How can you compress the design calendar into just eight weeks from the more typical 52 weeks when you don't own your manufacturing locations? Unlike promises to "lose 10 inches in five weeks!" this one is achievable says Sudhir Holla.

Spanish-based retail chain Zara has built its reputation on the introduction of new designs to its stores every week. Achieving this across the whole range might seem extreme to most apparel companies; indeed, it would be a monumental challenge.

But there is no doubt that combining traditional garment development processes with the ability to introduce fresh new lines on a regular basis is an important tool for drawing consumers into stores.

Most companies have grown to such a size that getting a design to market involves numerous steps:

  • Getting market feedback by analysing sales history;
  • Discussions/meetings between merchants, designers and product development;
  • Proposing a concept;
  • Discussions again;
  • Get the concept approved;
  • Select the fabric;
  • Update systems, create initial concept number, request for fabric samples from vendors;
  • Create e-mail/spreadsheet to send to mill;
  • Follow up discussions with mill;
  • Get swatches from the mill;
  • Discussions to approve the swatches;
  • Put up the colours for approval; send the fabric for lab dips;
  • Designers work on the specifications;
  • Put up the style for adoption;
  • Obtain feedback from chief designer;
  • Chief designer changes his mind on the fabric to be used;
  • Go back to the fabric selection step…the list can go on and on.

Is it any surprise that most companies now have calendars where designs for the next season are initiated more than a year in advance of the actual season?

Cost economics have also dictated that manufacturing is now outsourced to factories in Asia, with an accompanying compromise on speed if the manufacturing is carried out closer to home. Typically, given competition and margin pressures, cost wins.

However, the above process can be stripped back to only those activities that add value to the final garment being designed.

Value adding activities on the critical path to bringing the design to market would include:

  • Obtaining market feedback (one week);
  • Coming up with the concept and finalising the design and specifications (two weeks);
  • Manufacturing (one week);
  • Transportation to the store (four weeks, including shipping to the US via sea from Asia).

Everything else is either non value adding or not on the critical path.

What about all the peripheral activities like fabric selection and approval, mill selection, vendor selection, PO creation, PO tracking, air/sea decision making, concept approval etc?

Some of these activities are non-value adding and simply help communication and ensure discipline - but increase in effort and volume as an organisation grows in size. Others, like fabric and vendor selection, do add value but can be managed in such a way that they do not fall on the critical path.

Pre-requisites for slashing the design to market calendar
In order to get the design calendar down to eight weeks, it is important to take all activities that do not directly add value to the garment and see whether these can be removed from the critical path.

It is also important to make the organisational changes required for a 'fast-lane' within the regular supply chain to ensure that the garments get the special attention they require. This is a bit like having a mini supply chain within a larger supply chain.

Most designers probably hark back to the days when they were part of a small design team, and were able to churn out multiple designs because the organisation was small and nimble, the manufacturing vendor was known intimately, and the designer was also the merchandiser (and probably also in charge of product development).

To get from concept to market in eight weeks, this same environment will have to be replicated.

Form a core team consisting of representatives from design to production and planning, including vendor product development, to plan and execute the 'concept to market - fast lane' programme. Find a team which works well together; heated debates and discussions are OK; ego issues are not.

Equally important is to let the rest of the organisation know - especially the supply chain and store execution teams - that this 'fast lane programme' is the VIP coming through the system.

Vendor partners should preferably have their own mills or have a good relationship with the mills. The partnership needs to go all the way, the vendor needs to be a part of each and every step; and representatives from the vendor should be part of the core team.

Block dedicated capacity at the vendor for the 'fast lane' and ensure that senior management in both organisations are committed to making this a success.

Make the commercial arrangement independent of the transaction. A potential approach could be for vendor to get a share in the margin as opposed to negotiating the cost on a transaction-by-transaction basis. This also ensures that they have a significant stake in the success of the programme.

Pre-select the fabric, and have sufficient inventory available prior to the start of the process. A key to this would be to limit the fabrics and fabric types that the new designs would be introduced in. Also key is the realisation that leftover inventory is not a bad thing as long as the cost is factored into the cost of manufacturing.

A higher cost also needs to be factored in for a higher quantity of seconds resulting from shorter production runs.

Borrow a best practice from CPG companies. Carefully identify a few consumers to take part in a marketing focus group. These consumers should be the same profile as your target consumers. Give these consumers the pleasant task of shopping around and watching the market for trends. In general, treat their feedback as feedback from the actual consumer.

Selection of the right focus group is key and should be done carefully. Take advantage of data mining if required to figure out who your target consumer is. It also helps to give them names and build a profile so that it is easier to conceptualise the target consumer and select shoppers for the focus group.

