Who do you hang with? pt.3

A friend of mine, a colleague who consults with DEs on line development, called to vent about a client. This client -amazingly- hasn’t gone broke yet after having spent well over $200,000 in the past two years (she hasn’t turned a profit, ever). After an initial line assessment (sportswear separates), my colleague recommended that the designer buy my book but the designer said she already had it, loved it and considered it to be her “bible” (we’re wondering what she could have read, she’s not following any of the advice in it). My friend says that her client has the problem of failing to “merchandise” the line properly with respect to the reuse of fabrics across styles as we’ve recently been discussing, as well as some other problems. We’ve decided that some designers aren’t far enough along to worry about being able to hang with someone else. Rather, your line must be cohesive enough that you can hang with yourself first.

First a digression on how the term “merchandising” is being used these days. Until Miracle started using that term to describe the failure of mixing and matching prints and colors across styles, I didn’t realize or think that was a merchandising function. I’d always thought of that as part and parcel of the design process. As I said in my comment to Miracle’s first post:

Isn’t it funny how things that are advantageous in one area, are also advantageous in another? Consider fabric purchasing. If you’re repeating fabrics across styles, you’ll have a much easier time of making minimum fabric purchases. Plus, you’ll have fewer fabrics per bodies to test. Testing one will give you the parameters for any other affected style which can -in some cases- dramatically lower your product development costs. For the life of me, I will never understand why designers will use a different fabric for every single style. If you’re making ball gowns or cocktail dresses, I can see it altho you’d still want to repeat solid colors to give your line continuity.

In other words, you want to repeat fabric selections, repeating usage across styles to create a look and identity and also, to reduce frustration in making minimum buys. It all works out. I asked my friend why her client didn’t do this and she said that she doesn’t because the designer fancies herself an artist, each style is a “piece”, a work of art. ~Spare me~ this is sportswear. DE swimsuit designers in particular do this all of the time. If you can find a top that fits, the matching bottom only comes in one style configuration, say a thong. We need options! Optimally, there would be three selections of bottoms and three selections of tops in each color and print family so one could mix and match. This would amount to six separate patterns. If you used three separate color and print groupings per styles, you’d end up with 18 different pieces, offering consumers a total of nine different style options to choose from per group or a total selection range of 27 pieces. This would immensely improve your sales possibilities while keeping your costs lower. With only six patterns, you can get twenty seven different choices -why don’t DEs do this? It boggles the mind.

The same holds true in sportswear separates. If you’re cutting a top in one print, have at least two different bottom options in that print or color family, like a skirt or casual slacks to match, people may buy both. If you really wanted to get fancy, you’d mix solids and prints into the style grouping too. For example, I’d be inclined to buy a print top with solid colored slacks because I could wear the slacks with another outfit*. If you’re making unique styles of separates with different fabrications per, that don’t mix and match, your line just looks lost. It doesn’t look like it belongs together, it’s a line of orphans. Not only can you not hang with somebody else, you can’t even hang with yourself.

Returning to the topic of things my friend’s client does wrong is repetition of style bodies from season to season. She doesn’t repeat any styles. Each season, she’s creating entirely new patterns from scratch. This is ludicrous. Buyers cannot go to this designer and order a rerun of a given style from the previous year in a new fabrication. If that body sold well for them last year, they’ll want to buy it again. The designer does this because she considers herself an artist -and she may well be, a starving one too. Every season, the fit of her clothes is a crap shoot. Because she’s not repeating bodies, she will never know which patterns or styles are her signature pieces or blocks. I worked for a company that sold the same style year after year for over 40 years! Buyers expected it, it was a staple that consistently sold for them. Each year, the only thing that varied in that style was the colorways. When Eileen Fisher launched her line, she only had four pieces. Over twenty years later, she is still selling those same four pieces. I’m not arguing against artists but be real. If you’ve made something people like and they want to buy it over and over, that should be a bigger compliment to your artistic vision because you designed something so good it is relatively timeless, a classic. Her product development costs must be staggering. Like I say repeatedly in the book, reusing patterns from the previous season is a huge time and money saver. The kinks have been worked out with them, they’ve already been digitized and graded, the costing is done, you can often reuse existing markers, the contractor already knows how to sew them, the production quality is more predictable and stable -and buyers want to buy them. What’s not to like? Sure, you can be an “artist” but you have to be frightfully good with a long term track record to keep pace with anybody else. Your costs will always be higher and your profits lower than others you hang with. Besides, being an artist doesn’t work in separates. You need to be in a higher price point like bridge, making fancy outfits and dresses.

Failing to develop and maintain a consistent identity is also irritating to consumers who are collecting you. If I buy a pant from you this season and I really like it, I’ll look for it next season and probably buy more of them than I bought the first time because I didn’t know how well they were going to work out at the time. If I can’t buy that pant again and it was perfect for me, I am disappointed and won’t search you out anymore because in my mind, you’re not consistent or you’re not designing for me so I’ll find someone else. Failing to repeat pattern styles means you will always have to find new customers each season to replace the customers who dropped you. It always costs a lot more to find a new customer than it does to keep an old one. In this case, keeping an old customer also saves you a lot of money in product development. Again I ask, what’s not to like? I just cannot see how your self image as an artist gains by this. Nobody says you can’t introduce new styles each season but (as I explain in the book) drop the ones that don’t sell and keep the consistently good sellers, these become your signature pieces. If you’re always splashing around, wildly thrashing at the market, you’re unpredictable and people will hesitate to buy from you assuming you’ll be unpredictable in other ways too. Like failing to test your fabrics for shrinkage and performance.

