The supply chain is becoming part of luxury designers’ branding strategies

The Council of Fashion Designers of America is encouraging its vast network of designers to bring their supply chains out of the shadows.

CFDA president Steven Kolb said that over the past decade, two issues have emerged that have given designers unprecedented shifts in customer behavior to grapple with: A faster production cycle that’s in line with customer behavior and a growing emphasis on sustainability in fashion.

With the help of partners like Lexus and DHL, the CFDA has laid out resources that approach both problems at the source: the supply chain. A recent study done in partnership with DHL, the CFDA’s official logistics partner, found that the traditional supply chain and production cycle is siloed, making it inefficient. The way forward for both emerging designers and established brands who hope to stay in step with a changing customer is to overhaul the supply chain by emphasizing relationships with manufacturers, understanding data, aligning production cycles to consumer behavior and practicing transparency.

“We’re pushing a new production cycle,” said Kolb. “A lot of designers spin their wheels around a lot of issues that can be sourced right back to an inefficient supply chain, because how do you adjust your supply chain from start to finish? It’s not something that will change overnight. But we’re laying out a plan.”

Facing a customer who both wants new product more frequently, as well as more eco-friendly fashion, designers are being encouraged to view their production cycles as part of their customer-facing brand.

The strategic supply chain
Startups like Everlane and American Giant have helped to make transparency in fashion trendy: They lay bare their pricing models and supply chain partners, in an attempt to rope in conscious customers and keep them along for the ride as they figure out the future of sustainability in retail. Mass companies like H&M, Zara and Gap Inc. have adopted similar habits in order to do the same; for fast fashion brands, speaking out about transparency and sustainability helps keep protesters at bay.

It’s taken longer for luxury designers to catch on.

“Luxury is kind of opposed to this amount of openness. Designers like to keep to themselves,” said Kolb. “They’re afraid to do even a little bit to change their ways because they’ll be criticized for not doing it all. Our ethos is encouraging small steps to be taken and laying out what those would look like.”

The CFDA has proposed a production cycle that’s more closely aligned with customer behavior, because so much of what customers are asking for today can be pulled off with a better managed supply chain. Some brands are already responding to that customer shift: Designer Mara Hoffman has reorganized her production cycle to use more local manufacturers, meaning shorter lead times. Luxury conglomerates like Kering and LVMH are shortening production cycles across brands.

“We’re building context with our designers: Here’s how customer expectations are changing, what customers are aware of and how to deliver to them in the way they’re expecting,” said Mark Beckham, vp of marketing at the CFDA. “It’s the sharing economy, transparency, immediacy that are the macro-trends running through all of this. And when one designer does it well, it creates a halo effect.”

Sustainability at scale
Studio One Eighty Nine co-founder Abrima Erwiah had been working on her fashion line and designer platform for handmade apparel for four years when a friend tipped her off that the CFDA and Lexus were looking for participants for their Fashion Initiative, a nine-month sustainability program that brings together educational and mentorship sessions, network building and technology resources for pulling off an efficient production cycle at scale.

“We want to connect the dots and build a value chain that brings different communities together through creative fashion that people can resonate with,” said Erwiah. “Without access to a global network, though, we’re not reaching the customer. We can’t just be a cool idea with no access or no scale. Sustainable fashion is just more waste if nobody’s buying it. So sustainable production that scales is our top priority.”

Lexus has been working with the CFDA on its sustainability efforts for the past eight years, and this is the second Fashion Initiative program it’s hosted. Rachel Esperson, head of creative programming and partnerships at Lexus, said that each designer leaves the program with a tailored business plan based on their priorities, whether that’s a closed-loop production cycle, improved labor practices or a shift to organic materials.

As the program hopes to establish a new set of designers who are able to adapt to a modern production cycle while they’re still in the early stages, the CFDA said it plans to take what’s learned during the program and figure out ways it can be applied to established brands.

“The supply chain is critical to the transformation of the fashion and retail industry,” said Claudia Gorelick, business design lead at Fjord, a global design and innovation consultancy. “As digitization continues to affect the industry, designers must view the supply chain as an essential piece of strategy and brand-building — and adopt a collaborative, relationship-based mindset with suppliers and partners along the way.”

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