For many people, fashion is fashion, technology is technology, and never the twain shall meet. After all, so the stereotypes go, tech geeks are the very epitome of anti-fashion with their dated, casual sartorial choices, and fashionistas are portrayed as too vapid to care about anything as intellectual as technology.
Robert ‘Bob’ McKee, however, doesn’t think so. A veteran of the fashion industry with nearly 40 years of experience, McKee has taken on senior management positions in various American apparel firms — from lingerie manufacturer O’Bryan Brothers to Warnaco Group, owner of brands like Calvin Klein and Speedo. Now, he’s the Director of Global Fashion Industry Strategy at Infor, which provides enterprise software solutions, ranging from CRM to supply chain management, among others.
According to McKee, the textile industry has been a major growth driver for developing and emerging economies, improving the living standards of countries from Britain in the 1800s to Bangladesh and Nigeria nowadays. “Textiles are a good engine to move the economy forward, due to low wages and small infrastructure investment,” he notes, adding, “Then, with economic development, producers become consumers, and the country is ready to move to higher-value industries, for instance China right now.”
That said, McKee notes that the textile industry is not without its issues. “The industry has been stagnant since the industrial revolution in the 18th century,” he asserts. “Right now industry players are still looking for cheaper ways of making clothes, the ‘cheap needle’, so to speak; this is evidenced by the shift of textile manufacturing away from developed economies in the West to Asia, South America, and more recently Africa,” he says.
Can fashion labels do away with warehouses?
McKee believes that those firms are barking up the wrong tree, and that the main cost drivers lie elsewhere. “The cost of markdowns is the biggest cost for the apparel industry,” he states. “Currently, decisions are made very early about what consumers would want, about 18 months to two years in advance. This, coupled with the fast-moving nature of the fashion industry, means that there’s a high chance that the products would be out of date by the time of introduction, forcing brands to offer discounts to move their inventory.”
Not a fan of holding inventory, McKee stresses the importance of efficient supply chains, moving goods to consumers rapidly.”The current fashion industry focuses on tangible things, like warehousing or inventory,” he says. “My take is that firms should not make building more warehouses and capacity a goal, but should instead seek to eliminate warehouses altogether. Where once the mission of fashion was to seduce the consumer and control the supply chain, it is now to listen to consumers and fit the supply chain to them.”
Tech to the rescue
To effect this new paradigm, McKee says that fashion firms will have to make use of technology to streamline supply chains and cut lead times, and shares that some fashion-forward firms are already doing so. “A few luxury firms like Hermès have started to use technology to shorten their supply chains,” he says. “One particular example is Belle, a Hong Kong-based footwear company. They bypass warehousing and supply their stores directly from factories, meaning that their manufacturing is directly driven by consumers.”
In fact, McKee asserts that current consumer trends exacerbate the need for apparel firms to innovate and keep supply chains efficient. “The advent of web and mobile technology has led consumers to separate the shopping and buying processes,” he elaborates. “Where once people shopped and bought at the same store, now they tend to do research (shop) either online or at physical stores, then execute (buy) the purchase at online stores like Amazon. This makes it all the more important to get the product to customers as quickly as possible.”
To help fashion companies navigate this new business landscape, McKee shares that his company, Infor, provides a product lifecycle (PLM) solution that takes care of the supply chain for them. “Infor Fashion PLM supports the design process, new collection development cycle, and streamlines the overall planning process.” he says, “Each collection, style and its components are accessed through a meaningful and intuitive user interface that has driven processes for greater speed in daily activities,” he adds.
Finally, McKee shares some examples of current and future technology that have the potential to revolutionise the fashion industry even further. “Right now, the biggest trend is towards customisation and made-to-measure clothes. One innovation that will help this trend grow further is the use of the infrared scanner inside Microsoft’s Kinect console to map out the body, giving a template with which to fit clothes to,” he says. “Another thing that could change the fashion industry could be the 3D printing, especially the use of it to print metals and organic materials. Imagine printing your own leather jacket or gold bracelet!”