*~dragging out the soap box, clumsily standing atop it, arms lowered, palms up and pleading~

Why doesn’t anyone put pockets in pants anymore? I hate this. Designers invariably say they can’t wear pockets but who are you designing for? Me or you? If you’re buying all of your own product, fine, but if you expect others to buy it, we need options. One doesn’t have to use the pockets. Believe me, I commiserate if you’re bottom heavy but another layer of fabric is not -realistically- the tipping point between looking slender or heavy although it can be a matter of how you’ve designed them. And please, make the pockets substantial. Please don’t apply tiny slit pockets into which you can barely fit three fingers halfway. The key pocket I attach to my running shoes is larger than most of those. In any event, it doesn’t make sense to incur the expense of a pocket if you’re not providing any of the functionality.

~dragging off soapbox for repair, it needs another plank and a nail or two~
#1 mistake of new designers
Who do you hang with?
Who do you hang with? pt.2
Who do you hang with? pt.3

Get New Posts by Email


  1. Katy says:

    Seems like this is the basis of the home-sewing “SWAP-sewing with a plan” program.

    How many of us have closets full of “matching” items? I realize this is the ideal, but I feel like most people go shopping with the plan to buy one or two things. If they like it and it doesn’t really go with anything but jeans, they’ll still get it because they like it. Even when sewing, sometimes I don’t focus on how a new items will work with my current clothing.

    Needless to say, this makes me want to reconsider my own purchasing/sewing style as well as makes me aware of what to shoot for in creating a line. Thanks Kathleen.

  2. Pam says:

    This is an interesting discussion, do you think it also applies to children’s wear? We designed some styles last year that did well and this year were going to use the same patterns with different fabrics. My designer wanted to create several new styles. So for any children’s wear designers out there do you think these same principals apply?

  3. J C Sprowls says:

    Like failing to test your fabrics for shrinkage and performance.
    HUGE issue for me. I’ve noticed that more RTW brands are foregoing many of the testing processes and substituting goods (I haven’t decided if they’re necessarily inferior – but, they sure do shrink a lot more than I think should be acceptable).

    What I think might be happening is that these established brands are using blocks that have been proven year-after-year. But, they’re outsourcing a greater share of their production and using inputs local to the facility.

    On the surface, it looks lean. But they failed on the implementation, so it’s “lame”. The Consumer is getting screwed because the fabric properties changed; but, the block haven’t.

  4. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    I have 2 items:

    1. I went to Old Navy 2 years ago to check out what they had (they were fairly new here). I got 2 lower-calf-length, drawstring waist, bias-cut linen skirts with a ruffle at the hem, 2 or 3 horizontal pin tucks above that, and a ruched strip sewn down the center above that. One is tan and the other is a bright light orange. When I went back to get more later, they were gone and last year they didn’t have that skirt at all. I thought that was really stupid and frustrating because they look classic and pretty, even though the ruffle and strip have raw edges. They even came in black, white, and some other colors. I would have bought more.

    2. I’m working on 2 groups of 5 dresses, ostensibly for Portland Fashion Week in October. The styles are all similar enough to look like they’re a collection and they’re all the same fabric (within each group). Should I keep them the same color and vary the trim color? Or, since they’d be in a fashion show, would it matter?

    (The details: one group is this: the shell is satin ribbons sewn vertically or diagonally, depending on the dress, lined with silk organza, and they’re all around knee length and sleeveless. The other group is this: knee length dresses with sleeves in dark colors trimmed with feather fringe.)

  5. Jessica says:

    So, what about stores like Anthropology? The whole premise of the store is one-of-a-kind pieces that are from all different designers… I suppose they have a few things that mix together, but they don’t seem too big on it? (Maybe I’m just slow – I can’t seem to match anything from that store unless they show me how to!) If that is the vibe of who you want to “hang with”, then do you still design peices with the concepts listed above? Or is it ok to do more one-of-a-‘s? It seems like it would be better to follow the merchandising idea from a production standpoint, and a flagship store standpoint, but what about the Anthropology Artsy Farsty Boutique thing? Is the question more what designer do you want to hang with vs what boutique? Am I totally missing the point? What are your thoughts?? (please be nice, this is my first ever comment and I am a tad nervous)

    p.s. Thanks, Kathleen for having all the discussions you do. You are a walking library of information, and I so appreciate being allowed a part in it!!!! My Birthday was on the 12th. I don’t feel any older. Do you?

  6. marissa v. says:

    Regarding why designers don’t put pockets in pants anymore – it’s because it’s impossible to find manufacturers onshore who will do pants with all the bells and whistles for a reasonable price!

