Technology’s role in the development of fashion was on the agenda at a panel discussion hosted by French technology solutions provider Lectra and held April 3 in the Buyers Club at the California Market Center.
Moderated by California Fashion Association President Ilse Metchek, the panel included Directives West Vice President Shelda Hartwell-Hale, Kellwood Vice President of e-Commerce Elton Graham, and Luis Velazquez, a business consultant for Lectra North America and former executive at Gap Inc.
The discussion ranged from trend scouting and crowd sourcing to realizing efficiencies in the design-development process and unifying a company’s brand-building message.
“A lot of e-commerce companies are looking at ways to invite their customers into the design process,” Graham said. “Early on in the design process, this could be through focus groups, surveys, communities, and inviting your top clients to rate CAD designs and sketches.”
Graham said companies can also gather information about pricing in the same way, by asking qualified buyers what they would pay for a proposed design. “They might say, ‘I’d pay $300 for that,’ and you were going to [sell it for] $199. You’ve underpriced,” he said.
Technology can also help companies remove some of the cost associated with bringing a product to market, Velazquez said. Using 3-D patternmaking, design and production teams can eliminate the many samples made during the design-development process.
“The way we’ve always worked in the past is we go and make a sample,” he said. “I show it to five or six different people and say, ‘What do you think?’ As you show each person, you’re lengthening the sleeve, you’re shortening the hem. You’re doing all these things, and you’re going through sample orders as you do. That’s really expensive. Imagine a world where you can do that digitally. That can take one, two, three iterations out of the process. It saves you time and it saves you money.”
Cutting through the “noise”
The panelists agreed that the social networking provides valuable opportunities to gather information about a brand and what its customers want, but all said there’s “a lot of noise” to sift through.
“I think there’s a lot of noise and very little signal,” Graham said. “People and companies are desperately seeking true data points that they can act upon and trying to gather them in a social landscape. There are very innovative tools where you can see what [a blogger’s] followership is, what their social ranking is, what their reach is. It’s also looking at engagement because I think there’s also a false metric when you look at followers. There’s a lot of dead weight there.”
The right social-networking tools could vary from company to company, he said. “I would encourage companies to really find the levers that are meaningful for them in social media. But I would also caution businesses who think they’re going to live and die by social media that they should look at social media as a way to define themselves rather than as a growth mechanism or to follow a trend.”
Velazquez agreed, adding that it’s important for brands to stay true to their message.
“If you are Pendleton Mills and you make the wool products with Native American designs and you’re going to do a brand extension, then you focus on the extension that fits in that world you live in. Don’t make happy-face T-shirts,” he said. “I think that the days of huge brands taking over vast geographies or huge trends taking over whole populations of people—those days are gone. I think what’s more probably likely to happen is niche brands who are super focused on a specific population and they deliver consistently to that population. That’s what the future looks like. Something I learned from the dot-com world is it’s less important that you be first. It’s more important for you to be best.”
Both Hartwell-Hale and Graham stressed the importance of gathering intelligence directly from the consumer.
For Hartwell-Hale, that often means traditional focus groups. “The old-school kind of focus group, these sounding boards, that’s still so relevant to brands and retailers,” she said. “To me it’s the fastest and quickest way. Technology is important, but we need to stay connected face-to-face to really understand who [the customer] is, what she wants, what excites her, what is compelling to her and what she is not happy with.”
Metchek questioned whether there was time in the design process that is focused on speed-to-market to organize a focus group.
“Focus groups take time,” she said. “At what point do you say you’re responsible for your own design, your own brand?”
Graham said the crucial information gathered from a focus group warrants allocating time for them.
“I’d rather know that I’m wrong early on in a process than later on when I’m chasing something,” he said. “So even if I have to elongate my process with focus groups, it’s so important.”
But he added that there are ways to take the focus group online—and around the country—to quickly gather a broad sample of the market using user-experience testing.
But Velazquez cautioned that many digital versions of the focus group “that almost gamify the
experience” are too item-driven. “We don’t shop most of the time for items,” he said. “We shop a story, we shop a feeling. We walk into a store and we want to buy because that room gives us a feeling. I think you miss out when you break it down into components. I still feel very strongly that merchandising is important, that telling a story is important.”
The panel discussed the importance of storytelling in brand building online and in the store.
“E-commerce requires a storytelling technique for successful visual presentation,” Metchek said. “Is visual presentation now more important than the garment?”
Great product is “the price of entry,” Velasquez said. “Telling that story makes you win.”
He recommended using collaborative software such as product lifecycle management (PLM) system to integrate the message from the very first stages of design.
“Imagine a world where the minute a designer finishes her sketch in Illustrator, everybody else can see it in the PLM system that they’re working with. And the moment that the technical designer finishes the patterns, she can generate a 3-D rendering of it, and everyone else on the team can see it, including the guy who is making the webpage. That connectivity is something that is going to be more and more important. Because our consumers are smarter now. If a story isn’t cohesive and if it doesn’t make sense, they’re going to see through it. Having that information available to the team from the very beginning is going to tell a better story and be more meaningful to the brand when they actually go to market.”
Great stories and great visuals are important, but for Hartwell-Hale, “At the end of the day, I just need to see the clothes. I do want to see them styled. Give me the page so I can speak to my retailers about it.”
But Hartwell-Hale added that the level of engagement in a brand’s story often depends on the customer’s age.
“For the younger consumer, it’s entertainment for her,” she said. “She wants to be engaged. Going into a store and trying on clothes and taking pictures and uploading to the store’s website that’s being generated on the store’s big screen—that’s a cool place for her to be. She’s going to spend a few hours, and she’s going to buy something. Then you’ve got the contemporary or designer consumer that wants to be romanced. When they go into the store, that consumer does want to see a story.”