and nibs (through which ink flows) at the pen factory—and also metal to the nib factory, oil to the plastics-maker, and so on—is the bulk of what supply chains do, and in the most efficient manner possible, with algorithms optimizing everything from shipping networks to the path of pallets through warehouses, with an eye to what happens when one of these many moving parts goes invariably astray.

The problem then is that unless you pick a real simple product — like a T-shirt — it is pretty much impossible to know where all the components come from and where all the various production steps are executed. NPR’s Planet Money took on this challenge of tracking a T-shirt from cotton field through production and shipping to the disposition of used American clothes in Africa. It’s an eye-opening  picture of global supply chains.

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This blog entry is a direct continuation of Marty’s post on Textiles in America and part of our ongoing posts on reshoring of work.  The New York Times Replica Edition is an exact electronic version of the in-print newspaper where I first saw these two nice pieces of data.  (I LOVE data.  Recall: “In God we trust, all others bring data”–according to quality guru Edward Demming.)

jobs evolution since 1990. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported in New York Times of Sep 20, 2013)

Jobs evolution since 1990.
(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported in New York Times of Sep 20, 2013)

This chart provides hard data of the stories often told about job losses.  The huge transformation of textiles and apparel is striking–mind you, the data spans the relative recent 18 years!  I can only imagine the devastating impact to families working in that sector…  From an economic perspective, two key explanatory changes are: 1) offshoring to low cost countries after deregulation and 2) innovation leading to increased automation, and the substitution of capital for labor.  (I purposely use the “big” innovation word; later I shall also write about recent data linking innovation to offshoring.)

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I grew up just outside of Manchester, NH, home of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. The Amoskeag was once the biggest cotton textile plant in the world. A couple of my grandparents worked there, but by the time I was growing up, the cotton mills were gone as the textile industry bailed out of New England for the South. The old building on the river were beautiful but also a reminder of what had once been.

Of course, the southern textile industry isn’t what it once was. Many of the mills of the Carolinas closed as liberalized trade allowed the work to go overseas. But, as the New York Times tells it, parts of the industry are hanging on — even expanding (U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People, Sep 19). It’s just that it has required investing in new technology to reduce the number of hands involved.

This is in many ways in keeping with themes we have discussed before: Manufacturing in high wage countries requires a willingness to substitute capital for labor.

But there is another part as well. There have to be customers that value what the American manufacturer brings to the table. (more…)

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Big data is in fashion

Big data is, of course, one of the business world’s most in vogue buzz words. It may even be having an impact on how various industries function. Case in point, today’s Wall Street Journal reports that several firms are selling data and services to fashion brands and retailers (Fashion Industry Meets Big Data, Sep 9).

The forecasting companies offer analysis of fashion shows, data on the current market offerings and—for an added fee—bespoke research and consultancy services. The data are generated by teams of staff employed to trawl art exhibitions, events, restaurants and even scientific journals.

Fashion companies use the data to plan their latest collection or catwalk show, with the online services replacing the bulky and intermittent style books that designers and merchandisers used to receive. …

“[Fashion forecasters] have always been used but they’re more accessible now because of the technology,” says Marks & Spencer creative director Belinda Earl, who has just launched her first collection for the U.K. high street bellwether. “They are important, not always to lead but to re-evaluate and help confirm you’re on the right track.” …

Retailers are also turning to number crunchers to improve execution. U.K. start-up EDITD trawls the Internet to gather data on who’s selling what, how many products are flying off the virtual shelves and how much are they going for to guide companies in their merchandising decisions.

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I’ve been thinking over the last several days about the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh. One question that comes up is why global apparel firms would choose to source their products from Bangladesh. CNN has a spiffy graphic that clearly shows that cost is one reason (Bangladesh vs. the U.S.: How much does it cost to make a denim shirt?, May 3).

tshirt-graphic

Of course, the US ain’t exactly the right benchmark here. The real alternative is China and  the Wall Street Journal reports that wages there are four times higher than those in Bangladesh (The Global Garment Trail: From Bangladesh to a Mall Near You, May 3). That kind of cost advantage together with a tariff advantage with the EU gets you growth like this.

AH-AJ309_BANGLA_G_20130505123603

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Last week I posted on making toys in the US; this week it’s apparel — specifically, T-shirts and sweatshirts. Let starts with sweatshirts and a firm called American Giant. The story starts back in December with an article in Slate describing the company’s business model and extolling the wonders of its product (This Is the Greatest Hoodie Ever Made, Dec 4, 2012). In effect, American Giant uses technology to cut its distribution cost and rolls a good chunk of the savings into offering a superior product.

In the 1970s, when the fashion industry morphed into a mass-market business dominated by mall stores, its marketing and distribution costs began to skyrocket. To keep retail prices down, companies began to shrink the price of producing clothes. Today, when you buy a hooded sweatshirt, most of your money is going to the retailer, the brand, and the various buyers that shuttle the garment between the two. The item itself costs very little to make—a $50 hoodie at the Gap likely costs about $6 or $7 to produce at an Asian manufacturing facility.

American Giant has found a loophole in the process. The loophole allows Winthrop to spend a lot more time and money producing his clothes than his competitors do. …

American Giant doesn’t maintain a storefront, and it doesn’t deal with middlemen. By selling garments directly from its factory via the Web, American Giant can avoid the distribution costs baked into most other clothes. …

But there is really no comparison between American Giant’s hoodie and the competition. It looks better and feels substantially more durable—Winthrop says it will last a lifetime. When you wear this hoodie, you’ll wonder why all other clothes aren’t made this well. And when you hear about how American Giant produced it, it’s hard not to conclude that one day, they all may be.

