Is ultrafast fashion a thing – seriously?

Photo: RetailWire
May 30, 2017

Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of a recent article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

A report recently arrived in my e-mail heralding the arrival of ultrafast fashion — online-only retailers ostensibly able to produce merchandise in two to four weeks, compared to five weeks for Zara and H&M.

Traditional retailers, on the other hand, can produce merchandise in six to nine months, according to estimates by Fung Global Retail and Technology, the report’s author. I think that number is low. Actual numbers from H&M’s financial statements also tell us that only a portion of their product is produced in a true fast-fashion manner.

Nevertheless, if two-to-four weeks is possible, the apparel industry is in big trouble.

But is it? There’s an old adage in the application development industry that says there are three variables to development: speed, accuracy and cost. You can have any two, but not all three. You can go fast and get it right, but it’s going to cost you a lot of money. For cheap and accurate, it’s going to take a lot of time. Finally, fast and cheap isn’t going to get what you’re looking for most of the time.

I think this axiom also applies to apparel. Sure, you can produce small lots of test product and see how it sells, and then, if you’re sourcing close enough to the point of demand, go ahead and make more, but that’s going to cost money. And if you’re going to be a pure online play (which the examples cited are: Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided), you’re going to have to find some major influencers to blast information on your product out to the masses across social media really quickly. Otherwise, the marketing will cost a fortune.

Finally, if you’re going terrestrial (i.e., stores) in any way, that’s going to add time to the process.

There is no doubt the apparel industry has to get faster and more responsive to ever-changing tastes. The consumer is growing more, not less, fickle.

Retail needs savvy merchants, up-to-date technology, trend advisors and responsive supply chains. It really is time to overspend on technology to enable rapid response across the value chain. Twenty year-old technology isn’t going to do the job anymore. There’s no avoiding it, whether or not superfast fashion really becomes a thing.

  • Ultrafast Fashion: Seriously? – RSR Research

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think it is possible to successfully bring apparel to the mass market even faster than fast-fashion merchants are doing today? Which technology solutions or processes will help speed reaction times to trends?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The key word here is “relevant.” Does a two-week lead time offer enough chance to test and reorder in depth?"
"Time-to-market is only one variable among many for a successful apparel business."
"Let it be said that the antidote to cheap fashion is quality, and the antidote to fast fashion is resonance."

Join the Discussion!

10 Comments on "Is ultrafast fashion a thing – seriously?"

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Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Made-to-measure and sell-to-fit offered in more economical ways would not only be more attractive to consumers but would minimize inventory requirements. While body sizing technologies, which are the key, have been around for 10 years, scanning is becoming lower cost and more accurate in its many measurements. Fast fashion is a step toward customer order. Ultra fast simply proves the efficiency of production.

Mark Ryski

Wherever technology can be applied to improve a process, there will always be someone willing to try to push the limits. But time-to-market is only one variable among many for a successful apparel business. Ultra-fast, crappy fashion or poorly made apparel will not likely deliver a meaningful outcome. Picking fashion trends is like picking hit songs … while technology can improve the probability for success, inevitably there will be more misses than hits.

Dick Seesel

Retailers have been too slow reacting to the fast-fashion capability of companies like Zara and Forever 21. These two companies (and a few others) have brought great supply chain management and data science to the art of getting relevant product to their customers quickly. But the key word here is “relevant.” Does a two-week lead time offer enough chance to test and reorder in depth?

Cost is another factor: Ultra-fast retailers will probably have to pay a premium for manufacturing labor close to their stores (especially in the U.S.), even if there is some offsetting saving on transportation. Fast turnaround makes sense if your store needs Stanley Cup championship jerseys tomorrow, but for the majority of goods a little extra time is worth the investment.

Lee Kent

At NRF this year I watched several demos of 3-D printers spewing out apparel. If the right products can be determined, the technology is certainly there and the claim with 3-D printers is that they are cost effective. But I’m with Paula. Something’s gotta give somewhere. And that’s my 2 cents.

