What is involved in the development of a fashion collection exactly? FashionUnited has covered everything, from the design and production process to the journey your garment makes from the drawing board to the shop shelf, in this background article. We will start at the beginning, with an explanation of what a fashion collection actually is, what fashion seasons and the fashion calendar look like and how a fashion collection is actually constructed.
- What is a fashion collection anyway? Everything to know about fashion seasons and the calendar
- How is a clothing collection structured?
- How a fashion brand's collection is created: from design to production, logistics, distribution & retail
- What does a fashion brand's schedule look like?
- Price structure of a garment
1.What is a fashion collection anyway?
Fashion collections linked to (fashion) seasons
A fashion collection is a collection of different types of garments, often available in different colours and fabrics, that can be combined.
Most fashion brands, from Bottega Veneta and Gucci to Adidas, Denham, Filippa K, Zenggi, Studio Anneloes and Kyra, work with seasonal collections linked to a (fashion) season, for which there are usually two to four of.
The fashion season calendar
Traditionally, there have been two seasons in fashion, namely spring/summer and fall/winter. These are also often shortened to S/S or SS for spring/summer and for fall/winter, F/W or FW and also AW (for autumn/winter).
These days, most fashion brands create at least two to four collections. If there are four, they usually consist of 'pre-spring', 'spring/summer', 'pre-fall' and 'fall/winter'. In turn, some clothing brands do not have 'pre-spring', but rather 'high summer'. Luxury brands such as Chanel then often use the following four seasons: 'spring/summer', 'autumn/winter, ‘resort/cruise’ and 'pre-fall'. So there are not only a lot of different seasons, but also a lot of names.
How many collections a fashion brand carries, and in which periods the collections are available (or for sale), is up to a clothing label to decide. But, of course, there is a blueprint in the fashion industry:
The spring/summer collections are usually delivered to shops between January and March/April and are on sale until July. The autumn/winter collections are usually delivered between July and September and are on sale until December.
Summer sales are often from mid-June to mid-July, and winter sales are in December and January, typically from Christmas onwards.
What is the point of a fashion season?
“The seasons serve as a global metronome for the global fashion world, setting the pace and time for the development, marketing and sale of new collections," The Tech Fashionista wrote in an article 'Fashion Seasons Explained' in 2021.
So a fashion season lasts a maximum of six months. That means the seasons and collections also have a limited shelf life.
2. How is a fashion collection structured?
Some brands are popular with consumers because of their visual recognisability (the brand), while for others the appeal is in the quality or fit of a garment, or all of these factors combined. Every fashion collection of every brand is unique, with each of them creating their own collection plan.
A collection is always composed of different types of garments, also called items. Those items usually come in different versions. One type of garment, for example, could be available in several colours, fabrics and/or prints. These different versions are called ‘styles’. A round-neck T-shirt available in four colours counts as four styles. The industry also uses the term SKU - short for stock keeping unit, which refers to a unique product or service meant for sale, said fashion professional Aleks Kuijpers (see box).
Aleks Kuijpers owns design, clothing manufacturing and production company Workingmenblues, which he founded in 2014. The company handles production and thus produces garments ('finished garments') for fashion brands around the world in the high and luxury segment. Workingmenblues operates in Amsterdam, Hangzhou (China) and Riga (Latvia). Design and sales take place in Amsterdam, while product development and production are mostly done in China and Riga.
Workingmenblues is not only a clothing manufacturer but also a fabric manufacturer with a specialisation in 'fancy fabrics'. The company develops high-quality fabrics with rich fabric treatments, such as lace and embroidery. The brand’s fabrics are sold worldwide by agents in New York, Los Angeles, Seoul, Paris, Italy and Brussels (Benelux), and sourced by fashion brands such as Prabal Gurung, Helmut Lang, Maje, Sandro, Laquan Smith and Tibi, for example, to make clothes from.
Kuijpers is also co-owner of the young men's fashion label Ampère, a brand that offers luxurious, romantic-feeling collections, and whose high-quality fabrics, embroidery and jacquard techniques are all developed 'in house'. Next to its own webshop, Ampère currently has about 15 outlets in Europe and Korea, most of which are high-end retailers, including Calico Jack and, soon, Margreeth Olsthoorn in the Netherlands.
Kuijpers explained that the collection of his young, luxury menswear brand Ampère, which has been around since 2020, currently has 65 styles, "but that is far too small, compared to the market standard," he added. "A reputable clothing brand in the same segment as Ampère, which operates both in retail and wholesale (this means their brand is sold through independent boutiques and also through their own branded or flagship shops), counts as many as 450 styles per season."
