The clothing industry is broken on almost every level, and broken in a way that ultimately fails the end user (as well as having significant negative externalities).
All of this traces back to fundamental problem — a pervasive ethos of top down design — and we think an approach of user-driven development would create a better product (and a better industry).
High Level Problems in Clothing Production
While you may be someone who doesn’t care about what brand you’re wearing, or read Vogue, or follow the “trends,” the seasonal redefinition of high fashion houses still affects your user experience. This arbitrarily moving target affects what the stores you go to keep in stock, which has cascading effects throughout the industries’ approach to production and product development.
Here are the core problems with the top-down design ethos:
(1) Disincentivizes focus on making good products — there’s no reason to invest a year of R&D on the best henley if it has a pre-defined shelf life of 1 season, and no reason to iterate on it if it will be out of style next year
(2) Incentivizes form over function or durability, creating the system that produced the fast fashion industry, which rewards cheap construction rather than valuable innovation on features
(3) Directly causes wasteful behaviors; i.e. no one is going to buy polka dots, or vests, or [insert garment type here] this season so a distributor might as well trash all that old inventory
How These Problems Play Out
I’ll try to keep the below description of how these effects play out brief so I can get to the point of how we plan to fix it.
Fast Fashion is the Enemy of Quality
Per the above, a very reasonable business approach to a market in which clothing designs can be more or less viewed as one-off (this product probably won’t last more than a season) is cheap production, low quality, and minimum investment in individual designs — going for a breadth of offerings rather than investing in the quality of a few specific products.
Chaotic Production Sourcing Prevents Innovation
Because it’s difficult for a factory to know that they’re still going to have orders for a specific item two years from now, the market for production is fragmented and volatile. This makes it difficult for small producers to have consistent relationships with factories. For the factory to survive it has to take the big order when it comes in from a large producer, even if that means reneging on commitments made to smaller producers.
It’s not the factory’s fault (they have to get the business when it shows up because the production opportunities are variable), it’s a systematic problem caused by the same top down design ethos that changes its mind about what end users ought to want every few months. Because of that design ethos, clothing companies are constantly solving and resolving the problem of sourcing production for the new items they’re creating that have differing requirements.Tammy working on one of our prototypes
Beyond being hideously inefficient, that constant grind of finding new production sucks up the young hires from design schools into basically working on production teams. Much of the best new design talent in the fashion industry spends the majority of their time finding factories, sourcing, and chasing vendors to make everything quicker for cheaper rather than designing new clothes, which reinforces the entrenchment of the incumbent, ossified fashion elite (whose position in this system is causing all of these problems).
One of our co-founders, Tammy Chow, went to Parsons (the #1 design school) and used to be a designer at a major brand. She spent about 80% of her time doing production and sourcing, and in the remaining 20% for everything else (including, you know, designing) was still expected to produce 100+ designs a season (meaning she spent about 0.2% of her time that season on a given design). If we assume 9 hour workdays, that would mean over 3 months with 9 hour days she spent roughly 1 hour on each design.
Horrifying Amounts of WasteSource: Here
This essay is focused on the systematic problems with product design in the clothing industry, but I would be remiss to leave out the environmental impact of all of this. 3 in 5 garments end up in a landfill or incinerator within a year. The fashion industry accounts for more carbon emissions than aviation and shipping combined. I could spend this whole article listing face-melting statistics about all of the waste produced by the fashion industry, but you can just google it yourself (it’s an interesting hole to go down).
Moving Targets Prevent Iteration
If you’re designing a product that’s going to be around for maybe a year, there is no reason to collect feedback on it and improve the design. You just make it (it’s cheap anyway), and if people buy it for a few months great — and if they don’t you can just throw away the inventory.
Because your clothing isn’t maximizing for quality, you have enough room in your margins to make some winners and some losers then build up new lines on short notice for the next spring. “Might as well put the polka dot shorts design in the filing cabinet, next season is all corduroy capris. Looks like we need a factory that can provide that kind of stitching — see if that factory in Portugal can make room for us. How many yards of polka dot jersey cotton do we still have? Get rid of it we need that inventory space for corduroy…”
No Incentive for Market Giants to Improve
The inefficiency and volatility mentioned above reinforces the entrenchment of the existing giants in the market. Entrenched incumbents have very little incentive to innovate and every reason to maintain the status quo, which creates weird negative outcomes for, you know, people who wear clothes.
By way of example, many of the major men’s shirting brands use the same fit model for their shirts that they used in the early 90s (a very famous fit model who had a major hand in defining the fit model industry). If you’re running production at a major company, you don’t want to be the one that switches away from the guy everyone else uses (the gold standard) and takes the risk of rocking the boat.
But, say your target market is men in their mid-twenties: that fit model is not in his mid-twenties anymore. His arm, waist, chest etc. might still maintain their technical measurements — but I promise you the shirts don’t fit him the same as they would have thirty years ago. If you’re a guy in your mid-twenties, this might be why a lot of your collared shirts don’t fit right.
What About Us? What About People Who Wear Clothes?
And what does all of this do to serve the end user? If you’re interested in following the palace intrigue of fashion it can be interesting the same way some people find the hobby of following football interesting. Maybe that’s what the end user wants, or maybe the average end user of clothing is more like me: I don’t follow high fashion or football, and I just want my shirts to be better designed.
Ok, So What can We Actually Do About It?
We have examples of industries where design has rapidly improved. The elephant in the room here is tech. One of the big differences in tech is an ethos of bottom up design.
- Create a basic MVP of the service you’re building and get it into the hands of users.
- Observe user behavior and incentivize user feedback.
- Capture that feedback.
- Iterate on the design.
- Repeat. Quickly.
The first product doesn’t have to be perfect. The important thing to focus on iterating effectively, which means creating a well oiled system for improving the product based on what the end user actually wants.
In short, that’s what our company is: a clothing company dedicated to rapid iteration, with design choices driven by user feedback.
And we’re going to start simple, with an MVP. One shirt — a banded collar chambray shirt that we’ve already started prototyping (I will write more in the future about why we’re choosing that to begin with; it mostly has to do with my beliefs around the needs of my generation and the semiotic challenges it faces with clothing).
Even more important than what the product is, we’re creating a machine to incentivize and capture user feedback. The MVP version of that is $10 cash back to anyone who posts a video review of the shirt. As our system for applying rapid iteration to clothing improves, we can also branch out and apply it to other clothing products.
We want to flip the clothing industry on its head and have user driven development create better products for our users.
Our product isn’t good enough. Together we can make it better.