Lectra White Paper
The New Creatives: The Central Role of I.T. in Fashion
The fashion business is a world apart from the corporate sector. Its product portfolio is more diverse, its supply chain more complex, and its consumers more demanding and fickle than its counterparts in perhaps any other industry. Even creating a single stock keeping unit (SKU) is a multinational, multi-faceted task, requiring the skills and knowledge of professionals from every aspect of the fashion industry: merchandisers, buyers, designers, patternmakers and, increasingly, information technologists.
In the case of a Tier 1 business, communities around the world work together to bring the vision of a select few — or even a single designer—to life. Armies of professionals across continents collaborate to constantly deliver new collections across multiple channels to consumers who want more variety, more colorways, and better quality at cheaper prices.
Regardless of size, every fashion company has to carve out its place in the crowded, competitive marketplace, where brands live or die depending on the quality of their products, as well as the efficiency and profitability of their production.
The need to produce and distribute reasonably priced products quickly has been the primary catalyst behind almost every technological innovation in fashion and textiles – from the industrial revolution to the introduction of 3D virtual sampling.
I.T. Professionals: The Unsung Heroes of Fashion
The inventors behind the mechanization of spinning and sewing, and the creation of the cotton mill, were hailed as titans of industry: revolutionaries who not only uncovered ways to optimize individual tasks, but who also transformed an entire industry. In this sense, their closest modern equivalents are the information professionals and technology pioneers building collaborative platforms for the future of fashion. And their recognition is long overdue.
As (now fully digital and automated) knitting, weaving, sewing and digitally-controlled cutting machines have moved offshore, the fashion industry’s dependence on technology to maintain the pace of its day-to-day business has only grown more acute. As such, the need for innovative I.T. professionals capable of configuring, implementing, integrating and improving those technologies is stronger today than at any point in time in the history of fashion.
The need for qualified IT professionals is not just limited to large brands and retailers. While it is easier than ever for a small brand or single-person boutique to open a retail channel, all but the smallest of businesses now require technology in order to compete in the marketplace. Rather than just relying on hardware, they need solutions designed to manage their products’ digital identities (the data that accompanies them from design to delivery), to ensure the quality of finished goods, and to maintain consistency of vision from designer’s desk to store shelves.
Whether they belong to a multinational mega-retailer or an online-only SME, products today live longer in the digital world than ever before, with increasing volumes of new products joining them with each passing season.
A more robust and far-reaching suite of solutions is now needed to facilitate and accelerate production during the key stages of the product lifecycle. This includes:
– PLM platforms to oversee, coordinate and control the product lifecycles;
– Trend forecasting platforms, and planning and calendar management tools to keep production processes on schedule;
– CAD and other creative design solutions to communicate information graphically, facilitating collaboration between departments, satellite offices, and suppliers;
– Computer-aided design solutions to transform their digital patterns to reality;
– 3D virtual sampling to offer a wider range of possible design options, and to improve fit and form;
– Computer-aided manufacturing tools to create hard patterns or single-ply sample materials;
– Logistics and warehouse management systems to distribute products around the world;
– Marketing and product information management systems to advertise across multiple channels;
– E-commerce and point-of-sale solutions to get products into consumers’ hands; and
– Retail performance analysis systems to keep track of performance in order to make better- informed decisions when developing collections for the following season.
While the consumer’s focus remains on the physical product, it is important to remember that any given shirt, shoe, or shift dress now begins and ends its life in an information environment. And, critically, every stage of its lifecycle is therefore under the “digital” influence of I.T.
An I.T. Achievement
It’s a little surprising, then, that when there is a technical hiccup during the product development, design or management process, we readily dismiss it as an “I.T. problem.” Conversely, “an I.T. achievement” is heard far less often, despite clear evidence that the retail, footwear and apparel industry’s steady move away from disconnected point solutions to an integrated enterprise environment is working.
This attitude stems from confusion over the true extent of an I.T. professional’s role in the modern fashion business – beyond the deployment and maintenance of solutions – and how their role has evolved alongside the transformation of technology itself.