A collection is tailored to the unique selling point (USP - a distinguishing feature or selling point), and to the brand's [intended] target group. This also involves always looking back at previous years' results. Through (re)sales data of previous collections, fashion brands know what sold well and less well, and they also receive feedback from retailers that speak to the end consumer on a daily basis. "With some brands, the sell-through data is even leading," Kuijpers said. By this he means that the sell-through dates and designs of previous collections are used as a starting point for a new fashion collection.
A new collection is usually a mix of commercial looks, classics and fashionable and trendy items. Commercial looks mean 'easy-to-sell items': fashion companies expect - or know (because of sales data!) - that these items will sell well.
Classics are items that a brand often offers over and over again in its collection and for which consumers often return to, or are loyal to, a brand. Think, for example, of Levi's '501' jeans, or Closed's pedal pusher jeans.
By the way, many fashion brands work with never-out-of-stock (NOS) items for the classics. These pieces are always available from stock, providing retailers with the advantage that they can always order these items, so they need to keep less stock in their shops.
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So what about at Ampere? "Our fabrics are Ampere's USP. Embroideries are also always part of the collection. That's why we make a lot of outerwear. In our view, the fabrics and embroideries come out best on top of shirts and overshirts (a garment that sits between a shirt and a jacket)," Kuijpers said. Also included each season is a kimono "that should become the Ampere product, so to speak".
The menswear fashion brand's most fashionable items are called the ‘fashion’ and ‘hero’ pieces from the collection, "such as, for example, a waistcoat with sequins" or the aforementioned kimono. Kuijpers noted: "Around these, we build the collection with commercial items, such as with our sweat and tee (garments made of sweat fabric and T-shirts) programme." These are products that sell well and are easy to combine with the other items, he added.
The sweat and tee programme is partly NOS, Kuijpers said. Among the classics, Ampère counts the overshirt: an item that returns every season in a new style (fabric or colour), but with the same fit or form. These are the so-called carry over styles. "There are also brands that call these signature pieces," Kuijpers commented. And the industry can also use other terms, such as ‘essentials’.
Finally; fashion brands usually make more outerwear than trousers and pantaloons, unless the latter is a brand's specialty.
Every fashion collection consists of 'drops'
Every fashion collection consists of a number of 'drops' in which the collection will be delivered to retailers.
Some brands have two 'drops' per season, such as the likes of Ampère. Traditional brand retailers and larger fashion brands typically deliver one to two times a month.
That way, fashion retailers can always present something new to consumers.
Drops are often lined up with the meteorological season, at least as much as possible – because fashion seasons are not synchronised with this particular format (as you read in paragraph one). From the spring/summer collection, for example, the spring items are delivered first, and later come the high-summer garments. And from the autumn/winter collections, the lighter cardigans arrive first, followed by the winter coats, scarves and hats. So there is a build-up to the fashion collections.
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3. How a fashion brand's collection is created: from design to production, logistics, distribution & retail.
3.1 The design phase - it starts with inspiration
With fashion brands, styling and design determine what the collection will look like.
Often the preliminary process involves looking at catwalk trends, prominent brands, big fashion cities and their streets, trend forecasts from leading forecasters like Lidewij Edelkoort and colour institutes such as Pantone and WGSN (trend forecasts start about two years before the clothes hang in shops), and at new fabrics. Fabric samples are ordered from fabric manufacturers and mood boards are created.
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"Our design team starts with a theme," Kuijpers explained. "At Ampère, we base our theme on an artist from the past. For this winter (FW23), it's Hilma af Klint. Her abstract designs and thoughts are incorporated into our collection identity. Of course, the consumer is never going to see that, but if we start telling the story, you are going to see it reflected in silhouettes and sayings, for example." Such a theme also provides guidance during the design process, he added. "After we determine the theme, we start designing fabrics that fit the theme, and only then design the garments. So we make a collection plan first, and then we determine the styles," continued the co-owner of the menswear brand.
The collection is designed. In this phase, the designs are created, and fabrics, colours and shapes are chosen. Styles are then established.
Once the collection is on paper, a few more steps follow before actual garment production begins.
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3.2. Patterns/technical files and sample collection
Once the collection is designed, preliminary patterns, or tech files, as Kuijpers called them, and trial models of clothes are made and a price is set (more on prices later in section five). Next, the collection must be sold.