    I put pockets (usually front side pockets and a single welt back pocket) in ALL my pants. My quantities are small (around 50 per style) so I have to get the stuff made in the UK rather than offshore. The result is that the manufacturing price is so high I hardly sell any of them wholesale, I pretty much only sell my pants direct to consumers.

    In the manufacturing markets I am familiar with, the UK and Los Angeles, it is so easy to find factories that do jersey and extremely hard to find ones that do wovens especially pants – I have been repeatedly advised to get a tailor (like off Savile Row!) but have a hard time believing that would be any less expensive.

    I find it quite upsetting as I consider myself a far stronger pant designer (and enjoy it more) than tops. And I strongly believe women neglect their bottom halves and need exciting pants designers!

  7. Esther says:

    This concept is especially true in children’s clothing (specifically girl’s special occasion). I have seen the same dress sold for the last 10 years. The only difference is a new fabric or color is introduced. The patterns are essentially the same. I have made these dresses so often I could make them in my sleep!

  8. Miracle says:

    So, what about stores like Anthropology? The whole premise of the store is one-of-a-kind pieces that are from all different designers… I suppose they have a few things that mix together, but they don’t seem too big on it?

    The store may be different in different regions, but in the ones I have been to (SF, Bay Area, LA), I would hardly call Anthropologie a one of a kind retailer. I think their mix is rather ecclectic. But I have not yet seen one of a kind apparel items (their furniture is one of a kind). Also, their items do mix together, just not in a brown pants, brown print top kind of way.

    Having said that, Anthropologie is an established retailer that carries both other lines and several lines that they own. As a retailer, they don’t have to worry about pleasing a store buyer (a middle man), and as an established, well branded retailer, they have created a niche that an upstarting DE often can’t afford to attempt.

    Anthropologie has a line called Free People that they do sell to other retailers. The line does cross merchandise, though not in the brown pants, brown print top sort of way (as I have said before). Or better yet, I should say, they don’t cross merchandise like the GAP where the pairings are obvious, but the store is for people who have more of an “out of the box” way of piecing items together.

    Now, if you’re a DE and you have identified that you “hang” with Anthropologie, please keep in mind that many of the brands they carry are very well merchandised, the Anthropologie buyers are putting together that look that you see. So just because the store is eclectic, doesn’t necessarily mean that all the individual lines are.

    A few years ago, they used to carry Michael Stars tees (don’t know if they still do and don’t know if that was regional). Michael Stars was a very basic sportswear line made of mostly cotton knits, basic colors, available across the line. But when you got into Anthropologie, they had certain colors, certain trim, blended it in with their merchandising…

  9. D.G. says:

    I work for a women’s wear line that has been in business for over 25 years and this is exactly how we operate. The same styles are produced year after year (with slight variations and new styles added here and there), but the colorways and fabrics vary greatly from collection to collection. A lot of the interest comes from hand-made or unusual textiles. Clients are loyal because they know what pieces work for them, but they’re also excited by what new fabrics and colors are available. Pieces from this season easily mix with pieces from previous seasons because the styles are the same. Interestingly, the designer started out as an artist, and I don’t think that her line is any less creative or artistic just because her styles are consistent.

  10. Helen says:

    It blows my mind that someone would continue no styles at all. If I buy an item (especially pants) that fits very well, I go back to that line expecting to buy the same style, same size and have it fit just as well. If I cannot, I am frustrated as a consumer and probably will not return to that line looking for substitutes for the original wonderful item.

    As a student of engineering I am also frustrated by this practice. New, unnecessary patterns result in muda: reduplication of efforts, knowledge disconnection (learned “how to make a pant” last season), material waste, skill waste, and so on. To implement inherently wasteful policies is silly.

  11. Leslie Hanes says:

    Pockets! I make them in almost every pair of pants….and you can shove your whole hand in…keep your passport, or all your marbles…in case you are otherwise losing them.

  12. LizPf says:

    More on pockets …

    Not all of us put style first in the clothing we buy. I go for function first, then fit, and style last. I’m sure I’m not unique here.

    If pants don’t have useful pockets, I won’t buy them. Period. I dislike carrying a bag; my pants pockets hold my keys, phone, pocketknife, a couple index cards, and a pen. Yes, they look lumpy. Yes, they make my thighs look even bigger. But I don’t care — I need pockets.

    The silliest fashion advice I heard (my opinion) was to cut off and sew shut your pants pockets to look thinner. Come on! Most people can tell a cell phone bulge from a thigh.

    As a customer, not a DE, I urge DEs to think of the functional aspects of the clothing they manufacture. Sometimes we want style, but most of the time we need clothing that is functional. Function, fit and style, al at once, would be heaven!

  13. Christine says:

    This is a very informative article!

    How does cross-merchandising apply to niche lines which are based only on one type of product i.e. a baby onesie line?


  14. Chekwube says:

    How does this apply if you’re making only dresses? How do you cross merchandise in this case since each dress is its own outfit? Also, is it ok to repeat the same dress style in subsequent seasons just in different fabrication? Please, I’d appreciate some clarification about this issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.