Kate Munro

Consumers no longer want to wait six months for trends to hit stores. Fast fashion retailers capitalize on the see-now-buy-now trend, driving the industry to adopt a seasonless buying mentality that gets new products to market quicker than ever before.

In order to bring apparel to market in time to beat even fast fashion merchants, retailers need technology that speeds up supply chain processes and makes the design-to-delivery cycle more efficient. That technology should allow retailers to co-create. They need to leverage their entire community, from designers to suppliers and everyone in between.

This focus on making a great product from the very beginning of the process and driving speed through co-creation needs to be done without sacrificing quality. As an industry, we need to match consumer demand for speed on the back-end, giving our product development teams the tools they need to develop new and innovative products quickly and efficiently.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
5 years 1 month ago

There is certainly a point to be made here for supply chain efficiency and optimization. What seems to be needed is a better communication path between all points in the retailer’s supply chain. Having reliable, consistent, fast communication to share data between suppliers, distribution and all points in the supply chain will produce further efficiency and optimization for the retailer. Investments in technology that achieve this enhanced performance will deliver significant ROI.

Even looking outside of apparel — look at Apple for an example of a “well-oiled” supply chain execution (not implying speed, but efficiency). Paula is right in her axiom that you can’t have all three. Apparel retailers need to make their choice and remember that when it comes to trends, if they don’t produce one that consumers want to buy, it won’t matter how quickly they can stock the store. Just ask Gap for an example.

Steve Montgomery

There is a difference between a trend and a fad. Some would say with fashion, the gap between the two is shrinking. Trends allow the supply chain time to react. Fads do not.

Paula’s point regarding speed, accuracy and cost is spot on. Many of the items seen in the fast fashion don’t have sustaining power. They are here today and then disappear. IMHO, fast fashion tends more to the fad end of the spectrum.

All that being said, I do believe that traditional fashion retailers will have to employ better supply chain technology to be able to compete in the new sound bite world of fashion.

JJ Kallergis

One technology solution that could speed up the reaction time to trends and even predict trends is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Why are fast-fashion retailers like Zara successful? Well, they have a highly responsive and efficient supply chain. But, more than that, they have mountains of data that they leverage to their advantage. Data points from their store associates, within their stores, etc. that they can boil down quickly to determine what’s hot and what’s next in fashion. If other apparel retailers were able to replicate and automate these processes, they could get to market faster than traditional fast-fashion retailers.

AI and cognitive computing, while still early in their maturity curve, hold tremendous potential to act upon all the data that companies have access to in the physical and digital worlds. I would advise companies that are thinking in “Day One” terms to start experimenting with and learning from these types of tools if they have not already.

Jasmine Glasheen

Although I appreciate trends, a two-week production window feels excessive. I’m worried about the environment, as fast fashion trends begin to turn over more quickly. Of course, consumers are polarized in their fashion preferences, with half gravitating towards the maker’s movement and sustainability, and the other half demanding their fashion be fast and even faster.

Let it be said that the antidote to cheap fashion is quality, and the antidote to fast fashion is resonance.

Peter Charness

Depends what has to happen in those two weeks. If it’s from sketch to shelf of a net new product that’s going to be a challenge to do with large quantities of reasonable quality product. Take finished RTW and garment die (a la Benetton from how many years ago) that’s feasible with some shades of (pardon the pun) grey in between. I think the main message is “speed it up” and not by a little across all types of product innovation. One industry that really needs a push here is furniture. Just ask for custom fabrics on a stock frame and it’s a 6 month lead time … explain that one.

"The key word here is “relevant.” Does a two-week lead time offer enough chance to test and reorder in depth?"
"Time-to-market is only one variable among many for a successful apparel business."
"Let it be said that the antidote to cheap fashion is quality, and the antidote to fast fashion is resonance."

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