Recalibration, fast vs slow fashion, something to offend everyone

Yep, another meandering post on the state of the economy. As reluctant as I’ve been to write them, they’ve been fairly popular. Well, except for the ones I wrote in 2006 and early 2007 discussing what I felt was a pending recession. I think the central focus now should be recalibration of expectations, mostly in how we choose to do business. Along the way I take a stab at slow fashion vs fast fashion and what you can learn from the men’s wear market. So make a cup of tea and pull up a chair. I’ve written something to offend everyone today.

Recalibrating income expectations:
We are reluctant to give up that which we have. No one wants to lower prices particularly if our relative costs have increased but the specter of value raises its head. Computing is often cited in this context, computer prices continue to fall partially due to improved technologies, competition and economies of scale but this isn’t the whole story. There are myriad reasons why what we are doing today may be less valuable than it was a few years ago.

Recalibrating value expectations:
In a tightening economy, people are more concerned with filling basic needs. Even those whose finances are stable are reluctant to spend because of uncertainty (and they don’t want to appear profligate when so many are doing poorly). They don’t know where they’ll be this time next year. Because they’re willing to settle for less, less is what they want to pay. Only, like you, they still have hopes of getting more than they paid for. One of these days I’m going to write about the value of free stuff. It’s really killing us. We’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge, making the film Idiocracy more credible every day.

Recalibrating price:
The increase in home prices had the effect of inflating prices across the board. If you increased pricing during the bubble, you may have to reset them just as home prices have fallen. Those whose products tend to be financed by credit cards (designer hand bags etc), more so. If your prices remained flat or static in real dollars adjusted for inflation, you’ll probably have to give up a little in either pricing or features to meet value expectations (people aren’t buying as many huge homes anymore either). If your pricing did not increase with the bubble and in effect have decreased (I haven’t raised my prices in 12 years), you’ll have to examine the value of the products you have for sale. Even though you’re earning less for them, they might be worth even less. Ah, pain. I think I’m writing this more for my benefit than yours.

Recalibrating expectations in how we do business:
This is the biggie that requires a lot of introspection and really, it’s the only thing we can do. Here’s a simplistic example:

I submitted a quote request through their website and never received any response other than a form letter telling me they received my request and asking for more information (line sheet, etc…). I replied with all requested info and got the same form letter back. I never received a response after that. A bit disappointing.

As it turned out, a simple web site glitch was responsible for our friend’s disappointment. Before this was determined, various people suggested she call (and call, and call) but the designer wasn’t used to having to do this. As a solo operator, her expectations needed to be recalibrated because she’d spent the last 12 years working as a designer at Big Name Design Firm where vendors responded in a timely way -or else.

There’s a few things that most troubled enterprises have in common such as: everything is always a crisis (inefficiency) -usually because you’re doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result (insanity). Doing the same thing over and over -even if it worked for you in the past- still means getting less (inflation). That’s why I call this “insanity inefficiency inflation” or I3. I should see if someone has already written a book about it so I can compare notes.

Here’s a few other problems, such as, we suck less than you do, we aren’t the least worse. Or how about, blaming it on something nebulous, a non-person. Such as, sales are down, the market is in the toilet etc. Quick, let’s find someone to blame! I kid of course because you can run into problems with blaming people if setting things to rights aren’t a part of the process. Which reminds me, you can’t pass off the responsibility to someone else and in hard times, it’s more tempting to do so than ever. Please, could someone just get me a big easy button? I have enough on my plate as it is. You know exactly what I mean. Some days I’m sure that the only people who want to start a business are those who’ve never run one. Ignorance is bliss.

Slow fashion
Seriously, it’s time to think of doing things differently. Some people huddle in a time of crisis and look for the good ole days. A recent trend in response is the move to “slow fashion”. Spare me. If it only takes 28 minutes to sew up a pair of jeans, why is there more virtue in getting it to you in 12 to 16 months instead of two weeks? If slow fashion were optimal, we’d all be industry titans by now. Slow fashion we’ve got. Slow economy we’ve got. Slow spending we’ve got. Consider my favorite analogy, agriculture and slow food:

Not all time is created equal. It takes much longer to grow a serving of corn than it does to cook it and serve it; it’s in that last leg (getting the corn in your shopping cart and on the table) that eats up the time that matters because at that point, food is perishable. How is it a virtue if it takes longer? If it’s fresh, it’ll be tasteless if it takes longer. Fresh should be fast.

