Fashion companies face the constant challenge of having to guess which and how many garments they will sell months before they are available for consumers to buy. The speculative nature of the supply chain has led to rampant overproduction and waste, further compounded in recent years by the explosive growth of fast-fashion. But what’s the alternative? One solution is to take the guesswork out of fashion by only producing the garments customers have already chosen.
On 30 May, at 9am UK time, London-based brand Paynter launched its newest jacket design on its website. Within 86 seconds, all 197 were sold out. For any company to sell out a product, especially so quickly, is indeed a mark of success. But for Paynter, it is expected. In fact, it is an integral part of its made-to-order business model. The brand launches three products each year in batches of 300 (logistical issues related to Covid-19 meant fewer this time around) and only begins manufacturing once customers have placed an order. The brand has a growing waiting list of more than 3,000 - hence the fast sell-outs.
Paynter’s made-to-order model is an example of many new and exciting solutions the fashion industry has been inundated with in recent years to tackle its enormous and growing environmental footprint. But an essential aspect setting it apart from others is that the made-to-order model - an old way of producing garments revitalised in recent years with the advent of new technologies and heightened sustainability concerns - directly tackles fashion’s problem of overproduction.
Carbon offsetting, biodegradable fabrics, dissolvable threads - they are all important in their own right, but in the broader context of things, they are small solutions to a much greater problem, like fixing leaking pipes in a burning building. What the industry’s sustainability issue fundamentally boils down to is simple: it is producing too much clothing.
Avoiding waste with thoughtful products
Launched in 2019 by Becky Okell and Huw Thomas, Paynter works for months on perfecting each of its products before they go live - designing, sampling, wear testing, tweaking. Once a product is dropped and every garment is sold, production begins and within six to eight weeks the customers receive their jackets, each hand-numbered in the order they were bought. The company has a low return rate, around 10 jackets for every 300 sold, which are then given to others on the waiting list. Fabric off-cuts from the making process are recycled locally into new thread and water used for dying is cleaned and reused on site.
“When we place an order with our factory, it's because we have 300 people who have trusted us to make a jacket for them. And they are forward-thinking, conscious consumers, happy to wait for a thoughtful product rather than wanting something to arrive the same day it was purchased,” Okell told FashionUnited. “As a customer, I think it's so much more exciting to know that an item of clothing is being made just for you. Chances are, by the time it arrives with you, you'll have an emotional connection to that piece, not just a physical one.”
Overproduction is an issue that has long existed in the industry but one that has accelerated in recent years with the growth of fast-fashion as more collections than ever are being churned out and, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an estimated garbage truck worth of textiles is being thrown to the landfill or burned every second. These problems have then been further exposed in recent months, with the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in billions of dollars worth of clothing orders with manufacturers being cancelled, many of which had already been made.
Back to Paynter. Now of course, the brand’s disruptive business model is niche and couldn't be applied to the large majority of fashion companies that need to be more reactive to trends and have faster lead times. However, the brand is tapping into something the industry has been showing an increasing appetite for in recent years, and where many believe its future lies: demand-driven manufacturing.
Harnessing new technologies
A collaboration last year between London-based fashion tech company Unmade and New Balance offered a glimpse into how that future might look. Using Unmade’s software, the US sportswear company launched a feature on its website allowing shoppers to create their own bespoke sneakers by customising knitted shoe uppers with a variety of graphics, colours and text. Unmade’s technology visualisation system creates photographic renders of the customer’s unique design before it has been made, so shoppers can see exactly what they’re getting.
Unmade fundamentally wants to pivot the industry towards more agile production cycles by connecting demand directly to production, providing brands with software that allows shoppers to engage in the design process by customising items they buy, within parameters predefined by the brand. In short, it allows brands to eliminate guesswork and the risk of overstock by having them manufacture items shoppers have already customised and bought online, effectively leveraging two of the industry’s key trends: personalisation and sustainability.
