The rules of the new garment industry have more in common with the artisan guilds of pre-industrialized Europe than with 21st century clothing conglomerates. The new suppliers value, endorse and employ artisans, craft, self-learning, bespoke apparel, hand-made, high quality, individuality, uniqueness and community.
The advent of industrialization made these qualities exclusive, only available to the wealthiest of the wealthy. The mass consumer is limited to homogeneous design and low quality stock manufactured by a faceless and perpetual assembly-line.
In reaction, cutting-edge companies, fueled by ethics, are developing original and revolutionary business models. Their intent is to bring back the craftsman and the artisan and make hand-made, bespoke and high quality available to the general consumer. The prototype paradigms are built on core competencies which are motivated and upheld by these values.
Core competence is a unique concept imbedded, developed and applied in every aspect of their organizations. Core competence informs every decision made and every product created.
Every core competence is shaped by three factors:
- To provide potential access to a wide variety of markets,
- To make a significant contribution to the perceived customer benefits of the end product,
- Is difficult to imitate by competitors. (1)
In one way or another, strong core competence is prevalent in all successful companies, regardless of their age or industry.
Corning Inc: The standard of core competence
In 1851, Corning Glass Works of Corning, NY, was off to a bumpy start. Glass was a small and saturated market. Brilliantly, its founder decided to focus on specialty glassware products: US$200 ashtrays and intricately cut crystal tumblers.
Today Corning Inc is over 160 years old. It produces, what one might consider, an absurd and incongruous array of products. It is responsible for well-known innovations that do not appear to be related: Pyrex dishes and bowls, Gorilla Glass (implemented on the iPhone screen), Clear Curve optic fibre (enables high speed internet), and the fantastically decadent and highly sought after, Steuben Glass.
Corning Inc is a leading player in five disparate fields. After over a century and a half its core competence remains specialty glassware.
- Market access: Corning defined the indispensability of glass and how it relates to potentially infinite markets.
- Customer benefits: Corning remains at the forefront of change by creating products that consumers do not even know they want or need.
- Difficult to imitate: Corning is the innovator of specialty glass.
Cohesive core competence is just as imperative for today’s innovative business models as it was over a century ago.
New generation online garment start-ups face the same problems Corning confronted in the mid 1900s. Like Corning Glass their future relevancy and prosperity depends on the rigorous development and integration of core competence.
Wool and the Gang: The global knitting workshop
Jade Harwood and Aurelie Popper met while studying textile design at Central Saint Martins, London. After graduating, both worked at the renowned fashion houses Alexander McQueen and Balmain. During their time at Balmain the two designers met former supermodel Elisabeth Sabrier. In 2008 the three founded Wool and the Gang: a supplier of artisan knitwear, produced all over the world for customers all over the world.
The company revolves around the Gang; a global cohort of knitting superstars who make every item sold by Wool and the Gang. Any qualified knitter worldwide is welcome to join. Gang members are provided with everything required to learn, knit and perfect each item: Knit Kits are comprised of wool, needles, and a pattern; the Wool School hosts a free online library of videos and a vast community of Gang Members offer both virtual and real-world social support.
Quality control takes precedence. Every item has a rating: beginner, easy, intermediate, advanced. Every knitter falls into one of these categories and is allocated work accordingly. When completed each item is sent to a QC warehouse for inspection before proceeding to its final destination, the consumer’s home.
There are two options when purchasing from Wool and the Gang: Option 1, buy an item made-to-order specifically for you. Option 2, invest in a Knit Kit and learn to make the item yourself.
Wool and the Gang does not manufacture bulk orders; each order consists of a single garment purchased by a single consumer. The formula makes obstacles such as uncertain timelines and geographic limitations superfluous. One artisan’s knitting speed in no way affects another artisan’s delivery date. The quality control system gives them the ability to source independent knitters on a global level.
Wool and the Gang is attempting to surmount the once inexorable barrier between the supplier and the consumer. By incorporating eager and motivated consumers into the production process – through self-learning, online education, and social support - Wool and the Gang is transforming consumers into artisans. This revolutionary business model is scaleable; while selling its product the company is simultaneously growing its artisan base. The symbiotic and interchangeable nature of the consumer and the supplier not only generates brand loyalty but a stronger bond of kinship; consumers are devoted to the suppliers because they or their friends are members of the Gang.
Wool and the Gang’s core competence is its unique and unparalleled business model.
- Market access: Wool and the Gang’s global production web is applicable to a wide array of artisan industries.
- Customer benefits: Wool and the Gang is making artisan products available to the general consumer.
- Difficult to imitate: Wool and the Gang returns production back to the artisans.
