Faced with increasingly complex supply chains, changing international trade policies, retail consolidation and price competition at the lower and middle-end of the market, Mexx Europe is taking charge of its own destiny. A new PLM software installation is helping the fashion brand improve collaboration with vendors and reduce time to market, as Leonie Barrie finds out.

Even though Liz Claiborne Inc is one of the fashion industry's largest and most successful fashion companies, posting record global sales of $4.8bn last year, it still has its work cut-out to enhance profitability and drive long-term revenues.

This week chief executive officer Paul Charron is visiting the UK with a view to expanding the company's presence here, as well as well as eyeing new fashion labels to add to its line-up.

Speaking about the company's plans for the future he says: "We're taking significant steps to…more closely align our business with rapidly changing customer and consumer needs."

And he adds that one of the cornerstones for growth is to "capitalise on the many compelling opportunities among our more than 40 brands, including targeted brand extensions and global retail expansion for 'power brands' such as Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand, Sigrid Olsen and Mexx."

Not surprisingly, changes are already underway at Mexx Europe Holding BV, the Netherlands-based fashion label that Liz Claiborne bought in 2001.

Mexx is two years into a four-year $10m product lifecycle management (PLM) pilot to help improve its competitiveness against European fast-fashion labels like Spain's Zara and Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz.

The software has been up-and-running since April 2006 across five or six Mexx divisions and will eventually be rolled out across Liz Claiborne's entire brand portfolio by 2008.

Transparent process
Tom Reeve, ICT director for Mexx Europe International, is tasked with ensuring the investment brings transparency to the whole design and development process, ultimately delivering better products to the consumer and better sell-throughs to the bottom line.

"We want a product world we control ourselves," he told just-style.

"We're working in a very complex environment with multiple points of communication, limited process visibility, no centralisation, multiple versions, duplication of efforts and lack of control."

Mexx sells men's, women's and children's wear and accessories (and a range of licensed products like socks, homewear, footwear and furniture) in its own shops as well as department stores, independent outlets and the Internet across the world.

It has turned to PLM to enhance the visibility of information across a company and its supply chain which, as Reeve confirms, "will help the company to be faster, reduce costs, become more integrated, and will help the business to move away from wholesale and into retail and control the customer experience."

Flexible collaboration
The driving force behind the company's implementation of the web-based FlexPLM software from PTC, the Product Development Company, is to improve collaboration with vendors.

Mexx will continue to use PDM (product data management) software for line planning, product development etc, but will feed the forecasts from these 'islands' of information into FlexPLM. From here, ERP systems will handle financial transactions and inventory management.

The data will be accessible to all employees in all factories, and reduce duplicate work.

"We asked ourselves how we wanted to work with our factories and deliver product," Reeve explains. "We decided to be more transparent and to place more trust in the factories. We're looking at them as partners."

A whole wave of process benefits should follow, including making Mexx's merchandise development processes more flexible, reducing time to market, and enhancing the visibility of information across the supply chain.

All of which are, of course, critical when developing and delivering compelling, trend-right products in an increasingly competitive business environment.

It also ties in with Liz Claiborne Inc's Vision 2010 plan, which according to Paul Charron, will reflect the "new technologies, increased sophistication and truly global partnerships" of the post-quota world.

Putting it into practice
It might sound easy on paper, but putting it into practice across a business with a portfolio of 43 brands from C&C California and Ellen Tracy, to DKNY Jeans and DKNY Active - and yet more acquisitions in the pipeline - is a different matter entirely.

Liz Claiborne Inc doesn't own any manufacturing facilities, but instead has production centres and offices throughout Asia, Europe, India and the Caribbean. The right to manufacture and sell products bearing the company's trademarks is licensed to third parties.

As a result, the group has an employee base of 14,000+ associates worldwide, "with a lot of people in different places," as Reeve modestly puts it.

Since it joined the Liz Claiborne fold, Mexx has been instrumental in helping to change its parent's mindset on how to approach product development.

Crucially, it has experience in delivering products quickly and has long since abandoned a traditional one-year lead time.

"We've become more vertical and faster at making products in 20 weeks and less," Reeve explains. "We still have products on a 35-week cycle but 10-20% of the line is in an 8-10 week cycle time to catch on to fashion trends."

But not only are designers, marketers and manufacturers all working to reduce production time in shrinking seasons; they must make sure that all information relating to a collection is up-to-date so that garments can be tracked across intricate supply chains, changing international trade policies, and consolidating suppliers.

"We used to design for the local market and have a team based nearby, but we're now working across continents so there's increasing complexity in handling communications," Reeve elaborates.

Product development visibility
A key advantage of PLM is visibility across this product development process. Internal design teams and global suppliers collaborate on product designs simultaneously so it is necessary to manage, control and access product data and imagery - which is time consuming and potentially confusing.

For instance, when a designer creates a new garment pattern, the changes must be communicated to the rest of the team. PDM and PLM software enables this information to be communicated automatically to everyone involved - from trim suppliers to factories - and be analysed too.

A positive, but little-mentioned side-effect is increased job satisfaction for designers, who are often side-tracked by administrative tasks and have less time to carry out the creative conceptual work.
So far, users of the FlexPLM system are staff in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Turkey, India working in Mexx Europe's XX division (the juniors line, which represents around 12% of Mexx's business).

Initial functionalities cover corporate libraries, security, image integration, raw materials, product specs, bill of materials, factory allocation, estimate costing and reporting. Workflow and the vendor portal will be added next.

As for the lessons learned so far, Reeve's checklist includes the following:
- keep the scope of the implementation in check; don't overwhelm users or the system;
- understand the differences between the US and European requirements;
- fast is not fast enough; everyone wants it and wants it quick;
- don't underestimate resource requirements, the skill levels of key personnel, or the challenges of system integration;
- and, of course, the time-consuming public relations to communicate the changes to executives and product divisions. 

The final word goes to PTC's director of marketing, consumer products, Matthew Austin. He makes the observation: "You can't get any lower in terms of cost, so the only way to differentiate yourself is through marketing or design, and designers don't want to be sidetracked by other functions. Stripping these out provides transparency of information."

And that, surely, will be the new mantra governing tomorrow's apparel supply chain.