Why fast fashion is good:
First, my argument presumes you’re the trendy leader you imagine yourself to be, meaning impervious to the demands of store buyer merchandising constraints. For everybody else, trends are cooked up at least two years in advance. As explained in the cerulean blue sweater scene in The Devil Wears Prada, it seems contrived and calculating that some omnipotent committee somewhere has arbitrarily determined the latest color you have to have -on their schedule. They are determining what will be important to you and you don’t even know it. How is this better? This circumvents the vicarious whims of the consumer who may just have a hankering for something off the trend charts. Something you can give them, fast and fresh.

A lot of people think they’re lean (fast fashion is lean) because they’re running their operations on a shoe string. Lean manufacturing isn’t a financial constraint, it’s an operating strategy. And lean doesn’t mean getting something for nothing. It means optimizing what you have to create value for consumers and being hungry enough to go and get them. Did you know that Toyota (the lean gurus) used to sell cars door to door? They did, and in an organized fashion. They kept records of who bought what and when they’d be likely to need another. And they made the cars to order. They still do. All of their cars are made to order. Dealership order of course, but still to order. Toyota makes more cars in the US than the big 3 “domestic” automakers. There’s a lesson there too. I concede that profit repatriation is an issue but most people only look at jobs.

Have you ever thought of your product in terms of its lifespan? From dirt to shirt? The longest segment of its life should be hanging in someone’s closet or on their body, not getting it to market.

Have you thought much about other product segments and the lessons they offer? I like to talk to about men’s wear. Men’s wear holds its value while the price of women’s clothing continually drops. And don’t think it’s due to a sexist industry cabal either. Men’s wear is more profitable (manufacturers are less frantic and weigh decisions more rationally) because it can cost less to produce because styling is less trendy. We can use the same blocks (hint) for longer. With reduced product development costs, one can finesse the fit a little better since the pattern will be used longer and yeah, we can use nicer fabrics because men won’t weep and gnash their teeth over minimal cost differences once value is computed. Men don’t like to shop, the men’s department always has its own outside entrance at the mall. Men are less fickle than women and they’re more loyal. Men tend to do a cost benefit analysis on the fly. Such as, considering the value of my time, is it worth it to go to another store to get a lower price? Often times it is not. What lessons can you take from this?

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  1. Brina says:

    I love your last example of the cost benefit analysis of a person’s time versus lower price. Sometimes I have this friendly argument with my sister who really likes to shop–I don’t. She’ll say you can probably get this cheaper somewhere else–I say but then I have to spend my time finding that somewhere else. This also applies to sourcing in a way–the braid you need might cost more from X source, but since you are also getting elastic from them and the sales help build your relationship with them–it’s a good idea to go ahead and get the braid from them as well.

    As far as slow fashion–it’s not meant literally but more in terms of green/sustainability, knowing the supply and labor chain of your garments: here’s one article on it–but I’m sure someone else probably knows of something better:

    Regarding the cost of things: I have noticed that restaurants that would throw in an extra are now charging for them. Or making portions smaller. I’ve noticed more coupons and sales at food stores, which operate under such thin margins anyway. But I haven’t noticed prices going down in general. It’s like we have regular prices but we’re having a sale so you can get this for cheaper. Or course part of it’s probably just cheap little me. Although I will pay retail, if it’s on sale I want 75% off ;-P!

  2. ClaireOKC says:

    This is from the “been there, done that” department.

    What Kathleen says here is exactly the way it is….basically do what you have to, to stay in business (well of course excluding, lying, cheating & stealing). Having been through this type of economic downturn (and when you’re going through it, it is NOT a downturn it is a catastrophic discovering, unintentional exploration and MTYWTK (more than you want to know) of the abyssal bottom, where there is no bottom!), the very most important thing to remember is that no matter what, no matter how, the one and only thing in this world that never changes is: things change. This “economic downturn” will not last. In the meantime, you must do what you can to hang on: provide the best service/product possible at the lowest cost possible. This sort of thing won’t last, but hanging on means that when things do recover, you/your company will be able to survive and build on the good times. Of course, having been through this, you will want to save like crazy!

