Steve Lamar, executive vice president, American Apparel & Footwear Association; Susan Ganz, CEO, Lion Brothers; Pete Santora, chief commercial officer, SoftWear Automation; Juan Zighelboim, president, TexOps

Steve Lamar, executive vice president, American Apparel & Footwear Association; Susan Ganz, CEO, Lion Brothers; Pete Santora, chief commercial officer, SoftWear Automation; Juan Zighelboim, president, TexOps

Innovation and new technologies are helping pave the way for the US apparel industry to become faster and smarter – and sharpen its competitive edge in commercially uncertain times – according to speakers at the annual American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) Sourcing Conference in Washington DC last week.

Whether creating prototypes from designs within minutes using 3D software, fabrics being dyed as completed pieces, or turning to robotics and blockchain, speakers stressed how new concepts could all become mainstream in the clothing industry's future.

For Angie Lau, CEO of Hong Kong-based Clover Group International Ltd, a garment manufacturer focused on intimate apparel, innovation is woven not only into the product but also into the process.

Lau attributes the company's female ownership to some of its nimbleness in responding to trends – she runs the company with her sister and the manufacturer's production is, after all, focused on bras.

"Clover started to innovate since [we made] the first padded bra with Victoria's Secret," Lau said. "We were one of the first to launch seamless 'infinity' bras. Now, every bra is made with that innovation."

Among the manufacturer's latest advances is a machine created with another company and an Italian engineer that, rather than colouring each component of a bra separately, dyes the completed piece all at once, so that it can be delivered within 24 hours.

Clover Group also is developing a new chitosan textile material from the shells of crabs, shrimp and other aquatics. The material, which is naturally antibacterial, biodegradable and hypoallergenic, will be knitted into fabrics to lend those attributes to the pieces, she stressed.

To make such technical changes stick, Clover works closely with brands to understand the processes or products they would like to see improved. Several speakers said such collaboration is key to staying ahead of the final customer's needs and improving efficiency.

A local edge

New innovations are being developed in emerging market bases as well as traditional high-tech hubs such as Hong Kong. Juan Zighelboim, president of TexOps, a technologically savvy supplier based in Central America, said his home base in El Salvador gives him an edge over his competitors in Asia.

Zighelboim said being a less than 5-hour flight away from his customers in the United States means he can do more in-person meetings and avoid the eight-week back-and-forth that can surround some design decisions. Having "the right toys" in his facility means he can share 3D virtual samples for suppliers to consider rather than relying on the postal service alone.

"There's a saying in the apparel business, measure twice, cut once," he said with a grin. "If we can eliminate all the noise that happens in-between meetings, we can do it in a few days with a flight down and set it up with technology."

Susan Ganz, CEO at Lion Brothers, said that nearness to decision makers is why her company has kept a manufacturing presence in Owings Mill, Maryland, just outside Washington DC, despite most of its products being made outside the US.

The 118-year-old business started in Baltimore, Maryland, and stayed close to the capital to serve one of its main customers, making branded US identity items for federal agencies such as US Customs and Border Protection.

When that business diminished, Lion Brothers kept the Owings Mill facility and turned it into a hub of research and development.

"It's grown to be our heart, focused on new processes with a digital mindset toward machinery tools and materials science," Ganz said. "It offers speed and a different mindset."

Close to the customer

Pete Santora, chief commercial officer for Atlanta, Georgia-based SoftWear Automation, which works on robotic worklines for the apparel and footwear industry, said his goal is to become the 'Tesla of sewing' by bringing production even closer to retailers and consumers through technology.

"When we talk about 'made in America,' I want to define it better," Santora said. "We view it as made close to the customer. If you want speed, you can optimise all you want with your supplier in Asia, but it will just get incrementally better."

Santora said customers today expect goods to be delivered at breakneck speeds, and those expectations are only going to grow with younger generations who have grown up with Amazon and same-day deliveries.

Robotics, he said, has largely failed to deliver in the apparel industry in the past, partly because it is difficult to handle fabric without distorting it. But SoftWear Automation has been working to improve that technology for the last 12 years.

"The science of sewing your shirt [with robotics] is solved," he said. "We just need the motivation" to adopt the technology more broadly.

Blockchain technology

The same can be said of blockchain technology, which involves distributing information across several computer systems to improve security. Difficult as the concept is to explain, many industry leaders regard it as a means to track increasingly complex supply chains, he said.

Annette Mueller, global director at Maersk, spoke about a joint venture the behemoth shipping company forged with IBM early this year to develop a blockchain system through which firms around the world can securely share information.

Mueller referred to the as-yet-unnamed partnership as a "global trade digitisation platform," a system of data from which dozens of applications can draw information. Shippers will be able to input data on the timing of their arrival, and suppliers will be able to view but not change that data as it becomes one "block" of information "chained" to a long list of transactions.

Jonathan Johnson, president of venture capital firm Medici Ventures, and a member of the board for its owner, Utah-based e-tailer Overstock.com, explained how this technology could be used by retailers and supply chains in the future. He said limiting an understanding of blockchain to its most commonly known use so far – as the technology that fuels cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – is like getting your first email and saying, "Wow, look at all the Internet can do."

"I like to think of email as being the first killer app on the Internet," he said. "The underlying technology of blockchain has a lot more to do with transferring assets than just Bitcoin."

"Currently," he continued, "we rely on a series of trust brokers: stockbrokers, agents, banks… blockchain technology really replaces these trust brokers with 'trust through technology.'"

Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chains for AAFA, said it will be difficult for the apparel and footwear industry, at least initially, to adapt to a system that places trust in technology.

Companies use frequent visits to suppliers' factories or quality control measures to ensure good working conditions are leading to quality products. Can they adapt to trusting a super-database to verify transactions?

Herman remained hopeful. He also could not resist quoting US president Ronald Reagan during the conference in an international trade centre building that bears his name: "The mantra in our industry," he said, "has always been trust but verify."