As I said in my post yesterday, I’m fascinated by the history of manufacturing, specifically apparel. If you’ve ever tried to get hard information on the development and operation history of the apparel industry -from the inside, not social histories- you haven’t found much. From what I’ve been able to determine, apparel manufacturing wasn’t professionalized until the advent of WW2. It was the demands of the military war effort, and the need for established procedures and protocols in uniform and related accessory production that brought our industry, kicking and screaming, into some semblance of standard practices. As a mature industry, I’ve also found that not much has changed with regard to operations since the 40’s. Really. In Disher’s book (below) from 1947, I found an entire discussion of spreading fabric from different dye lots using colored tissue paper. Fifty years later, I discuss the same exact thing in my book (pgs. 118-119). Nobody prints this stuff anymore. I guess you’re just supposed to know it. No wonder we’re losing our competitiveness.
History also interests me because I strongly suspect that we’re coming full circle, with a return to regionalism. Regionalism will be a dynamic impetus, spurring growth for entrepreneurial companies. I can only think that if we examine the successes of the past, when companies were smaller and more profitable as measured by headcount, can we attempt to recycle those strategies today. In that vein, I’ve found three major resources. First are two papers written by Professor Peter Doeringer. The second resource is a book called American Factory Production of Women’s Clothing and I believe this to be the very first operations book ever published, worthy of several entries on its own. The last was a paper describing the transition of one-man shops, the merchant tailors, becoming integrated into the ready to wear industry in the mid to late 1800’s called Customizing the Industrial Revolution: The Reinvention of Tailoring in the Nineteenth Century. I note the author of the latter has two other papers of interest, gated. I’ll have to go to the university library to retrieve them. Doeringer’s other paper I’m not citing today is U.S. Industry in 2000: Studies in Competitive Performance (listed for pay but you can read it in the browser).
I almost don’t know where to start, perhaps with Doeringer? He wrote a paper called Can fast fashion save the US apparel industry?. The paper is gated there but he was kind enough to send me a copy to share with you (pdf). Isn’t that great? He says that DE enterprises are viable, should be viable, using the comparison of similar small enterprises in Italy. There, the industry is dominated by small firms. He explains how (WW2 influence) our industry came to be organized (such as it is), with long product development cycle times and market dates which are disfavorable to retailers. He claims that we created the monster of outsourced production. According to Doeringer (citing Disher), circa WW2 and beyond, retailers were saddled with long purchase time lines. Frustrated, once imports became readily available, they gravitated there. They had nothing to lose. Either way, domestic or import, they were stuck with long lead times. At least with imports, retailers got higher margins and greater competitiveness they had no other way of attaining.
From the abstract (the stodgiest part of the paper, it is very readable), emphasis is mine:
The U.S apparel industry employed over 1 million workers as late as 1980, but today employs only about a third that number. The common explanation for this collapse is the delocalization of production to low wage countries, but this neglects advantages of speed, flexibility, and proximity to centers of fashion and design that have helped some suppliers in high wage countries, such as Italy, to defend niche markets for fashionable products. This paper… argues that the U.S. industry has relied too long on an industry model based on “mass fashion” products, the scale and scope economies of large-scale suppliers and mass retailers, and innovations in information technologies as sources of competitiveness, while ignoring the importance of niche product innovation, small-scale supply chains and flexible retailing, and “collaboration economies” in design and production networks.
Folks, that describes you! Here’s more on the bane of our existence:
Even in New York City, where small-firms and fashion markets are important, the dominance of the large-scale, mass-fashion model has inhibited contractors from developing highly productive and entrepreneurial supply networks that combine design with manufacturing and take full advantages of their potential for speed, flexibility, and quality production.
I hope some of you will read this paper. I’d really like to discuss the implications of what it means, including as I’ve predicted, a return to smaller regional production, what we used to have prior to World War II. I’m intensely interested in the described cycle of industrial evolution of apparel manufacturing.
Doeringer (and co-author Cream from the GIDC) argue that further disintegration of the industry is not inevitable. Consider Italy. Their industry is characterized by similarly high wages and small shops, yet their trade is growing. Not mentioned in this paper is ZARA, also based in Spain, paying western European wages and they use small contract shops, processing small lots (as defined as fewer than 500 units of a style). Related but somewhat off topic, I don’t know what this means (do you?), there was an article from the BBC, Italy struggles with Chinese migrants. Is outsourcing now going internal? What does this trend foretell for us? Truly, one’s mind can turn over and over considering the implications.
I still think smaller lines, run well, will be the big winners. They’ll have the cachet of exclusivity via limitation whether by intention or design. Judging from Fashion Brands Use Scarcity as Strategy With Limited Editions (WWD), it would seem others have figured out that ubiquity means saturation, to the point of lower value and “brands” are losing out. A dinosaur, I’ve always thought we’d lost our way with regard to big brands. Apparel should be about the customer, not the company.