    Now, believe it or not, here’s the good news. My part of the country experienced this exploration of the abyssal bottom in the 80’s. It took us a while to survive, without all the government assistance as it was a regional area affected (so this time around with more awareness of lean times, the economic downturn shouldn’t last as long as it did here). During the 90’s when folks were investing in “iffy” financials, we had just recovered enough to say, “No thanks!” Today our local economy sits pretty solid….not booming and not devastated.

    While you all in the rest of the country are experiencing these scary and very difficult times, if you can survive, you will be learner, smarter and much more able to conduct business in the future. Kathleen’s techniques and suggestions are really right on point, and being creative and thinking outside the box is the best way to ensure that you/your company will survive to thrive in another day.

  3. emily says:

    Hurrah Kathleen! This is a fantastic post. I found my head nodding in agreement with everything except the slow clothes/food bit. The slow food movement is not about applauding things taking longer to get the table, it’s actually two-fold: 1. It’s about appreciating craft and technique and quality over speed (microwave cooking) and quantity (64 oz soda with that?). 2. It’s about knowing what the heck is in your food. An ear of corn going from field to table is fine. But an ear of industrial corn that goes to a lab and gets its sugars removed and processed into various compounds only to be added to other compounds into food-like substances is not.

    Anyway, I don’t know how the slow fashion movement ties in except in the appreciation of quality and craft over quantity of cheap cr*p area. But I agree that the fast fashion movement is a smarter business model and potentially less wasteful as well. I think it’s just that retail hasn’t caught up with it yet.

    My biggest concern as someone just entering the field is the lack of institutional knowledge. Everyone seems to be working in parallel universes to one another and not sharing any information/vendors/mistakes/etc. I don’t get it. The secrecy of the industry is making it so we are all starting from square one every single time! Why anyone would choose to go into business for themselves with all that work to do is totally baffling to me.

  4. kathleen says:

    Brina, an FYI, I was interviewed for the CSM article -and the Audobon one as well as numerous others (Kathie Sever has been one of our members for years). Nobody mentions what I have to say, it’s too complex to boil down and they fear people’s eyes will glaze over. Or, they just want to pass around some gold stars using themes people expect that they should be rewarded for. Drive a prius? You get a gold star. Recycle? Another gold star. Change your lightbulbs? There you go, another one. Become a vegetarian which has more impact than all these plus going off the grid combined? Nah, not hardly. It’s not sexy, you become a social outcast, become the butt of jokes, you have to change your whole life and you can’t signal to passing strangers of your ecological commitment and score the trump card of gold stars. Some day, somebody will write about sustainability in apparel in ways that are truly significant. People only what to talk about sustainability on the surface, as in sourcing organic fabrics and not flogging their stitchers. Brina, you know I’m not arguing with you. It just annoys me that superficial expression is what garners attention while complexities remain ignored. This way, consumers can buy their organic stuff and sigh with self satisfaction that they’ve done their planet saving for the day. Not that I don’t think that is a good start but it’s not a get out of jail free card.

    Thanks for the clarification Emily, and yes, I’m guilty of playing down that which doesn’t play to the strengths of my argument, no doubt.

    My biggest concern as someone just entering the field is the lack of institutional knowledge. Everyone seems to be working in parallel universes to one another and not sharing any information/vendors/mistakes/etc. I don’t get it. The secrecy of the industry is making it so we are all starting from square one every single time! Why anyone would choose to go into business for themselves with all that work to do is totally baffling to me.

    Everybody wants free. Some people pay for it and they then disseminate the information to non-payers which raises their esteem in the community but after awhile, the source dries up if they can no longer be viable. So, once those in the market of scoring points (rather than building an enterprise) run out of material, they find the cupboard bare.

  5. Eric H says:

    Aacck. More gratuitous Walmart bashing in that CS Monitor article. I wonder if Astyck has read Jared Diamond’s recent NY Times OpEd piece? Or whether she knows that Walmart is the world’s largest buyer of organic shrimp and organic cotton? Or — more significantly — that Walmart buys the transitional cotton at organic prices (which increases the supply of organic cotton in the long run). Walmart also buys local — there are many varieties of tortilla and chile products in the local store.

    That said, the Diamond piece engages in the same type of thing Kathleen is warning against here. On the one hand, he seems to think you can trade in a Suburban for a Prius and have no change in your lifestyle. On the other, he is a well known field anthropologist and does not even seem to be aware of vegetarianism or the strong link between income and diet content. He seems to be saying, “Don’t worry about changing your life or your expectations. Big Business and Big Government will solve these problems through the magic of ‘Working Together’.”