For example, is your target consumer Debra, who is 35 year old, married with two kids, disposable income of $85K, or is it Kelli, 22 years old, starting out in her career, disposable income of $50K?

Knowing who your target consumer is, and sharing this information with the rest of the organisation can be invaluable in making sure that the whole company recognises and works together to meet the needs of the target customer.

The fast lane fashion calendar
Next it's time to plan and execute your new fast fashion calendar.

Week 1
Get the core team and the focus group into a room. Discuss trends. Identify potential concepts. Brainstorm on ideas. Look at what the competition is selling. At the end of week 1 the team should have a well-defined idea of the concepts for the fast-lane designs and a short-list of good design ideas

Week 2
The designers work on the designs of the individual garments. The vendor's product development representative does a "reality check" to see whether the required fabric and trims will be available within the given lead times. As far as possible, the designer should work with trims and fabrics that are already available.

A lot of designers will find it difficult to work under these constraints; some designers will find it challenging and creative. Find designers who find it challenging and not difficult!

A key success factor here is to have the vendor representatives as part of the design process; it will go a long way towards reducing the effort and time spent communicating with the vendor.

The planners should also be involved so that they can begin thinking about the store assortments. Even better, have the same person perform the production and planning tasks.

While the design team works on finalising the designs, the production team should order trims and fabric that are not already pre-positioned. Give production the flexibility to replace or substitute fabric and trim if required in order to meet timelines. This is where having the designer and production representatives as part of the same team helps; typically over a period of time they will learn to understand each other's needs and preferences and hence work more effectively together.

Week 3
Finalise the design specifications at the vendor manufacturing location. The expense of flying the team to the vendor location will be more than made up by the savings in time, effort and cost in having fit sessions and communication across continents.

Technology is definitely an enabler, with PLM packages that allow for collaboration over the web. However, as designers would testify, it rates a poor second to having face-to-face discussions.

Have the necessary resources available to make fit adjustments on the garments while the designer is working at the manufacturing facility. Treat this step as a "custom tailoring" session, with tailors dedicated to the fit sessions. Release the specifications to manufacturing as and when completed.

Week 4
Manufacturing of the garments begins without a formal PO. The production department works on creating the PO for legal and receiving purposes while manufacturing is going on. Production then works with planning to pre-allocate the PO to facilitate cross-docking. By this stage the logistics team should have planned transportation from Asia to the US.

Weeks 5-7
Allow three weeks for sea shipments, or a couple of days by air. Mark the product as "fast lane" so that it gets the required attention at the freight forwarder and the distribution centres.

Week 8
Receive at DC and cross-dock to stores based on the pre-allocated POs.

From theory to practice
Getting from concept to market in eight weeks is not difficult, at least in theory. Moving from theory to practice requires organisations to get rid of preconceived notions, break down organisational barriers and have the flexible mind-set to work within constraints.

In the past, most organisations would only have implemented the "fast lane" concept in exceptional cases where the chief designer insisted on a last-minute design change or in a supply chain emergency. The trick is to formalise the process and make it a habit.

Technology enablers
No article would be complete without mentioning technology enablers that can help compress the design calendar.

Unfortunately, the apparel industry seems to be unique in the fact that product development processes and production processes are not really separate processes.

Commitment to vendors comes at various levels of the product hierarchy and in various stages of product development. Most ERP packages and the definition of a 'purchase order' do not, however, allow for multi-stage, multi-level commitments.

There are though some products which seem to be getting there. My favourite one is from a Portland, OR-based company called Supplychainge which has a product called LTO (Lead Time Optimization) that optimises decision-making on vendor commitments taking into account margins, transportation cost, and expected markdowns.

The optimiser also takes into account expected fabric leftovers and factors this into the decision-making, calculating not just how much to buy but also when to make commitments.

Also relevant are product lifecycle management (PLM) products which allow for product development tracking and web-based collaboration. MatrixOne and PTC seem to be generating a lot of interest among retailers lately.

The point to remember, however, is that technology is just an enabler and in many cases an enabler to improve decision making and communication efficiency in complex and large organisations. Wouldn't it be better to just see first if organisations and their processes can be made less complex?


Sudhir Holla is a senior principal with the Retail & CPG solution consulting group within Infosys. With more than 12 years of consulting experience, Sudhir has led engagements with several apparel wholesale and retail companies in providing business and technology solutions to address sourcing and supply chain issues. Sudhir's expertise is in supplier collaboration, CPFR, planning and supply chain and logistics. Sudhir can be reached at sudhir_holla@infosys.com

Infosys provides consulting and information technology services and partners with Global 2000 companies on business consulting, systems integration, application development and product engineering services. For more information, visit www.infosys.com