The prototypes are also known as samples (fitted garments). These prototypes are used by fashion brands to assess, improve and adjust their conceived designs where necessary. Sampled garments are tried on by fit models to see how the items sit, fall and fit. Tweaks are often still made. For example, a fashion brand may decide to make the size of the waist narrower or wider to improve the fit, or decide to shorten or lengthen the hem of a garment slightly to simply make it look nicer. After the fitting session, the prototypes are sent back for improvement, after which they come back again and are hopefully approved. The fitting sessions continue until the patterns are perfect and the clothes can go into production.
At the men's fashion brand Ampère, the process goes as follows: “We prepare the technical files with size tables and manufacturing instructions (for the clothing factory, which will be producing the garments). Then we send the styles to our ready-to-wear factory, order all the necessary materials. We have 'prototype one' made of a fabric that is available and is similar to the final fabric we have in mind, which is usually not yet available because it is still in production. This 'prototype one' mainly serves to check the fit,” said Kuijpers. "We look at how it falls, do we think the style is cool or do we want to adjust it? Sometimes there is then a 'prototype two', but we prefer to make the salesman sample (SMS) directly, for reasons of cost savings, speed, time and from an ecological point of view". The SMS is the final goal of the development phase, Kuijpers concluded.
Ampère - like the bulk of fashion brands - then comes to a trade show with its SMS prototypes. In the fashion industry, fashion trade fairs kick off the new season for fashion brands and retailers. On the show floor, fashion brands present their new collections to independent retailers, and department store buyers, for example. The samples serve as a showcase.
Incidentally, these samples can also be displayed in a showroom, rather than on the trade show floor. A showroom, whether owned by a trade agent or by the fashion brand itself, is a commercial space used for displaying collections. Showrooms often open their doors (almost) simultaneously to trade fairs, where retailers and buyers can visit, by appointment or not. "With Ampère, we were at a fair last season. Next season we will be in the showroom of our representative agent in Paris," Kuijpers noted.
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The sample collection must be ready in order to sell the collection
"Ideally, you should have the SMS samples finished in no later than a month before the sales fair [or open showroom days]," Kuijpers explained. "Because, then the marketing programme still has to be created, to present your whole story, including lookbook, at the fair."
In a lookbook, fashion brands showcase their collection and items in a beautiful, visual way, with a photo shoot often organised for this purpose. Ampère's lookbook also includes product and design information of each garment. For the exhibition [or showroom], the recommended retail price (the price you pay in shops as a consumer) and the wholesale price (the purchasing price for retailers) are also determined (more on the price structure of a garment in section five). Based on these samples, the fashion brand sells its collection to retailers.
After the fairs, the selling season for fashion brands and the buying season for retailers starts. Using the sample collection, each retailer decides which garments and versions (colours, fabrics etc), or styles, it wants to sell to consumers in its shop.
"Often, we still get feedback from retailers [on our designs] based on our SMS samples," Kuijpers said. "When the selling season is over (and retailers have therefore subscribed to the collection) we sit down with the product development team to go over any comments. And then we decide which adjustments we will still make and which we won't."
He continued: "Then we create a PPS, short for pre-production samples. These samples are leading for production. They hang at a factory at the beginning of the line, so to speak, to be followed for [clothing] production. Between production we pick out items, which go to us for quality control, to decide whether they are good enough to send [to retailers]."
That brings us to the clothing production phase.
3.3 Production phase confection
A fashion brand issues a production order to a clothing manufacturer.
Clothing is made by manufacturers or workshops on behalf of fashion brands and companies. Here production takes place.
In a ready-to-wear factory, garment making is divided into a large number of separate operations, such as cutting and sewing. For cutting, the sizes are more or less fixed and are created through patterns in different sizes. By using standard sizes, mass production is easier and cheaper. Assembling a garment and post-processing often still require human handling. Usually, different textile workers each take care of a small piece of the garment. There are those who insert zips all day, others make buttonholes or stitch back panels. This is the most efficient way of working and often has a practical reason: there is usually one type of machine for one type of finishing or operation.
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The order size depends on several factors such as the supplier's production capacity and the production country. How many items are produced from a garment also depends on other factors, including the size of the clothing brand.
A well-established fashion brand in the middle segment, with hundreds of sales outlets in Europe, for instance, makes 500 to 1,000 pieces of one item. Ampère, which is still a small and young fashion brand, makes 150 pieces of one T-shirt per colour, and produces 'only' 50 pieces of a high-end fashion jacket, said Kuijpers.
