The Changing, Challenging Role of Apparel Design

— May 01, 2003

With so many retailers counting on apparel innovation to pave the way to brighter returns, Apparel deemed the time ripe to tap into the worlds of those at the heart of the situation - the industry's apparel design teams.

During a roundtable discussion this past March, designers, technical designers and product developers from a variety of apparel brands and retailers shared their views on the evolution of the design department, their preferred methods of fashion trend research and much more. Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Apparel: How has the role of the designer or the design department changed in recent years? Is the "ivory tower" of design a thing of the past? How are today's design teams working more closely with other departments or others outside the business, and held more responsible for the bottom line?

MINNITI (WILSON'S LEATHER): I remember the whole philosophy of the ivory tower from many years past, but we reorganized our company several years ago, and one of the key changes is that now it's all about communication and inter-department relations to really make the design process flow smoothly. In the past four to five years, my interaction [has grown to] deal with not just design, but the merchandising teams, the allocation specialists, the planners, sourcing and marketing to really help focus and develop a singular vision for our assortment. . Designing in a vacuum doesn't work for anyone, and with the whole trend cycle moving as quickly as it does, you need to be able to turn on a dime. You need to have the ability to alter your assortment, refine your assortment and react to fashion trends when you need to.

TAMAYO (FILA): As a design director and really a designer at heart, I have always preferred to work directly with the buyers of our accounts because they are the people that are actually putting our product in the store. And I'm creating it. The [relationship] between the buyer and the designer is very important.

Apparel: Would you say there is a healthy level of collaboration between designers and buyers? Are their doors generally open to you?

TAMAYO (FILA): A lot of buyers actually want to be designers. . A lot of buyers have some great ideas because they're constantly seeing products from all avenues of different lines and different categories. Even if they're not buying it, they see it in their office, and it's very interesting to hear their take on what they want and how they would do it if they had open doors to do whatever they wanted. . [There is a] passion of creating something that means something to them at the end of the day. They're more invested in making it happen. Everyone wants to be profitable, but it's also an emotional attachment, which is really important when you're creating something.

GREENE (APS PROMOTIONAL SOLUTIONS): When I have vendor meetings, I prefer not to deal [only] with their salesmen. I like their designers in the room. . [It helps] to keep the ideas fresh and popping. . It's very, very important because as a buyer, I respect the designer's ability, and whenever I can sit down with a designer, it makes my life so much easier because I can in turn go to my clients and tell them exactly what they are buying.

ABRAMOWICZ (SAKS): We design all of the private labels [for Saks], so we present to our buyers in our stores. . Today we're more involved in looking at daily and weekly sales, in meeting with the buyers to determine the key items for allocating dollars. It's really a lot more of a financial role than I've ever been involved in as a designer.

Apparel: How is technology a part of the design process? How have you changed your processes to get styles out faster?

ABRAMOWICZ (SAKS): We need a lot more WebPDM, designing online, designing with a computer. When I first started designing, we designed in a design room and draped on a dress form and made our own patterns. Now it seems everything is on the computer.

MINNITI (WILSON'S LEATHER): To really have a much shorter lead time and quicker response to the ever-changing trends, it's essential to have communication between all of the departments, to have a synergy between your sourcing department, your merchants and your design department, to really understand 'where our head is' every day, every week, every season. . We work very closely with our sourcing department up front when we begin to develop color, develop leather. Being a vertical operation, the communication is daily. We like to have lead times [that allow us to] tweak a garment, slightly adjust silhouettes or add a silhouette into an assortment [after the raw materials have been acquired]. We can do that virtually, immediately, and we do use a lot of technology to speed up the process. We are involved with PDM, we do extensive video conferencing for fit sessions with our overseas counterparts, and we use digital imaging for sub-material development and review.

HANNAFORD (L.L.BEAN): When we centralized fit, we created [new pattern] blocks and best practices. . We've [built] the blocks through our CAD system, which has enabled us to send those to vendors and work directly with them on pattern adjustments in hopes of reducing sample iterations. Now we're able to push the limit a bit further in reducing the amount of samples that we have. It's all cost of the company and cost of the vendors, and we're working to reduce that. It's worked really well. We've been able to reduce the return rate quite a bit.

Apparel: What are some challenges of merging technology and design?

GALLAGHER (LIMITED BRANDS): It's incredibly challenging to find experienced design talent, whether it's in fashion apparel or the technical side, that has all of that technology experience. I am curious to know [from the other Roundtable participants] how critical technology is, and if you can learn it. Have any of you had good experiences in bringing people in who don't have it?

TAMAYO (FILA): It's very hard to find good talent that totally captures everything that you need in a person, whether it's their computer skills, their creativity, their ability to think out of the box to create things that haven't been done before, or to capture something that is currently happening and bring it down to the next level so that it becomes commercial. I've learned to take people for what they are, and to try to build a team [with members] that can play off each other. For instance, there may be someone who is really excellent in drawing on the computer, in doing CAD artist-type work, but then there may be a designer that may be incredible but has no computer skills whatsoever. Try to pair those two, and make something happen. . People are people. A computer's never going to replace a person's creativity.