OK, so what do you think happens when such glowing press hits the web a few weeks before Christmas? Right, they sell out of everything. Here is a BBC report how they got hit by a tsunami of orders (American Giant: The problems of being an overnight success, Mar 10).

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luluSo Lululemon has a problem with its yoga pants. It is of the I-see-England-I-see-France variety (Lululemon Yoga Pants Pulled From Stores for ‘Sheerness’, Wall Street Journal, March 19).

The yoga-apparel retailer’s shares tumbled late Monday after saying it has pulled some of its popular pants from stores, after a mistake by a supplier left the pants too see-through. …

“The ingredients, weight and longevity qualities of the pants remain the same but the coverage does not, resulting in a level of sheerness in some of our women’s black Luon bottoms that falls short of our very high standards,” Lululemon said in a release.

Lululemon said Monday it has used the same manufacturing supplier on key fabrics since 2004 and is working to understand what happened.

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The New York Times Magazine has a long article on how Inditex and its main brand Zara have grown to be one of the world’s most influential fashion players (How Zara Grew Into the World’s Largest Fashion Retailer, Nov 11). They even have a spiffy video.

Not surprisingly, both play up the role of operations in the firm’s success.

A traditional ready-to-wear fashion company in the West sends the designs for its clothes to independent factories in countries like China and India, where the labor to make them is cheap. These clothes are then shipped back and stocked in stores in spring and fall, with smaller shipments throughout the year.

But a brand at Inditex will make a fall collection, for example, and then ship only three or four dresses or shirts or jackets in each style to a store. There’s very little leftover stock, few extra-smalls or mediums hiding in the back. But store managers can request more if there’s demand. They also monitor customers’ reactions, on the basis of what they buy and don’t buy, and what they say to a sales clerk: “I like this scooped collar” or “I hate zippers at the ankles.” Inditex says its sales staff is trained to draw out these sorts of comments from their customers. Every day, store managers report this information to headquarters, where it is then transmitted to a vast team of in-house designers, who quickly develop new designs and send them to factories to be turned into clothes.

More than half of Inditex’s manufacturing takes place either in the factories it owns or within proximity to company headquarters, which is to say in Europe or Northern Africa. Inditex owns factories in Spain and outsources production to factories in Portugal, Morocco and Turkey — considered costly labor markets, typically. The rest of its clothes are produced in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Brazil, among other countries. The trendiest items are made closest to home, however, so that the production process, from start to finish, takes only two to three weeks. Inditex’s higher labor costs are offset by greater flexibility — no extra inventory lying around — and on faster turnaround speed.

That means that if Inditex stores in London, Tokyo and São Paulo all have customers responding enthusiastically to, let’s say, sequined cranberry-colored hot pants, Inditex can deliver more of these, or a variation on hot pants, sequins or that cranberry color, to stores within three weeks. The company tries to keep the stock fresh; one promise its stores make is that you will always be buying something nearly unique. Merchandise moves incredibly quickly, even by fast-fashion standards. All those thousands of Inditex stores receive deliveries of new clothes twice a week.

So is there really much new here? (more…)

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It’s time to clear out a bunch of articles of that I have had kicking around. First up, we note that it has been Fashion Week in New York and that has led a couple of interesting articles:

  • The New Yorker has a profile of Federico Marchetti and his company Yoox (The Geek of Chic, Sep 10). Yoox does a couple of things. It started by selling end of season luxury fashions. It won friends in the industry by just posting their own price with noting how much it was discounted off the list price. Luxury brands liked that this allowed them to unload unsold items without tying their brand to a 50% off sign. The interesting part is that Yoox was able to provide the brands with information they never had before (like what colors were selling where). Yoox has since expanded and now provides the backend and fulfillment for multiple designers’ web stores.
  • At a different end of the market, Wired had an interview with Yasunobu Kyogoku, the COO of Uniqlo USA, which is ramping up a big US expansion (Upending Fashion, Steve Jobs-Style: 10 Questions With Uniqlo’s Yasunobu Kyogoku, Aug 31). Uniqlo has a very different approach from, say, Zara.

Wired: Is it true Uniqlo orders from its suppliers a full year in advance? What’s the thinking behind that?

Kyogoku: Let’s say you happen to own your own factory, and someone says, ‘In September, I’d like to order 40% of your capacity; in October, 70%; in the rest of the year, zero.’ You’d say, ‘But there’s a gentleman who just came to me and said, ‘I will book 80% of your capacity for a year and in fact, let’s do a long term partnership. Why don’t we add an extra line?’ The more you produce, the more you help me reduce the cost. We pass that to the customer. The customer buys more. We have a positive cycle where everyone wins.

Wired: With a 12-month cycle, aren’t you worried customers will go to faster-moving competitors with trendier clothes?

Kyogoku: We don’t chase trends. People mistakenly say that Uniqlo is a fast-fashion brand. We’re not. We are about clothing that’s made for everyone.

  •  Adam Davidson continues to write great stuff. He has a New York Times Magazine article about making bespoke and made-to-measure suits (What’s a $4,000 Suit Worth?, Sep 9). As the article notes, you would think that loads of people in Manhattan willing to pony up for the perfect suit. And there are but does not mean that it’s an easy way to make money. The economics of bespoke suits aren’t like those of Uniqlo:

As Rowland explained to me, even with a century-old reputation and a profoundly loyal customer base, it’s nearly impossible to get ahead. “There’s no scalability,” she explained. “Whether we’re making 50 suits or 1 — each unit costs the same.”

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