How many garments are produced also depends on how fashionable the item is. With fashionable items, there is more risk that consumers will not like them. Therefore, trendy garments are often made in smaller volumes than basics.
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Fashion brands make price agreements with suppliers when they issue an order. The cost of producing a garment depends on many factors, such as the order size, all the prices of materials, and all the required operations (for example, the cost of labour, from assembling the garment to post-processing), stated Kuijpers from his role as clothing manufacturer Workingmenblues.
The more numbers of a garment are made, the cheaper the order "Order size is a decisive factor when it comes to price," reported Kuijpers. "The bigger the order, the more you can negotiate a lower price."
Fashionable garments tend to be more expensive because they are made in smaller numbers, but the cost of design and production is just as great as making larger numbers.
There is often also a minimum order quantity (MOQ) with manufacturers.
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When are orders issued?
Fashion brands issue order numbers (i.e. how many garments they want to have produced) halfway through or after the pre-order round. Some fashion brands even do this only after the order deadline (read: the end of the selling season). The orders are often increased by a few percent for fashion brands so that they have some garments in stock. That extra stock is meant for retailers who want to reorder in-season, for instance when an item sells very well or sells out early.
How long does it take to produce clothes? What is the delivery time?
After production orders are entered, clothes are produced. It often takes two to three months for production orders to be ready, Dutch trade magazine RetailTrends wrote in the article, adding: “This is how retailers can chase H&M and Zara.” Kuijpers also confirmed this from his role as a clothing manufacturer. "For smaller productions, we keep at least four weeks, for larger productions six weeks," he noted. "In China they can make it within 90 days, in Europe it is a bit slower. It takes as much as eight to 10 weeks for production, and Italy, for example, up to 12 weeks, or three months."
"That there is increasing interest in production in Europe,” agreed Kuijpers when asked, "but the reality is that China is really very good [at manufacturing]. China, despite the distance, is faster. All the raw materials are there and the country has the expertise.”
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3.4 Logistics / Transport
When the production orders are ready, the garments have to be distributed from all over the world. The collections go to the fashion brands’ distribution centres or warehouses. Now you know that production often takes place in Asia (and countries like China), and sales often in the EU and/or the US, you understand that there is a lot of transportation involved. There are different means of transport, which are chosen depending on the routes to be covered, costs, and type of products.
Fashion brands use sea transport (containers on a ship), sometimes rail, air freight (plane), and, of course, freight (trucks). According to Workingmenblues, clothing in Europe is usually transported by truck. "From China, a lot is still done by plane," said Kuijpers. Shipping a cargo of jeans from Bangladesh or China to EU destination port Hamburg, Germany, takes about 30 days. Clothing that has to come to the Netherlands from the Far East via sea transport can take up to a month and a half in transit. According to Kuijpers, a plane from Asia, including customs formalities, normally gets there within a week. The plane is more expensive than sea transport, but it is faster. "Time also plays a big role in the choice of transport," Kuijpers noted. "Speed - and thus air - is often chosen.
Often, fashion brands also take out insurance for transport and sometimes import duties – like that of from China to the EU, for example – have to be paid.
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3.5 Distribution and retail
Once production is complete, it is time for distribution to fashion brand outlets, and then the retail phase – selling the clothes to consumers.
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4. What does a fashion brand's schedule look like?
Most designers and clothing brands start developing their collections well over a year in advance. So what does that schedule, or agenda, look like?
It depends on the renewal of the collection: the number of collections/fashion seasons per year and the number of deliveries and - as you now know - it varies by brand (see section 1).
Menswear brand Ampère puts the finishing touches to the following year's autumn/winter collection in September. "We started working on AW23 in May," Kuijpers said. "Coming up with the theme, making the designs, then the technical files, putting those out and buying the fabrics for SMS at the same time, in June. I receive the first samples in September because it takes a long time – too long in my opinion. From September to November, we make prototype one and possibly prototype two and in November SMS so that we have them in by December 1. Because, in January the new exhibition season is upon us, and by then we have to have the marketing story ready."
December is then the peak moment for Randy Hoogeweegen, owner of Amsterdam menswear shop About and co-owner Ampère, who then organises the photo shoot and creates the lookbook. Sales of the AW23 collection will take place in January and February. "Sales close in the first week of March," Kuijpers continued. "Then we start entering orders with fabric suppliers, inform the fabric manufacturers and then production is started."
