Innovation is all about change - sometimes planned, often unplanned. But there are lessons to be learned too, and as garment companies move to set up in-house innovation centres they would do well to take heed, writes David Birnbaum.

The vote has been taken. The ballots counted. The results are in. The word for 2014 is INNOVATION.

Not a bad choice.

Innovation is all about change - sometimes planned; often unplanned. For the garment industry, innovation takes many forms from design and technology to culture.

The computer has brought us computer assisted design (CAD) as well as computer assisted manufacturing (CAM). It has brought us product lifecycle management (PLM). Given the current high cost of these programmes limiting sales to the very largest companies, it is too early to tell the nature and extent of change. We must wait for PLM prices to come down to a more reasonable $59.95 (shipping included) available through Amazon.

At a time when fashion trends have all but disappeared, consumers are looking for something truly new, not just warmed-over ideas of the past. Innovation is becoming a viable strategy.

The problem with innovation is that it is a complex process requiring talented innovators who are, by definition, unstable. Also, innovation is not simply invention. Steve Jobs who was arguably the most talented innovator of our time, was not an inventor. His talent lay in the ability to co-opt other talented inventors to create the things Jobs needed to realise his innovative concept.

To be successful, companies are looking to create centres of innovation like Apple. If the IT people can do it, why not us?

Actually we have done it. In 1968 Maïmé Arnodin and Denis Fayolle established Agence MAFIA in Paris. Part advertising agency, part design studio, MAFIA became the industry's first innovation shop. The two partners found good people and made them better, sometimes great. Their clients included some of the great names of the day such as Yves St Laurent. MAFIA in its work with 3 Suisses brought to the catalogue such designers as Agnés B, Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gautier, and Sonia Rikiel, thus forever tearing down the barrier between high fashion design and clothes for the average consumer.

As garment companies move to set up in-house innovation centres they would do well to study the work of Steve Jobs, and particularly Maïmé Arnodin and Denis Fayolle.

There are lessons here.

  • The IT industry, of which Apple is the leading example, is based on innovation and has an understanding of how to create in-house innovation.
  • As the company grows, of which Microsoft is the leading example, the organisation takes over and innovation disappears.

The question is how do we create and maintain a culture of innovation. Here we must look to MAFIA.

  • The cash benefits of innovation are such that a single effort by one person can bring greater financial gain than the total cost of the entire innovation centre for decades.
  • Every effort must be made to catch and develop that innovation.
  • By nature, innovation is counter-corporate.
  • Talented innovators will work extraordinary hours, provided they believe their work is seen as important.
  • Senior management must constantly reassure innovators that their talent is great and their work appreciated.
  • Innovators must be given virtually unlimited freedom. In this regard MAFIA allowed its people unlimited time to examine sources of new ideas. Some took one day off a week to visit art galleries. Two young people travelled from Paris to Milan to visit a glass blowing factory. Everything and anything can push the button leading to the next great innovation.
  • The very existence of the in-house innovation centre creates its own visceral opposition from those outside and excluded. They must never be permitted to interfere.
  • The innovation centre project starts from the top and thereafter must be controlled from the top.
  • MOST IMPORTANT: Innovation can exist only in a company with an embedded culture of innovation.

Case study of failure
Schmata is a long-established large single product brand, where management has history of new ideas. Senior management decided to create an in-house innovation centre.

  • A separate building was selected to house the new centre, thus separating innovation from the rest of the company;
  • A very small number people were hired. They had no previous experience in the product, but were seen to have potential innovation talent;
  • They were given a brief period of training to understand the basics of the product;
  • The manager selected for the project had unsurpassed knowledge of the product;
  • The first 4-5 months show great results and even greater promise of things to come.
  • In the course of a single day, things fall apart.

What happened?
Clearly the events that resulted in the operational failure may have occurred in the course of a single day but the causes were implicit from the outset.

  • The innovators were paid on a per-hour basis. At the highest echelon management may have considered the innovators as valuable assets to be treated with care, but at the all important sub-levels those same innovators were categorised as blue collar workers, much like floor sweepers and garbage collectors.
  • Special events were stopped. Where previously the manager would have special events such as an in-house lunch featuring sandwiches and Champagne, this was now deemed to be a step towards anarchy.
  • Rules were imposed to ensure that the innovators followed the all important procedure. The innovator workers were required to sign-in when arriving at work and to sign-out when leaving. They were challenged when they requested permission to leave the premise to conduct research on the outside.
  • A hierarchy was established, where those above the innovators were permitted to abuse the lower classes. The goal became to keep the workers in their place.
  • The department head, became less a mentor to bring the best out his people and more of a controller to ensure his workers followed the rules.

The greatest failure was with senior management who, having set up the operation in the first place, walked away to devote their efforts to other seemingly more important work. As a result, to this moment they are totally unaware of their failure. Because Schmata leadtimes are in excess of 52 weeks, the early positive results will not become apparent for a very long time; at which point senior management will no doubt go to their innovation centre only discover the centre is dead.

The innovation centre concept is in its early days. More professional companies such as VF Corp have adapted the idea. They appear to be on a better track. Unlike the case of Schmata, VF has hired successful innovators to run its centres, and will doubtless pay closer attention to this all-important project.

The future of the global garment industry lies with our ability to foster innovation. Those who understand and encourage the process will do well. On the other hand, the Schmatas of our industry will not.