Lanieri: The first bespoke tailor in the cloud
In 2011, five students of the Scuola di Alta Formazione al Management in Torino, Italy founded Lanieri. A year later Lanieri serendipitously encountered the managers of Successori Reda SpA, one of Italy’s great Italian worsted mills. At 150 years old, Reda remains a model of core competence, innovative and relevant. Reda offered the five young Lanieri founders help and expertise ranging from product support to startup capital.
They figured it out. Lanieri integrates Italian classic men’s tailoring with virtual shopping. Select from an array of Italian milled fabric, customize the design and input 14 personal measurements. These are converted into technical specs by a unique algorithm - and poof, in 4-6 weeks your bespoke suit arrives. If upon arrival the suit does not quite fit to your satisfaction, Lanieri will pay for a tailor of your choice to make adjustments. If the suit is really off, send it back and Lanieri will remake it at no extra charge. What more could you ask for?
Lanieri makes bespoke affordable without sacrificing style, quality, material or detail. Suits run between $560 and $875. The price is determined by the fabric cost; the customer can add detail and customization at no extra charge. Try pricing an equivalent suit at a traditional Italian tailor, it will run to $4,000, minimum.
Fit and shape are what differentiate a bespoke suit from an off-the-rack model. Correct specs do not equal correct fit and shape. Lanieri’s core competence is its algorithm, which converts measurements into vectors rendering a customer’s unique form. This algorithm makes Lanieri a genuine virtual tailor shop.
- Market access: Lanieri’s algorithm could potentially be adapted to any item requiring a personal fitting.
- Customer benefits: Lanieri has the capacity to make one-of-a-kind products for an infinite array of customers while controlling cost and quality.
- Difficult to imitate: Lanieri’s algorithm is unique.
Corning Inc, Wool and the Gang and Lanieri recognize that establishing strong community bonds is non-negotiable to creating a lucrative business. A positive and inclusive company culture builds a community of dedicated employees who identify the organization’s success as their personal success.
Corning’s community is intrinsic to its identity and extends well beyond its employee base. It improves the quality of life in the regions in which it operates by building schools and colleges, implementing specialty education programmes, improving local healthcare, and providing disaster relief.
Wool and the Gang and Lanieri do not employ workers, they employ artisans and craftsmen. Wool and the Gang literally scours the world to discover world-class knitters. When you buy an item you are told who knitted the garment, the country in which the knitter resides, how long they have been knitting and why they love to knit.
Lanieri’s calling card is Made-in-Italy, its taste and aesthetic are Italian, it buys from Italian mills, and it employs Italian tailors. Each tailor, imbued with a particular array of highly cultivated and sharply honed skills, must work collectively. The creation of a bespoke suit requires the synchronized efforts of multiple craftsmen: a pattern maker, a cutter, sewers and more.
Individuality is the essence of the new industry. An industry established by individuals for individuals.
The individuals these companies work with are just as important as the companies themselves. Artisans are unique, what they create is unique, therefore they are irreplaceable. The knitters, the tailors, the makers, the artisans, the craftsmen are the personification of Wool and the Gang, Lanieri and companies like them.
Artisans depend and have always depended on a craft community. The guilds of mediaeval Europe were established for two reasons: to maintain a standard of excellence and to provide a location for artisans of similar craft to meet and congregate. It is still this kinship of craft that builds and unites these communities and preserves and cultivates quality.
The shared goal of Wool and the Gang and Lanieri is to resurrect consumer-driven craftsmanship. Wool and the Gang’s ultimate goal is to replace the industry’s nameless, faceless drone workforce by growing the artisan community. Lanieri was formed by students who were passionate about preserving classic Italian quality and design by making items at a fraction of the traditional cost. Its consumer is every man who sees the value of a bespoke suit.
These goals may appear naive. After all, how can such infantile companies with adolescent dreams ever impact or influence an industry? But remember, Corning Glass began with the same chance of success – none whatsoever.
Corning Inc, a $10bn company, proves that niche business is not confined to a single industry. Niche business is made flexible and adaptable by a thoroughly and holistically developed core competence, which when utilized and applied, reveals the relationships between seemingly unrelated industries.
Innovation is intrinsic to the growth and advancement of core competence. It is innovation that curtails competition and puts Corning at the forefront of invention. Wool and the Gang has established one of the most vast and complex production webs. There are other companies developing algorithms; however, none with as meticulous and intricate a product as Lanieri’s bespoke suit.
Like Corning Glass in the mid 1900s, Wool and the Gang and Lanieri do pint-size business. Both are young niche companies providing unique products to specific consumers. If they follow in Corning’s footsteps, continuing to develop their core competence to meet the needs of their consumers, and if they never forget what they are in business for, who knows what they will be a century from today.
1: Hamel, Gary and Prahalad, CK. (1990) “The Core Competence of the Corporation.” Harvard Business Review (v. 68, no. 3) pp. 79–91.