The vote has been taken. The ballots counted. The results are in.
The word for 2014 is INNOVATION.
Not a bad choice.
Innovation is all about change — sometimes planned; often unplanned. For the garment industry, innovation can occur in many realms from design and technology to culture.
Cristobal Balenciaga showed the world what could be done with a wide range of fabric to produce clothing, which up to that moment had been thought to be impossible. Hubert de Givenchy use of cheap shirting as a couture material showed the world what could be done with the most limited range of material, which up to that moment had been thought to be impossible. Both Balenciaga and Givenchy were men of genius. But that is not innovation
Charles Frederick Worth, on the other hand may have been the greatest innovator in the history of the modern garment industry. In 1857, when Worth opened shop in Paris, fashion having gone through four successive disasters was dying.
In the 18th century women of the aristocracy had their own in-house complete dressmaking establishments. The Countess or Duchess had been trained by her aristocratic mother to understand the importance of show in society. She would sit with her own personal stylista to discuss the best most outstanding gown for the next social event. Sketches were drawn; fabric suppliers called in, and the final version handed over to the in house modelista whose job it was to move from concept to finished garment.
In 1794, the Reign of Terror brought the process to an abrupt end when aristocrat having gone to the guillotine put both her stylista and modelista out of business
In 1804 the French revolution was transmogrified into Napoleon’s First French Empire. The new aristocracy — senior soldiers and friends of the Emperor — needed new clothes. The stylistas and modelistas were back at work. Regrettably by 1815 they were once again temporarily unemployed. But not for long
1814-1815 brought the on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again return of the Bourbon monarchy and with it the return of the remaining few aristocrat of the old regime, and once again, the stylistas and modelistas were back at work
Skip ahead 42 years to the new second empire with its new emperor Napoleon III. The Empress Eugénie and the new aristocracy once again needed new clothes. Only this time there was no real aristocracy, just a bunch of nouveau riche slobs with 0 aesthetic sense and no one to dress them.
Enter Charles Frederick Worth, who recognized the universal mantra of the newly arrived — I may not know what I like, but I will know it when I see it.
To meet his customers’ limitations, Worth invented the collection. The newly-arrived aristocrat could go into his showroom; see actual garments on a model; decide what she liked and Worth’s team would produce that piece to fit that customer. And so was created Haute Couture — a way to provide beautiful garments for tasteless titled twits and high priced whores.
As the father of Haute Couture, Worth certainly deserves a place in the clothing industry’s pantheon of innovators. However, his change had a much more far-reaching result.
Where previously women wore either homemade or custom made clothes, Worth with his collection concept opened a third route. Retailers could now pre-select styles for sale, which factories could produce en masse.
Worth could not know the change he and his innovation brought; however, more than anyone, Charles Frederick Worth deserves the title father of the modern garment industry.
Such is the power of innovation.
In our industry innovation takes many forms. The computer has brought us computer-assisted-design (CAD) as well as computer assisted manufacturing (CAM). It has brought us product-lifetime-management (PLM). Regrettably, given the current high cost of these programs limiting sales to the very largest companies, it is too early to tell the nature and extent of change. We must wait for PLM prices come down to a more reasonable $59.95 (shipping included) available through Amazon.
At a time when fashion trends have all but disappeared, Consumers are looking something truly new, not just warmed-over ideas of the past. innovation is becoming a viable strategy.
The problem with innovation is that it is a complex process requiring talented innovators who are by definition unstable. Also innovation is not simply invention. Steve Jobs who was arguably the most talented innovator of our time, was not an inventor. His talent laid in the ability to coopt other talented inventors to create the things Jobs needed to realize his innovative concept.
To be successful companies are looking to create centers of innovation à l’ Apple. If the IT people can do it, why not us?
Actually we have done it. In 1968 Maïmé Arnodin and Denis Fayolle established Agence MAFIA in Paris. Part advertising agency, part design studio, MAFIA became the industries first innovation shop. The two partners found good people and made them better, sometimes great. Their clients included some of the great names of day such as Yves St Laurent. MAFIA in their work with 3 Suisses brought to the catalog such designers as Agnés B, Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gautier, and Sonia Rikiel, thus forever tearing down the barrier between high fashion design and clothes for the average consumer.
As garment companies move to set up in-house innovation centers they would do well to study the work of Steve Jobs, and particularly Maïmé Arnodin and Denis Fayolle.
There are lessons here.
- The IT industry, of which Apple is the leading example, is based on innovation has an understanding of how to create in-house innovation.
- As the company grows, of which Microsoft is the leading example, the organization takes over and innovation disappears.
The question is how do we create and maintain a culture of innovation. Here we must look to MAFIA.
- The cash benefits of innovation are such that a single effort by one person can bring greater financial gain than the total cost of the entire innovation center for decades.
- Every effort must be made to catch and develop that innovation
- By nature innovation is counter-corporate
- Talented innovators will work extraordinary hours, provided they believe their work is seen as important
- Senior management must constantly reassured Innovators that their talent is great and their work appreciated.
- Innovators must be given virtually unlimited freedom. In this regard Mafia allowed their people unlimited time to examine sources of new ideas. Some took one day off a week to visit art galleries. Two young people traveled from Paris to Milano to visit a glass blowing factory. Everything and anything can push the button leading to the next great innovation
- The very existence of the in-house innovation center creates its own visceral opposition from those outside and excluded. They must never be permitted to interfere.
- The innovation center project starts from the top and thereafter must be controlled from the top.
- MOST IMPORTANT. Innovation can exist only in a company with an imbedded culture of innovation
Case Study of failure
Schmata is a long established large single product brand, where management has history of new ideas.
Senior management decided to create an in-house innovation center.
- A separate building was selected to house the new center, thus separating innovation from the rest of the company
- A very small number people, were hired. They had no previous experience in the product, but were seen to have potential innovation talent.
- They were given a brief period of training to understand the basics of the product.
- The manager selected for the project had unsurpassed knowledge of the product.
- The first 4-5 months shows great results and even greater promise of things to come.
In the course of a single day, things fall apart.
Clearly the events that resulted in the operational failure may have occurred in the course of a single day but the causes were implicit from the outset.
- The innovators were paid on per-hour basis. At the highest echelon management may have considered their innovators as valuable assets to be treated with care, but at the all important sub-levels those same innovators were categorized as blue collar worker, much like floor sweepers and garbage collectors.
- Special events were stopped: Where previously the manager would have special events such as an in-house lunch featuring sandwiches and Champaign, this was now deemed to be a step towards anarchy.
- Rules were imposed to ensure that the innovators followed the all important procedure. The innovator workers were required to sign-in when arriving at work and to sign-out when leaving. They were challenged when they requested permission to leave the premise to conduct research on the outside
- A hierarchy was established, where those above the innovators were permitted to abuse the lower classes. The goal became to keep the workers in their place
- The department head, became less a mentor to bring the best out his people and more of a controller to ensure his workers followed the rules.
The greatest failure was with senior management who having set up the operation in the first place walked away to devote their efforts to other seemingly more important work. As a result, to this moment they are totally unaware of their failure. Because Schmata leadtimes are in excess of 52 weeks, the early positive results will not become apparent for a very long time; at which point senior management will no doubt go to their innovation center only discover the center is dead.
The innovation-center concept is in its early days. More professional companies such as VF Corp have adapted the idea. They appear to be on a better track. Unlike the case of Schmidlap, VF has hired successful innovators to run their centers, and will doubtless pay closer attention to this all important project.
The future of the global garment industry lies with our ability to foster innovation. Those who understand and encourage the process will do well. On the other hand, the Schmatas of our industry will not.