"There is no clear, singular, uncomplicated path to achieve speed in product development," Gribbin explains

"There is no clear, singular, uncomplicated path to achieve speed in product development," Gribbin explains

Brands need to respond to consumer needs for instant gratification with a strategy for speed – where speed and efficiency in the product development cycle are crucial, warns Alvanon president Ed Gribbin.

Whether you're a Paris fashion house, an emerging New York designer, or a fast fashion retailer, your customer will force you to change how you bring product to market.

Like it or not, we are in an age of instant gratification driven by consumers, not by retailers or brands, that has graphically illustrated just how antiquated the fashion industry really is. There's no question we have been slow to respond in our businesses to the same digital revolution most of us embrace as consumers, but how we respond to fashion immediacy will separate the winners from the irrelevant.

The real winners going forward will respond to consumers' increasingly fickle fashion appetites with a strategy for speed – no matter when they 'show' or when they 'sell'. "Speed in product development, from design inspiration to the customer's back," is already the mantra among all but the most exclusive luxury houses. However there is no clear, singular, uncomplicated path to achieve it.

A number of global fashion houses such as Burberry, Vetements, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger have announced that they are realigning their development calendars to have new in-season product available for immediate sale when it's shown on the catwalks. Yet their individual tactics for execution are quite different. As told by the CFDA and Boston Consulting Group in a recent report outlining the challenges facing the 'broken' fashion system, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for fashion shows.

Some brands are merely shifting the risk from their retail buyers to themselves, with the need to build inventories prior to gauging firm buyer interest. In many cases, they are not actually shifting production calendars, but rather they are shifting marketing calendars. Today they show in the Spring, produce goods in the Summer and then sell in the Fall. Going forward they will still produce in the Summer and sell in the Fall; the only difference is that they won't show the collection (formally) until it's ready for sale.

While such tactics can help, improvement in logistics, or near-shoring, new technologies or calendar shifts may only yield incremental improvements. What most brands are talking about doing with 'See now, Buy now' is not nearly as revolutionary as they make it out to be, and not nearly as revolutionary as it needs to be.

Strategy for speed

The need for speed is primarily to increase and enhance customer engagement and compete with the increasingly successful 'Zara-model' of new, fresh product to entice shoppers as frequently as every two weeks. It may be only a matter of time before brands following traditional models lose their customers' attention and their own relevance.

Successful brands will not, and frankly should not, copy the Zara model, but they will need to develop and produce smaller collections more frequently if they want to keep their customers' attention. There are a host of ancillary benefits to this strategy, including higher full price sell-throughs, fewer markdowns and a higher return on working capital; but the real benefit is in exciting customers with reasons to look and reasons to buy.

In an interview with The Business of Fashion, Karl Lagerfeld said he already creates one under-the-radar collection at Chanel which goes straight into retail stores without first being shown to press or external buyers. But the only way to accomplish this is to assess and re-engineer their entire product development process, maintaining the 'art' of design while embracing the 'science' of creating great product.

Principles of process reinvention

There are three key principles of process reinvention, which if successfully embraced, will result in sustainably faster product development and greater competitive advantage:

  • Design may be an art but successful product development is not; it is a science, driven by data, with timely customer engagement as the primary focus.
  • Product development may be a team sport, but not everyone is on the field at the same time. Designers design. Merchants select and assort. Technicians execute. There needs to be a hard stop at each process step so that the next team member can do their job quickly and without interference. This only happens with clear ownership, trust, and accountability at each step.
  • Product development must embrace technology, but not be a slave to technology. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and 3D virtual product development technologies can combine to dramatically reduce cycle times, but they can also become a costly distraction. Plan, map, and test carefully; then implement decisively.

If a brand's entire product hierarchy – designers, merchants, buyers, technical and production teams – continue to work, bound together in a collaborative process for 12, 16, 20 months to fine-tune, tweak, and create that perfect seasonal launch, that company may soon be out of business.

Speed matters and it will continue to matter even more as we move forward into the new, unfamiliar landscape of consumer empowerment.

About the author: Ed Gribbin is president of global apparel business expert Alvanon. He leads teams around the globe helping apparel industry clients develop and implement robust data driven growth strategies and solutions in disciplines ranging from marketing and merchandising to product development and supply chain. He has worked with most of the world's leading apparel organisations and is the eminent authority on strategic apparel practices and processes.