Ground-breaking fabrics, supply chain partnerships and product lifecycle management software were seen as key to future innovation at Drapers’ latest round table.
Wearable technology, glow-in-the- dark fabric and super-lightweight natural fibres - innovation in fashion can come in many different forms. Yet, behind the research and development breakthroughs, strong supplier-customer relationships and product lifecycle management (PLM) systems are what makes such innovation possible.
In association with software specialist Infor, Drapers invited experts from the likes of Ted Baker, Sweaty Betty and Jacques Vert Group to discuss the latest innovations in fashion. The round table event at the Groucho Club on October 21 focused on investments in technology and fabric development, as well as collaboration within the supply chain.
Ulla Vitting Richards, head of product at activewear retailer Sweaty Betty, kicked things off with her insight into performance fabrics. “Every season we let our designers work on a project that is the most out-there thing they can think of,” she explained. “We ask what would be the most amazing thing for running or skiing. Our designers present a collection which is totally futuristic, such as fabric that looks like fish scales to enhance swimming. We have strong partnerships with suppliers and even though it might be a couple of years before we see anything, we try not
to use fabrics anyone else is using.”
Contemporary retailer Jigsaw is going in the opposite direction, focusing on lightweight, premium and natural fibre fabrics, according to buying and merchandising director Shailina Parti. “We work with a lot of Italian mills because we think there is a need to bring back luxury. This is down to the mix of yarns and how they perform. It’s all about the provenance and craftsmanship you get through Italy. All over China, you find beautiful copy [imitation] fabrics, but Italians innovate with fabric really well.”
Building genuine personal relationships across the supply chain is seen as a real driver for innovation and a shift from the days when retailers talked at - rather than to - suppliers. This point was stressed by Parti, who had just given a presentation to suppliers in Asia to help them understand the retailer.
Premium chain Whistles’ head of technical and sourcing Roz Adams was in agreement. “We are quite small, so our bargaining power is limited and it is very much based on partnerships with suppliers on a very personal level. Showing them where the brand is going ultimately helps us to get the quality we want at small volumes.”
Adams advocated taking a holistic view of the supply chain, including considering suppliers’ cash flow to make sure payments are on time and the next stage of development is up and running. “Our top 20 suppliers are responsible for 83% of our business, so they are key to us,” said Adams. “We might also work with Italian suppliers on more seasonal product where we only want 600 pieces twice a year, so the relationship is different.”
For Sarah Morris, group trading director at womenswear brand house Jacques Vert Group, the top 15 suppliers are integral to achieving the necessary quality. “Our number one supplier has been with the group for 37 years,” said Morris. “He is a key partner who has adapted to how the business has changed over the past couple of years. Our suppliers absolutely take on board what we want to achieve and adapt to see where they can add value.”
Reinvigorating the supplier-retailer relationship is essential to ensure no one is taken for granted, said dancewear brand Pineapple’s business development director Sarah Coppin. “You can get a few suppliers, give them repeat orders and suddenly production falls off the edge and you don’t know why. Perhaps they are outsourcing that production because they are taking you for granted, but you were probably doing the same by not inspiring them.”
Director of outsize womenswear retailer Long Tall Sally Maurice Bennett agreed it takes time to build credibility with suppliers and even the biggest companies can stumble if they don’t pay attention to the relationship. “If things go wrong you have to share the pain with the supplier. When we were slow paying the bills we told them we had problems. Likewise when we were able to pay, we did so in seven days, to build up a store of goodwill.”
David Hathiramani, co-founder of tailoring business A Suit that Fits, sees the advantage in inspiring a single supplier with the company vision, something he has instilled in the 53 tailors supplying the retailer who are based in Kathmandu, Nepal. “Our tailors completely live the brand and know that customer delight is central. The fact that the person stitching your garment is thinking the same thing is really powerful and gives you an amazing product.”
Having trusted suppliers that are agile enough to react in a volatile market is essential, stressed Infor industry and solution strategy director Andrew Dalziel. “Demand is becoming much more volatile these days. Something can take off or be a flop overnight, so you don’t want to commit to the traditional big push of inventory up front. It’s about minimising your risk and capital exposure and then being able to quickly ramp up production with a partner standing by, feeling the risk in the supply chain with you.”
