Overview of the IAF Designer Award, which was won by Colombias Andrea Landa

Overview of the IAF Designer Award, which was won by Colombia's Andrea Landa

Global apparel brands must boost innovation and put customers at the centre of their growth strategies in order to survive an increasingly challenging market, industry executives said at the International Apparel Federation's 30th Fashion Convention in Colombia last week.

The event, which lured over 300 delegates to Colombia's second-largest city Medellin, saw executives from brands including Desigual, Walt Disney and VF Corp discuss a 12-step agenda of specific industry challenges from retailing to digital marketing to supporting young designers.

One big highlight was a presentation by Desigual's Latin American director Horacio Broggi, who told how the Spanish "happy fashion" chain has muscled into an $829m enterprise from sales of just $8m 12 years ago.

In his speech titled 'Establishing multiple contacts with the consumer. Omnichannel Strategy,' Broggi detailed how the brand has won consumers' hearts trough "happy and casual" apparel designs themed on humans' basic needs for "sex, fun and love."

Striving to give all customers a "Desigual" (happy) moment, the firm has managed to install 17,000 points of sale (POS) including 440 shops around the world. It even has a "happymetro" (happymeter) to monitor employees' work satisfaction levels, which Broggi said has helped boost staff loyalty and productivity.

Fashion inclusion
World Bank trade specialist Emiliano Duch also revealed the bank is reshuffling its financing strategy to help poor nations develop fast-fashion start-ups to fuel economic growth.

Brands could benefit from shifting production to countries near key markets (near-sourcing) and away from ultra-low cost countries (value fashion, volume production models), Duch explained.

He noted that the fast-fashion business model pioneered by Zara-owner Inditex involves placing smaller orders with factories closer to home, which not only speeds up the supply process but allows the company to react more quickly to trends and local needs.

Duch also noted that such a move would help brands save money while helping developing nations move into the burgeoning fast-fashion industry, which doesn't require heavy start-up funding.  

However, many poor countries don't have the necessary transport and export infrastructure to meet global brands' demands while a huge educational gap is also a challenge.

"We are re-thinking the support we are giving [to the industry]," Duch told just-style on the event's sidelines. "How much we ultimately give will depend on how much the countries themselves want to invest."

While the transition to fast-fashion won't be easy, Duch said it's not impossible. "Zara was created in Galicia, one of Spain's poorest regions, through a series of small apparel shops, some even in the informal market. But with sweat and tears, they built the company with very little financing."

Rahul Mehta, president of the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India - and crowned IAF's new head at the event - said investments to install the necessary equipment and manufacturing technology will be needed to persuade brands to raise spending to shift output closer to market. However, he noted the World Bank will likely fork out the bulk of the funds.

"These countries' garment industries are not aided by their governments in any big way," Mehta said, referring to Asian, African and Central American nations where short-runs could eventually be moved. "The World Bank is going to spend money to build apparel parks."

Latin American ambitions
Delegates also spoke about how Colombia (and other Latin American countries), could flesh out its apparel industry. Currently focused on the booming local market, it has higher export ambitions.

To beat rivals, Colombia must work to more efficiently meet its youngsters' fashion needs, especially as a plethora of US and European labels inundate the country.

"Foreign brands are coming in because the local brands don't know how to meet local demand," Duch said in response to a just-style question about the challenges facing Colombian and Latin American brands, especially as they move to thwart local consumers' strong preference for international labels.

Speaking about the region, Duch added Colombian and Latin American brands could also launch "southern hemisphere" collections to meet those geographies' apparel needs, hinged on diverse climates and cultures.

Meanwhile, IAF's outgoing president Harry Van Dalfsen said Colombia must endeavour to build more high quality products to minimise the impact of labour costs on brands' sourcing strategies.

"Colombian production is no longer low cost but there is a near-sourcing opportunity for the country if they focus on more innovation," he said.

That noted, Van Dalfsen said Colombia leads Latin America on many product innovation points while its highly integrated textiles and apparel chain has become a regional example, prompting the IAF to select it as the first South American country to host the convention.

For his part, Adriano Goldschmied, often called the 'god-father of denim' because of his pioneering industry work, said Colombia must focus on its local market and lift trade restrictions to enable local brands to more quickly and profitably gain market share.

On another inclusion note, Stefan Siegel, founder of emerging-designer platform Not Just A Label, spoke about the need to promote rising talent as a way to boost brands' appeal with ever-demanding global consumers.

Siegel detailed how the company has become the world's largest website marketing young designers' wares, allowing its 17,000 members to retain 70% of a garment's sales, as well as providing coaching and other development services.