  6. Grace says:

    Yeah, it’s like the guy who was interviewed by NPR about the “paper or plastic” controversy said, “it doesn’t matter as long as you have meat in the bag”.

    Did you know that vegetarians have thicker waists than carnivores? The guts of people who eat a lot of veggies and beans have more fiber in them. So maybe it is time to stop fetishizing tiny waists, the mark of carnivores.

    I took some furlough time earlier this year, didn’t get a raise, but my DH and I both kept our jobs. So we do feel like we should keep spending, but more strategically. We are buying more goods and services from people in our community. But, I have to say, I am bored to death with “wardrobe classics”. It’s gotta take my breath away for me to pull out my wallet. Fit and fabric have to be great. Then it has to have some color or detail that I absolutely must own.

  7. Grace says:

    BTW, we bought a new Toyota in 2004. It was fun to pick our color and options. I didn’t mind waiting 6 weeks for delivery; the dealer even emailed us updates about where our car was during those 6 weeks. There is much less waste in pull manufacturing. There’s less risk of the manufacturer and a better value proposition for the customer.

    I can attest that the customer really feels special, like they got something made just for them (even if it is the best-selling minivan in the country).

    I described buying from a small (and lean) DE in Redondo Beach.
    Waiting 2-4 weeks to have something made for you is an affordable luxury.

  8. Thanks for the post! Not sure where my comment fits in with all of this but it sparked a thought. How much would you pay if you could choose the cost of an item you want to purchase? I did a little experiment with our project in Costa Rica. We manage a rain forest where we opened up a small part for guided tours. (about a 3km circut) We pride ourself on offering the best educational tours in the area. We have always had difficulty coming up with a price of the tour. We came up with a price of $65 which included lunch. We would always run into the tourists that would scoff at the cost compared with the other tours offered in the area. So for a month we told our visitors to enjoy the tour and lunch and then pay whatever they thought the tour was worth. Surprise- on the average $75 per person. Sure, there were those that slapted a 5 and took off but – those are not the customers we wanted anyway. It was really interesting to see that when we marked our tour down to $15 a person (huge slump in the tourist industry) we really didn’t get that many people. Maybe they thought it would be a crappy tour. Marked up and more people came. It wasn’t until we did the pay what you want, that we really brought in the most amount.

  9. Brina says:

    Well certainly the green/sustainability/slow fashion issue is quite complex–I have pretty well developed opinions about it my self, developed over the years from doing everything to being part of a collective that ran a food coop while in my early 20’s to making sewn products with various folks in various settings. However, I wasn’t really trying to sell the CM article’s examples as the end-all-be-all of how folks should run their production if they want to be green/ethical etc. That said, if the CM and other pubs aren’t willing/able to write about the complexity, certainly you have a wonderful public arena here at FI. I know that you have written about being lean and green and otherwise a good steward of all things sewn products in various places on FI, but it might be nice if you could say how your thoughts on sustainability intersect with or not with Slow Fashion more speficially.

    I found out pretty early, intellectually at least, that you can underprice your work/services, which drives away good customers. But knowing that is nothing if you don’t know how to figure out what to charge (what I am finally getting better at). It’s really cool that you set up a method to figure out what is a good price and get that info from directly from people who would know.

  10. Kathleen says:

    No tide has turned Michael. A lot of what I put in this post is a rehash of earlier points I’ve made that in light of the current climate were worth another airing.

    You were hammered for repeating (over and over) the points I’d made in the book (that everyone on the forum kept telling you to read) and arguments that I’d made on the blog (which again, everyone posted links to) or previous forum entries (ditto). Case in point is this entry. It’s useful to rehash material if you haven’t read the previous related entries. Most people only read what floats to the top -but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been said before and it doesn’t mean I’ve somehow come around and seen the light at this late date. You should read some of those entries I wrote in 2006 and 2007 about a recession I thought was looming and most people were too polite to call me crazy.