In March 2023, Ampère will submit orders to the clothing manufacturer for AW23. "Then we have March, April, May for production. You would think you could deliver in June, but that doesn't always work out," Kuijpers said, smiling. "For retailers, the AW23 collection arrives in June/July. The first drop of sweaters and tees is there for mid-July, as well as the NOS pieces and two interesting pieces to add body to the in-store image. And then drop two comes the first half of September, but many brands do it in August. By September, retailers will have the entire [Ampère] collection in store, including the outerwear pieces."
Then comes the collection for SS24. "Ideally, we want to bring the planning forward a bit more," Kuijpers explained. "Decide on the theme in November 2022, start designing in December and finish all the tech files by mid-January. Then we will start ordering fabrics and making prototypes. In the meantime, the fabrics for SMS will be made. If the fabrics for SMS are ready in March, then you can make your final prototypes or already your SMS ready. SMS has to be completed by the end of April, so we can work on the marketing campaign in May."
The exhibition season starts in June, and sale of the new collection to retailers will take place in June,July and August 2023. "After that, the orders are entered with fabric suppliers, the fabric manufacturers and then production takes place. SS24 arrives with retailers in January and March 2024 and is sold through June to July. During August, the collection is gradually replaced by AW."
Ampère - which has two collections per year and two deliveries per collection - works on three-four collections at a time per calendar year, if you count the selling season. "At the moment, we are getting the additional orders from retailers of the AW22 collection," Kuijpers said. "The SS22 season is over, although we still need to take stock of what we have left of that and decide what to do with our remaining stock.” Meanwhile, the menswear brand is working on SS23 and AW23, and the SS24 collection will start in November. In short; "You have to be good at planning," Kuijpers stated.
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5. Price structure of a garment
How is the price of a garment determined?
The full price you pay for a garment in the shop is the recommended retail price or retail price. That is the original price shown on the price tag.
The retail price can be five to 10 times higher than the production price of the garment. "Ideally, your production price should be one-fifth of the retail price including VAT," explained Kuijpers. "For a 500 euro coat, your production price should be under 100 euros."
The production price is influenced, among other things, by the cost of (raw) fabrics and labour for assembling the garment and sometimes post-processing, such as washing jeans. The more labour required for production, the higher the price. A small increase in production costs can have a big effect on retail price. An extra button or zip often quickly makes the price for consumers many euros higher.
The wholesale price is the amount the retailer pays a fashion brand to purchase the item. This wholesale price consists of the cost of production, as well as transport, insurance, import costs, and the margin for the fashion brand. The latter is the money the brand earns [from selling this garment to the retailer].
To determine the recommended retail price, a markup is used. In fashion, this is on average 2.5 to 2.7. This means that a pair of trousers with the wholesale purchase price of 20 euros has a retail price of 50 euros or 54 euros (20 times 2.5 or 2.7). A coat from a slightly more expensive fashion brand costs 200 euros and retails for 500 or 540 euros. That calculation number is determined by fashion brands and is therefore not fixed although, according to Kuijpers, 2.7 is common nowadays.
Built into the recommended retail price is a percentage for any markdowns and the retail margin – the profit for the retailer when selling the garment to the consumer. A retailer incurs a lot of costs. From that 54 euros for those trousers or 540 euros of that jacket, for example, a lot goes off, starting with 21 percent VAT. The retailer also has to pay wages of its staff, has rent from the shop, etc.
- Interview Aleks Kuijpers, owner design and production company Workingmenblues and co-owner menswear brand Ampère, at the Amsterdam headquarters in September 2022.
- TMO Fashion Business School study taken by the author of this piece, and specifically the book ‘Mode-Adviseur’ by Mirjam van den Bosch, Astrid Hanou and Hans van Otegem, publisher Stichting Detex Opleidingen, 2003, second edition.
- TheFashionTechFashionista.com article 'Fashion Seasons Explained: How It Started & How It’s Going In 2022 And Beyond', November 2021
- Article “Is dit Fast Fashion?” by Rens Tap/Modint, and specifically the diagram 'Process characteristics at different levels of chain cooperation'. Source TMO.
- McKinsey report 'Is apparel manufacturing coming home?', authors Johanna Andersson, Achim Berg, Saskia Hedrich, and Karl-Hendrik Magnus, October 2018
- Retailtrends article 'Zo kunnen retailers H&M en Zara achterna', July 2016
- Content from the FashionUnited archive by authors Don-Alvin Adegeest, Nora Veerman and the magazine in print (the original publications can usually be found in the linked article text).