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Software // Enterprise Applications

Designed To Cut Time

Cost pressures and other factors are forcing the apparel industry to modernize its technology

There are huge disparities among apparel companies in how long they take to get new designs to market, though it's nearly always measured in months rather than weeks. An exception is Zara, a designer and retailer owned by the Inditex Group, which has built its business model on being able to get new products designed and into stores in just two weeks, a company spokesman says. In many of its 724 stores throughout the world, Zara clerks send feedback directly to designers via wireless PDAs, and designers can make adjustments and send them electronically to Inditex-owned factories in northern Spain.

Other apparel companies are moving at a "snail's pace" to reach that level of performance, says Navi Radjou, VP of enterprise applications at Forrester Research. "Many of the apparel retailers that sell their own brands don't even have a common ERP platform," Radjou says. "Now they must focus on integration with trading partners. Apparel companies know it must be done to stay competitive because trade quotas on textiles and materials into the U.S. have been lifted."

Vendors of tools for product-life-cycle management and enterprise resource planning haven't paid much attention to the apparel industry's needs, focusing on bigger spenders such as the aerospace, electronics, and automotive industries. VF is buying the color technology, but it has hired India-based Quinnox to code the Stride platform based on VF specifications. J. Jill chose an off-the-shelf collaborative PLM suite from Freeborders Inc., but it's working with the vendor to add apparel-specific tools as it expands its effort.

At the same time that J. Jill has shifted its business model from catalog to specialty retail, it has been doing more in-house design of shirts, skirts, and pants. Today, more than 90% of the designs are its own. "The design process requires collaboration as designers create and change ideas and compare [them] against costs, schedules, and manufacturing plans," Pearson says.

J. Jill takes up to a year to get a product from concept to shelves, and it's looking to shave as much as 25% off that cycle, in part by getting the company working in the Freeborders suite. But it's not just about reducing cycle times. It's about making sure the data is correct, having product-status visibility in all development stages, and knowing the clothing line will drive the profit margins required to make it successful. "You can't get information in our industry on performance of on-time delivery, quality, price, testing standards, and root-cause analysis because you lack the data support that gives a real-time collaborative view," Pearson says. "Six Sigma doesn't apply to the apparel industry like electronics because you don't have the data to support the analysis."

J. Jill just completed phase one, which began in November, in which IT analysts detailed its processes to make sure the system will work. It's scheduled to roll out the system across the business in August. Along the way, Pearson is working with Freeborders on specific requirements for modules in development, such as sourcing and quality assurance.

It's the type of technology Guess Inc. CIO Michael Relich has on his wish list. The company is evaluating collaboration options for its Southern California design team. Today, designers, suppliers, and manufacturers communicate by E-mail, fax, and phone. But in the next three to six months, Relich will review tools from Freeborders, Next Generation Computing Inc., and others.

Relich's wish list is very detailed: a common database for garment designs and materials, which suppliers could access to eliminate errors from rekeying information from E-mail or fax; a workflow engine with deadlines and business processes; reports tracking products in production; and design and manufacturing data that ties into the Guess ERP platform and its warehouse-management system from Manhattan Associates.

"The management at Guess is very committed to technology and believes it's a competitive advantage, not only to reduce expenses but [to] react quickly to changing styles and market demands in shortened cycles," says Relich, who worked at Gap Inc. before joining Guess in 2003. "Collaborative tools for the apparel industry are in their infancy."

One thing about the fashion industry: When a new style takes off, everyone in the business wants to try to put their own stamp on it. And now, technology is definitely in style.

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