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Fashion firms upend design routine to focus on speed, trends

Prototypes? Passe. Fashion companies upend their design process with sharper technology as they race to get trends to shoppers

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In this Feb. 15, 2018 photo, a handbag designed by Tiffany Tam is displayed on a shelf at a Betabrand store in San Francisco. Betabrand represents one of the most dramatic examples of how companies _ big and small _ are starting to use digital technology to reinvent and speed up the process of designing and selling clothing to shoppers in the age of Amazon.
In this Feb. 15, 2018 photo, a handbag designed by Tiffany Tam is displayed on a shelf at a Betabrand store in San Francisco. Betabrand represents one of the most dramatic examples of how companies _ big and small _ are starting to use digital technology to reinvent and speed up the process of designing and selling clothing to shoppers in the age of Amazon. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK — Prototypes? Passe. Fashion company Betabrand saw that knitwear was a hot style in sneakers and wanted to quickly jump on the trend for dressier shoes. It put a poll up on its website asking shoppers what style they liked, and based on that had a shoe for sale online in one week.

What web shoppers saw was a 3D rendering — no actual shoe existed yet. Creating a traditional prototype, tweaking the design and making a sample would have taken six to nine months, and the company might have missed out on the interest in knit.

“The web attention span is short,” said Betabrand CEO Chris Lindland. “So if you can develop and create in a short time, you can be a real product-development machine.”

Shoppers looking at the shoe online could examine the peekaboo detail or check out how the sole was put together, as they would from photos of a real product. They don’t get the actual shoes instantaneously — they have to wait a few months. But the use of digital technology in designing and selling means hot trends are still getting to people far faster than under the old system.

“Retailers and brands who are embracing this are going to be winners of the future,” said David Bassuk, managing director of consulting group AlixPartners. “This is flipping the business model on its head.”

It’s a big cultural change for clothing makers. For decades, the process meant designers sketched ideas on paper, a design got approved and the sketches went to a factory that created prototypes. Designers and product developers made tweaks and sent prototypes back and forth. Once a final version was approved, it was sent to the factory to be copied for mass production. Getting something from design to a store could take at least a year.

Now, some companies have designers sketching on high-resolution tablets with software that can email 3D renderings of garments with specifications straight to factories, as better technology makes the images look real and the pressure to get shoppers new products swiftly intensifies. The goal is to reduce to six months or less the time it takes to get to store shelves.

Even chains like H&M, which once set the standard for speed by flying in frequent small batches, are realizing that’s not fast enough. H&M, which has seen sales slow, is starting to digitize certain areas of its manufacturing process.

For clothing makers and retailers, the shift means design decisions can happen closer to when the fashions actually hit the shelves or website. That means less guessing so stores aren’t stuck with piles of unsold clothes that need to be discounted.

The 3D technology is used in 2 percent of the overall supply networks, estimates Spencer Fung, group CEO of Li & Fung, which consults with more than 8,000 retailers including Betabrand and 15,000 suppliers globally. But he believes that will change as retailers begin prioritizing speed and realize that cutting down on design time and prototypes saves money.

“You can actually essentially create an entire collection before you even cut one garment,” said Whitney Cathcart, CEO of the Cathcart Technologies consulting firm. “So it reduces waste, it reduces lead times, it allows decision making in real time, so the entire process becomes more efficient.”

Fung imagines a scenario where a social media post with a celebrity in a red dress gets 500,000 “likes.” An alert goes to a retailer that this item is trending. Within hours, a digital sample of a similar dress is on its website. A factory can start to produce the dress in days.

“Consumers see it and they want it now,” says Michael Londrigan of fashion college LIM in New York. “How do you bring it to market so you don’t miss those dollars?”

Betabrand has sold 40,000 pairs of shoes priced from $128 to $168 over the past year, all from digital renderings, and plans to add 15 to 20 such projects this year.

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