Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The movie “The Devil Wears Prada” came out within weeks of me leaving the fashion industry and my husband still gets a laugh out of remembering the look of horror on my face throughout the movie! It was all a bit too close to home for my liking! My husband kept nudging me throughout the movie saying, “Hey, that’s you,” and, “ You’ve said that too.”

Well, the movie was a little extreme in some places, (and my boss was the absolute opposite of hers), but some of the fundamentals were spot on this film and I could really relate to the main character!

Anyway, I have an uncontrollable urge to give you a bit of an over view on the fashion industry. It comes with a warning though – while I loved the company and people that I worked with, I did leave somewhat “jaded” with the industry as a whole – a la “The Devil Wears Prada” style. I guess my thoughts on the industry will reflect this a little.

Once I started writing, I could not stop! I feel like I could write a book about all of the industries I have worked in! (Hhhhmmm, once you keep reading you might argue that I already have!!)

If you are interested in reading more, click the link below for a bit of a reality check on the “glamorous” fashion industry! I hope it does not overwhelm you!

(A special thank you to my gorgeous husband for setting up this “expandable text option” on my posts! We just have not worked out how to do posts without this function now! Oh well.)

These thoughts are based on my own experiences and can be a bit generalised at times, but I just wanted to give you a bit of a background into an element of this industry as I have experienced it.

For the record, I worked as a Children’s wear Product Manager and Designer for almost 2 years, with a large Australian wholesaler, who also do Men’s and Ladies wear. It was an exhausting and extremely challenging experience, but one that has taught me invaluable lessons and equipped me with a whole new set of skills and abilities! (Phew, thought I‘d better cover my butt for any potential new clients reading because I really do love the challenges!! )

The Australian market for most products and industries is split into two distinctive areas.

1. THE MAJORS: Large retailers such as Target, K-mart, Big W, Myer, David Jones, Officeworks, etc .
2. INDEPENDENTS: Smaller independently owned and operated stores.

Generally speaking the Major stores are very trend driven and need to make purchases based on strong commercial potential – so basically it needs to appeal to the mass market. They are expecting to be offered products that are influenced by what has worked overseas, or that may be coming through as the next “big thing”. There are specific buyers withing the Majors who are specialists in their field, and you will normally be presenting directly to them. They are usually well travelled themselves and will already have a pretty strong idea of trends and market movements.

Independent stores can vary in actual size, but these tend to be more individually owned and rely on the owners taste and understanding of their customers. Most of the larger wholesalers will have a specific sales force directly selling to this market and often they will be presenting to the owners of the stores. It is often the designers responsibility to equip the sales team with all of the information and detailing that they will need to get out and sell the products.

The independent market generally encourages a totally different approach to what the major stores are offering, as they often can not compete with the pricing and marketing machines that the major stores have. These buyers are expecting to be offered something different to what the mass market might be buying, and infact many of them wont buy ranges that they know are being stocked in the major stores.

On the one hand, the “Majors” have more potential to sell more of your products to more people (and to increase the chances of you spotting someone wearing something you have designed!), yet the independent market has so many players that it is well worth catering to these market requirements. I generally found the independent market allowed a little more creativity for budding designers to experiment in.

My current project is for the “Majors” market.

The fashion industry basically has two seasons – Summer and Winter. Designers will be conscious of a slight Spring/ Autumn slant to the timing of the ranges in store.
We often work 6-12 months ahead of seasons in Australia. This is partly due to the time it takes to get things through the production processes (especially with offshore factories) and partly due to the way our retail markets are set up.

Those in Australia may have noticed that even though we are technically in the middle of summer here, all of the autumn/winter collections have now hit the stores following all of the January sales. This also means that the brand new Summer 08 collections have well and truly been designed, and are in production at the factories, ready to go into stores in the middle of our winter – around June/July. Because my new project proposes a brand new label that is not yet established, it will need quite a lead time to get off the ground and to get the retailer to commit to the ranges, so we are pitching our concept with the Summer 09 as it will realistically be the first range that goes into store under this label. (Many of the other wholesalers will be working on Winter 09 at the moment if they have not already finished!)

Therefore, I am working on the Summer 09 Collections for this presentation! Obviously it is pretty challenging to try to predict what will be hitting stores in January 09, so that’s where the research and overseas trends really come into play. The lead time required to get products to the market will vary depending on the sizeof companies and their production processes, but there is something to be said for local manufacturing in terms of the speed in responding to market opportunities.

Part of the reason that the fashion industry has a reputation for being so”high pressure” and “cut throat”, is due to the short “life cycle” of the product. There are so many companies playing in this arena, and with the boom of the on-line industries, we really are competing with a global market. Consumers are also on the constant look out for something new. Regular visitors to stores (both on-line and physically real) are expecting to see something new to entice them to purchase.

During my time in the Toy industry we could get 1-2, or even 3-4 years out of a product line (which would surely have shortened a little now with the surge in the global markets) and in the bedding & manchester industry we could get maybe 12-18 months out of a really good product range.

In the apparel industry we estimated the shelf life of our products to be about 6 weeks! Then we had to be ready to offer something new!

The first “drops” of ranges into store at the start of a brand new season is basically where the bulk of the sales came from, and then smaller ranges were introduced throughout the ranges to inject new life into ranges that were already in store. Some of the later drops “in-season”were designed to enhance the sales of ranges you already had in stores, but it was also a chance to introduce and elements or trends that might have been overlooked at the start of the season. Late additions to seasonal ranges can often be a way to “test the waters” on potential new product directions for the following trends in that particular season.

Most Buyers tend to buy ranges well in advance of the seasons and rely on the wholesalers and manufacturers to be on the ball about trends and predictions. There is also a growing trend for buyers to delay committing to seasons ranges until as late as possible, with some even buying “in-season” rather than in advance. A move in this direction will have a huge impact on the industry, as most businesses would obviously like to have commitments to ranges before the production stages.

One thing that frustrated me about working in the ragtrade was the obsession the industry has with trends and what everyone else is doing! This may sound ironic as that is basically what fashion is about, but at the mass production and commercial level in Australia, it’s all about what is happening overseas!

There are constant “buying” trips throughout the year as Designers and Managers return with bags full of all the latest “must-haves” from around the world. What frustrates me the most about this is the “knock off” nature that usually results from these trips. If you’re in the industry long enough you can walk the stores of the major retailers and identify the actual garments/samples from overseas that were bought to “inspire” particular collections.

Sometimes I wonder why they even have designers in this field. I have heard of companies who present Buyers with actual overseas samples to buy from and then the companies head back to the office and run with a “slightly modified” version of the garments, or sometimes the actual garment just gets sent straight to the factory to reproduce.

As an illustrator, designer and graphic artist, this frustrates me beyond words and is part of the reason I got out of the trade. (Not that the company I worked for promoted this. We had an exceptionally talented team of designers who did not need to “knock off” overseas designs!)

That said, it is important to have some understanding of this process in order to get a feel for what’s coming and what everyone else will be doing. The world has become so much smaller with the introduction of the internet and we can do so much of the research and trend watching on-line. The buying trips are all about having the actual samples to send to the factory so that they can see how a garment has been constructed. This also speeds up the whole production process.

Now, after getting all of that off my chest, we have no overseas samples to work with as we are working to far ahead of the market! And funnily enough - I am OK with that!

Check out my next post to see how I adapt these principles to my latest project.

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