The model is slightly different for concessions business Hallett Retail’s chief executive Wendy Hallett, whose company represents smaller brands selling into bigger retailers. “The advantage of having lots of small suppliers is the reaction speed. For example, if we have a very hot summer and everyone wants summer clothes we can react quickly.”
The round table participants agreed that sourcing short lead-time products from Europe and Turkey provides in-season agility, whereas for long lead products they opt for manufacturing in China or Hong Kong. Whistles sources from the Far East for silk or cashmere, confirmed Adams, but has built up production in Europe for in-season product.
Next the discussion turned to PLM software, which manages the product from development to design and production across the supply chain, and its value in communicating with suppliers worldwide. Dalziel reported on improvements being made to the usability of Infor’s PLM systems: “We have started from scratch working with a New York design team on the user interface, so we have totally revolutionised how you use the software.
“It is fundamental when moving to omnichannel to have a global view of inventory or you will have upset customers who think something is out of stock in one place, when it is in stock somewhere else. People are pushing so much inventory through and say a collection has gone well because it has sold out, but if you’ve had unplanned markdowns, what’s the real margin? You need the back end sorted or it could cost you.”
Whistles head of ecommerce Louise Salt sees the potential of PLM systems to pass on technical and fabric information from the supply base.
Salt believes that once armed with the detail, the ecommerce and in-store teams will be able to explain to the customer why they pay £30 more for a Whistles garment than for value fashion.
Adams saw the advantages of integrating PLM modules on logistics and freight or sampling and development. “You can have the whole history in one place and the supplier has their own sign-in to check orders so there is transparency. But it depends on the level of investment the company can afford.” Parti agreed that customer-facing operations will always be at the front of the queue for funds.
Participants across the board felt omnichannel is currently the biggest innovation in fashion. Jacques Vert Group’s recently relaunched online platform has shown improved conversion rates since being optimised for tablets and mobiles, said Morris.
For Hallett, a main challenge is to get product onto websites faster. “Some retailers get stock in store up to three weeks before it hits the website, so we are looking at using technology to speed up the process.”
For Parti, innovation is a combination of omnichannel and developments to improve the in-store aesthetic, citing Jigsaw’s £900,000 Duke Street Emporium in Mayfair as an example. The 6,000 sq ft two-floor shop includes a cafe.
Footwear designer Justin Deakin echoed this. His independent brand is driven by his east London store on Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. Deakin only puts 50% of his product online, helping to drive footfall, and uses the website to screen short films.
Making retail theatre is also a priority for Whistles. “All the data says that online will only be 50% of sales maximum,” said Salt. “I think the most exciting innovations will come through stores.”
Ultimately, innovation means different things to different brands or retailers. Whether the focus is fabric technology, digital investment or the store experience, the participants agreed that getting the basics right and building a trusted relationship with suppliers is essential for innovation to flourish.
|David Hathiramani, co-founder, A Suit That Fits|
|Mirvette Russo, strategy director, Dewhirst Group|
|Wendy Hallett, managing director, Hallett Retail|
|Shailina Parti, buying and merchandising director, Jigsaw|
|Sarah Morris, group trading director, Jacques Vert Group|
|Justin Deakin, owner, Justin Deakin|
|Maurice Bennett, chairman, Long Tall Sally|
|David Carter-Johnson, chairman, Luke|
|Sarah Coppin, business development director, Pineapple|
|Ulla Vitting Richards, head of product, Sweaty Betty|
|Kirstin Barrett, area manager southwest, and Mark Newman, chief operating officer, Ted Baker|
|Donna Harris, head of retail for Ted Baker at John Lewis Partnership|
|Roz Adams, head of technical and sourcing, and Louise Salt,head of ecommerce,Whistles|
|From Infor Andrew Dalziel, industry & solution strategy director; Alex Nealon, business development manager|
From Drapers James Knowles, features & special reports editor; Charlotte Rogers, features & special reports writer.