SIMMONS (LECTRA): We train people on a daily and weekly basis about new technology. For all practical purposes, it doesn't matter how computer savvy a person is; [what's important is] understanding the process and the fundamentals. . In many cases, we find ourselves playing the role of the educator and trying to teach these apparel-specific processes. This may be due to the fact that someone has come from a graphic arts background, and doesn't understand where the textile design has to go and how it's going to be produced. . The only way it is going to get better is for companies like all of ours to work more closely with the educators in our regions or in regions where you might be [recruiting talent]. . Brands and retailers also have to be prepared to invest in some training once they bring people on board.

ABRAMOWICZ (SAKS): We're not finding designers that are capable of sketching on the computer. If we feel that the designer is very creative and we want to have [his or her] design input, we collaborate with our CAD department in regard to the scanning of [his or her] sketches in order to accommodate the computer-generated spec sheets. We have also taken it upon ourselves to have in-house training. I have just recently hired an associate professor from a local university's staff to come in-house and teach Adobe Illustrator so that some of these designers who are very intimidated by the computer are learning basic fundamentals.

Apparel: Would anyone like to comment on the dynamic between designers and technical designers, and the level of understanding of garment construction on both sides of the fence?

MINNITI (WILSON'S LEATHER): Until about three years ago, I handled technical design as well as design, and then we decided to branch out and create a separate technical design department. One of the key learning curves I had to experience was the process of letting go. . When you design something, there is an emotion attached to it. I had to really back away and trust the people that we hired for their capabilities. One of the key transitions that really helped me connect with the technical department was to be involved with the technical fit process in the initial stages, to convey my vision to the technical designer and potentially clear up any miscommunication up front.

HANNAFORD (L.L.BEAN): I spent most of the last 20 years as a pattern maker. The greatest need in technical design is the knowledge of pattern making and probably garment construction. [In our fit sessions], we've worked really hard to be able to look at the garment and then take the pattern and translate what we're seeing on the body to the pattern . and communicate that to the vendor. . [Our] design and merchandising [departments also have] defined lifestyles. When we're in a fit session, we think about [styles] in that aspect and drop those silhouettes into specific buckets, and we fit them according to the lifestyle of who's going to be wearing them.

Apparel: How are you getting your fashion trend information today, and how is this different to the way you may have gotten it in the past? Are you traveling more? less? in larger groups? Are you using more online sources?

MINNITI (WILSON'S LEATHER): It's really a nice mix between travel and online resources. We are using the Worth Global Style Network [WGSN], which is based out of London, which we really, really love. We get a lot of great information. Runway shows, most of the time, are shown [on WGSN] two to three days after they debut in Europe. There's an extensive library of research options. You can virtually see storefronts all over the world, and they give in-depth analysis of trade shows. But along with online, we have a fairly extensive travel schedule for design and for the buying staff. We do a lot of the European trade shows, a lot of trend shopping, as well as domestic retail comparison shopping.

ABRAMOWICZ (SAKS): WGSN is a fantastic resource that we also have been using. On a daily basis you're seeing trends and inspiration. . I'm enjoying it because there is less travel and at the same time, when you do travel, it's a way of validating what you're finding, or what you're feeling or seeing in the stores.

TAMAYO (FILA): I just found a new [online trend resource] called Fashion Snoops, which I found really, really good. . I also love WGSN. . And I go through hundreds of magazines a year, ripping out things. I also have some young people come in, such as students from local design colleges. Their take on things is so different than mine because their walk of life is so different than mine. It's really refreshing to learn from people who have different eyes to the world, and to gain their insight from what they see and utilize that. . As far as traveling, it is very important because fashion is so globalized. . You don't really find trends on just one side of the ocean or in one part of the world. It's global. I find the best thing to do is either go by myself or maybe with one other person. I don't think big groups are good. You need to have your eyes open and your ears open and just key in on what you're there for. . [For instance,] I find that if I just talk to some of the people that work in the stores, I get a lot of information that I probably wouldn't have if I was with a group of people.

MINNITI (WILSON'S LEATHER): I absolutely agree. I love traveling with my team, but I tend to find it more efficient and more productive when I am with a smaller group. . I would like to share a little insight into how we try to bring newness to our customer. First of all, I believe that over the past couple years, trends have become seasonless. Most companies are in a fast-paced race to try to be the first one to get it in the store, regardless of whether it's spring or fall. . We have strategic [sourcing] partners that we work with overseas, and I have begun to bring a few of these partners with me to trade shows and also during trend shopping. . The evening after we've done shopping or done research or seen a show, the product [concept] leaves with our partners, and the development process starts much faster.


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