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Faster fashion: how digitisation will radically change the fashion industry

By Regina Henkel


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The fashion industry is working on digitising its supply chain. Why this is so important was at the heart of Assyst’s Fashion Forum 2018 in Munich that took place at the beginning of the month.

Normally, long development times and hoping for the best

According to the motto "Digital is Wow,“ the Human Solutions Group / Assyst had extended an invitation for its Fashion Forum 2018 at the beginning of July in Munich. For two days, digitising the supply chain was the core topic of the conference, which was attended by numerous representatives of the fashion industry - including brands like Hugo Boss, Marc O’Polo, Calida, Benetton, Decathlon and Vaude. They all have the same problem - that the time between product development and delivery to retail stores takes way too long. Those who really want to react to customer needs will have to act much faster than before.

The problem is as obvious as it is well known, and has been for years: Because apparel production has migrated to far away countries and has become enormously complex, it is hardly possible to shorten the response times for new trends and bestsellers. In addition, the communication between product developers and designers in Germany and production in the Far East is not without its problems. Thus, until a product can be developed and delivered, 15 months go by in the fashion industry. For sportswear, make that up to two years. Normally, up to three prototypes have to be developed, evaluated and modified on average before the final product can go into production. This not only costs a lot of money but in all that time, many things change.

"The fashion industry has been very good in recent years in making production, logistics and trend scouting more efficient", says keynote speaker Hans Peter Hiemer of consulting firm B4B BusinessforBrands GmbH. "And in the end it still often happens that the consumer does not buy it. We have always thought about the product and how to improve the overall value chain, but never about how to put the customer at the center of all measures." Instead, the fashion industry continues to reduce production costs ever further and accepts in the end that only massive discounts will cause the product to find buyers eventually. Would it not be better to produce closer to the customer in terms of content, time and space from the beginning?

The customer has to be at the core of all measures

“In the past, we knew how to individualise,” says Hiemer, referring to custom tailoring. Back then, prices were relatively stable and there were no returns and no remainders. And by the way, there was no waste of resources like we know today. Online retailers as well as fast fashion manufacturers prove that more closeness to customers and their needs leads to success. Asos takes 25 days from idea to finished product; there is no stock, and small lines instead of mass production. What sells out fast will only increase demand. Zara is even faster when it comes to implementing new trends despite having a global retail network to supply to. Says Hiemer: “We require a high amount of stock only due to ignorance of actual consumer needs.” And for him, the rampant verticalization is only a compensation for market saturation: "We are not getting any better in terms of content, so we are trying to tie sales and distribution to us.”

Ultimately, in the future it will be no longer about how the customer finds the product, but how the product finds the customer. And new direct-to-consumer models will replace classic brand-retail-consumer ones. "Only if the are demand-driven will relevant and individual product ranges arise,”says Hiemer. That is why companies work with data archives and algorithms to enable better personalisation. Amazon is working on it as well as the big fashion online retailers. Hiemer makes a simple calculation: "Only because of the basic mechanics of our industry do we have to calculate with enormous write-offs. If we did not have them, we could utilise our capital differently and could produce in Europe.”

Digital production

Instead of mass produced goods where ‘one fits all‘, Hiemer advocates for more personalisation and ultimately decentralised production. Microfactories as presented by adidas last year in Berlin in cooperation with Human Solutions and as seen at the convention are a step in the right direction for him. "Product development had been neglected for some years,” agrees Dr. Andreas Seidl, CEO of Human Solutions. From digital design to 3D simulation that not only uses better visualisation of the design idea but also better communication with the producers, via digital sampling all the way to digital showrooms, many steps in the process chain can be digitised today and thus become more efficient and time-saving. The goal is not to get the goods to the stores even earlier (no winter coats in summer, etc.) but to be able to start later with product development.

This article was first published by FashionUnited Germany. Translation by Simone Preuss.

Photos: Human Solutions/Vidya; Fashion United: Hans Peter Hiemer

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