Founder Hal Watts believes many of the large companies currently struggling in today’s rapidly-changing industry could benefit from this more nimble approach to manufacturing. “Many of them are well-positioned to change models as they do in-house product development and they have the scale and connections to shake things up in their supply chain,” he said. “For smaller brands, or digital-native brands, they often have less scale and less manufacturing expertise.”
Unmade usually begins by shifting just a few of a brand's products from a traditional manufacturing approach to a demand-driven one (Watts said he’s seen little appetite by brands to completely disrupt existing supply chains). The company captures all the design and production data for a given product and then turns it into an agile product that can be leveraged via new designs for particular markets within days. “For some brands, we now manage hundreds of products, enabling them to create entire product ranges and have them in production and in retail within weeks,” Watts said.
Perhaps now more than ever, companies will see the value in such a shift. In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought pre-existing flaws in the industry’s supply and demand model hurtling into the spotlight. In April, it was revealed that Primark had taken a 284 million pound hit from stock it could no longer sell, while Marks & Spencer in May revealed it would be 'hibernating' around 200 million pounds worth of unsold seasonal stock until Spring 2021.
While most brands will likely be focusing simply on survival in the short-term, when the dust settles, they might find themselves in a unique position to reconsider the long-term viability of their business models. “Once there is a bit of breathing room, the global pandemic will push brands to focus on moving to demand-driven approaches,” Watts said. “This will mean they have less stock and therefore are less exposed to changes in consumer demand. That's just common sense in a customer-centric industry.”
One company that did just that is Candian denim maker Duer. Prior to the pandemic, the brand, which sells in 26 countries, was experiencing a 100 percent year-on-year growth average for the past five years. But then in May, as a result of the pandemic, it lost 75 percent of its revenue in less than a week. So the company launched a “quick response” presale method called Next by Duer in a bid to line up supply with demand and cut waste. The model works by introducing a prototype of a product in a three-week campaign which will only be manufactured if a minimum threshold of orders is met. If it is met, the product will be made and delivered to the customer within four to eight weeks.
It’s important to note that this model only applies to some products in the brand’s full range and, if a prototype is popular enough during the campaign, it can then become a part of Duer’s core product range. But nonetheless, just by shifting to this new paradigm, the brand expects the model to help reduce its overall inventory by a minimum of 35 percent.
“Creating speculatory inventory, which everyone does, bringing it into stores and then spending all this money on marketing and trying to sell it - it’s completely inefficient,” Duer founder Gary Lenett told FashionUnited. “We’ve shifted towards seeing where the demand is and then meeting it. This new way of purchasing not only produces less waste but will pass production efficiency on to the customer, meaning products are less expensive.”
Lenett said the company managed to launch the new model, including backend supply chain process changes and frontend website revisions, within around nine weeks. The inspiration for the model came from Duer’s roots - the company was launched through four crowdfunding rounds on Kickstarter. “That experience taught me just how inefficient the normal way of doing things can be. With crowdsourcing, you’re not creating demand; people are telling you whether the demand is there,” Lennett said. “That’s something that always stuck with me and I knew I wanted to eventually implement it into our business model.”
So what’s next for fashion manufacturing? Watts thinks it’s very unlikely we’ll ever see a purely on-demand fashion industry for many reasons: It would make production scheduling incredibly challenging; people are always going to want to walk into a shop and try on clothing from off the rack; wardrobe basics such as white t-shirts will always be popular and therefore easy to forecast. The list goes on. But perhaps a more realistic vision is that certain aspects of the industry will shift from traditional manufacturing approaches to demand-driven ones, such as certain products in a brand's range, like New Balance x Unmade sneakers, or prototyping, as seen with Next by Duer.
And that shift is becoming increasingly viable in a market where technology is rapidly advancing, consumers are more concerned than ever about the environmental impact of the industry and personalisation is fashion’s newest must-have.
Sooner or later, Watts believes companies won’t have much choice but to integrate these new models. “Brands are dying. The way they operate today is not financially, socially or environmentally sustainable,” he said. “I think many of them overestimate the changes needed in their supply chain and underestimate the benefits of being able to constantly get the right product to market at the right time.”
Main article photo: Paynter x Greater Goods