    You got “hammered” because people didn’t feel you were listening because you didn’t follow up to read the entries they linked to and process it within the context of your often terse statements. I mean, it was great you came to the same conclusions I’d come to, in some cases 12 years earlier and points that several others had also eloquently written previous to your joining us, but you weren’t telling us anything we hadn’t discussed already. We wanted you to move beyond that to tell us something new, with new ideas or a fresh spin to amend what we hadn’t read or written before . Nobody disagreed with your central arguments so it would have been helpful to put a fine point to it (as we asked you to do) in ways that were applicable within the framework of the gamut of experiences. Anybody can make their way work for themselves. I’m dogmatic enough for both of us; the skill lies in devising solutions that are appropriate for the range of potential scenarios.

    Stay tuned for part two. It builds on more ground I’ve already covered (as long as 12 years ago) and that you’ll say you also said last year but that nobody listened to you.

  11. Richard_C says:

    More about the messy “deep sustainability” for the clothing industry, if you don’t mind. That is of course as long as it doesn’t involve wearing that awful Nylon 6 or whatever it’s called.

  12. Million says:

    I think in the long-term the North American economy is still headed for BIG trouble, even after we recover from the current slump. Though if we can adapt it doesn’t have to be an view entirely of pessimism. I appreciate you posting about topics related to the economy in such detail, and the fact that what looks green may be skin deep.

    I also enjoyed the comments made by other people on this post.

  13. Marie-Christine says:

    I agree with Emily that you aren’t paying attention to the real concepts behind slow food or the ankwardly named slow fashion. Read up Kathleeen, we know you can do that :-)!

    Seriously, one problem with the concept of sustainable fashion is that everyone assumes it’s deadly dull. Armies of navy blue suits a la dress for success, tsunamis of khakis and polo shirts.. eeck. People might feel different about the concept if they could conceive of clothes that fit them well, that truly reflect their personality, made from good-quality fabrics (and interfacing, zippers etc) that really last. For instance, you could say my coats are slow because well, I have a hard time technically, it takes me forever to cough one up. But then again I’ve never worn one I made for less than 15 years. On that scale they look less slow. And they’re not boring, thank you very much.

    So do I feel put-upon wearing over and over something which I like, which keeps me really warm, which is exactly what I wanted and needed? No way. On the opposite, I was really mad in the 80s when I kept making stuff out of rayon and it bit the dust in 2 years. There is something very comforting about familiar clothes, when they’re really right for you. Sadly, most young people have never known anything like that…

  14. Sandra B says:

    I hosted a SwapORamaRama last weekend, and I don’t think I can look at the fashion industry the same way again. I am now quite sure that most of our clever-pants solutions to the problem of sustainability are no solution at all, and we really need to rethink not just how we produce goods, but also the processes we are willing to accept as inevitable. Several op shops gave us some of their leftovers, headed for landfill, to use as a “float” for the restyling a SwapoRamaRama involves. I expected worn out rubbish to strip for parts. We got such things as a handwoven, handtailored tweed suit in perfect condition, designer dresses, and many things with the swing tags still attached. Then a industrial waste reuse centre who joined in the fun gave me 10 rolls of curtain fabric leftovers, between 2 and 10 metres on each. They are overstocked and have to send that, and more, to landfill. Brand new stuff, produced to become landfill. Our economy is set up to accept that much of our resources, human and physical, are essentially pointless waste producers. I had a mental image of a person opening and shutting a door endlessly as their gainful employment. Then a friend pointed out that at the end of the day, the person and the door still exist, and no greenhouse gases were produced or raw materials used up.

    I think the only sustainable action is to work out how to reduce all forms of waste, (including inefficiency) and reuse the stuff we have in existence already. Call it fast fashion or slow fashion, ultimately it’s just semantics, and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of how, in my tiny way, I can use the efficiencies of “fast fashion” to achieve the sustainability people assume when they hear “slow fashion”. I know I can no longer accept wastage so casually.

  15. Vesta says:

    My husband works in retail. They were told at a meeting a few months ago that the US has something like 20 square feet of retail space per capita. The next country down on the list has something like 3 square feet per capita (Sweden?). That’s the number that keeps popping into my head when I try to envision the next decade in this country. We’re in for a long adjustment period. Personally, I think it’s healthy. But fun, it will not be.

    I’m off to read the slow fashion post. Honestly, I need to see a better discussion of slow fashion, because I think people are talking about different things. I, too, was interviewed for the CSM article. But I’m not even convinced that “slow fashion” is a useful framework within which to discuss the issues we face.

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