Most people are familiar with the traditional retail, footwear and apparel technological environment; many brands and retailers still live in it. Spreadsheets are shared back and forth, making email attachments a primary method of communication, and up to a hundred different, disconnected solutions house essential product data in a variety of different formats.
It goes without saying that this is less than ideal. Data is routinely duplicated, creative time is wasted hunting for misplaced information, trend opportunities are lost due to excessive lead times, and in some cases, entire product lines are designed, developed and manufactured with limited visibility.
The role of the I.T. department here is a familiar one: that of a band of valiant firefighters, dashing from one crisis to another, always on the defensive, and attempting to make order out of chaos. The root cause of it is often not exclusively an “I.T. problem” but rather a result of the fact that the company is no longer using the best tools for the job. Brands and retailers around the world are beginning to recognize this fact, resulting in the increased popularity of core product lifecycle management (PLM) and extended PLM solutions; market growth for both has been exceeding analyst expectations year on year’.
While true PLM success is mostly measured in terms of enterprise-wide impact, even the most ambitious business transformation project often begins on a much smaller scale. Usually, PLM starts off as an I.T. initiative designed to consolidate individual point solutions and their information into a set of clear, consistent data that not only flows seamlessly from function to function, but also enhances existing processes and empowers the business to introduce new ones.
The Driver of Creativity
To put it more bluntly: a PLM project is a chance to understand and improve the present, and to simultaneously plan for the future.
The real role of I.T. in a modern fashion brand or retail environment, then, is not to merely keep things from falling apart. Instead, they are tasked with safeguarding, scoping, designing and supporting the entire creative process – from inspiration to point of sale – as it is today, and as it can be tomorrow, powered by new technology and managed by experienced, knowledgeable I.T. professionals.
But despite the equal importance brands and retailers place on their design and I.T. departments, the “creative” label isn’t always apportioned fairly. It is human nature to be easily impressed by showy exhibitions of creativity. Our tendency is to refer to design and development as “creative” disciplines, but to withhold that designation from the people who select, construct, implement, adapt, improve and maintain the environment that makes that creativity possible.
A growing number of modern brands, however, are realizing that information technologists can lay as strong a claim as any to having “created” a garment or accessory. The importance of these I.T. professionals is becoming more readily recognized; they are more than implementers of solutions—they are architects of the information-led future of fashion.
The Architects of Fashion’s Future
Information architecture itself is a decades-old discipline that has experienced a resurgence in popularity due to the recent popularity of the phrase “big data,” essentially mandating that organizations of any size organize their business-critical information. The Information Architecture Institute defines the practice as “bringing the principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape2”, or in other words, applying creative thinking to information-led businesses (like fashion) in a way that fulfils both strategic and usability goals.
And just as architects require a keen knowledge of human behavior, functionality, design trends and other influential factors related to building structure, so must Information Architects understand their brand both as a data-driven entity, as well as a living, breathing community. An uninhabitable building will eventually fall into disrepair, just as a poorly-constructed or implemented solution will fail to gain traction among its end users.
While it has become routine to talk about the strategic benefits of PLM (and these are certainly compelling, including dramatically reduced time to market, and business growth of up to 30%3) the conversation is now being reframed to include “the art and science of organizing […] online communities and software to support usability and findability4”, both of which are fundamental to the successful adoption of PLM amongst the user community, and therefore underpin those positive impacts on the bottom line.
The modern I.T. professional’s role, then, is to ensure that the implementation of any new solution is viable from a functional and an architectural angle, creating the blueprint for its deployment and ensuring that the broader ecosystem will support the needs of stakeholders – from the CEO to the Sourcing Manager – and deliver value to everyone at the time of construction and beyond.
In short, IT professionals manage the implementation of any new technology in critical ways that go far beyond matters of hardware and solutions; they are an integral part of designing and building an information environment that has the potential to expand, and to support collaboration and creativity of every kind.
Because fashion would not be fashion without the people who create.