The vision for production on-demand has been clear for some time, but making it achievable at scale is an area where disagreement remains on both the right approach and just how significant that scale should be.
Jess Fleischer, CEO of on-demand production pioneers Son Of A Tailor, is a firm advocate for a mass switch from traditional manufacturing to localised production with demand – rather than prediction – as the trigger. The Interline spoke to him shortly after the launch of the company’s new brand identity with the tagline “Supply Change”, about some of the practicalities of reversing the process flow that’s defined fashion for so long.
The Interline: The tagline “Supply Change” suggests a few different things, but first and foremost it gets to the idea that the traditional apparel supply chain needs to change. What are the primary reasons for that need?
Jess Fleischer: The clothing industry as it is today isn’t future-proof, neither from an environmental, a social, nor from a business perspective.
One key issue is the amount of waste. There’s a lot of talk about people overconsuming clothing. But the problem is much bigger than that: The industry actually produces far more clothes than the world is asking for. It’s a simple case of supply outstripping demand. Even the artificially inflated demand.
The clothing industry’s supply chain is optimized for the mass production of standardized items at a cost as low as possible. Besides causing overproduction, this also has a deteriorating effect on aspects like product quality or working conditions.
We founded Son of a Tailor to prove that there’s another way: We flip the clothing supply chain on its head by making a garment only after someone has ordered it. Our made-to-order solution achieves zero inventory waste, ensures traceable conditions throughout the whole chain, and means you get garments perfectly fitted to you and only you.
The Interline: The other key theme you’re addressing is the reversing of the fundamental relationship between supply and demand. Apparel brands create products they believe people will buy, based on the best intelligence that’s available to them, but the industry is still largely producing to expected demand, rather than using demand as a trigger, because the alternative has never really been viable before. Why do you believe making products to order is now ready for prime time?
Jess Fleischer: First and foremost, the mismatch between supply and demand creates insane amounts of waste. This is obviously bad for the environment. But it’s bad for business too because all the wasted resources cost money to produce. Building up inventory also binds your cash so you’re less flexible.
The pandemic has shown that flexibility is key when operating in an unpredictable environment. Here, a made-to-order model has several clear advantages.
The Interline: The fashion industry is producing huge volumes of garments that either go unsold, or that are worn only a handful of times – and in both cases the end result is the same: product is being thrown away. How significant a contributor is this finished-product waste to fashion’s sustainability problem, and how can making to order help?
Jess Fleischer: Made to order means that if you don’t order it we don’t make it. So there’s no overproduction. Producing each garment on demand also enables us to make a product specifically for the person who has ordered it. With our Perfect Fit algorithm, we create patterns that are unique for each customer. So people receive a garment that is perfectly fitted for their body.
Fit is the most important factor for male customers’ satisfaction when it comes to clothing. By making garments that fit right (and by using top-quality materials), we lay the foundation for people to wear our garments more often and keep them longer. Some of our first customers report to still love and wear our products after years.
The Interline: In your opinion, how large of a share of the overall apparel / footwear manufacturing market should transition to a make-to-order model, and how much should continue to be handled through established, overseas, high-volume production channels? Is fashion eventually headed in the direction of on-demand for everything, or do you believe the industry should be targeting a balance?
Jess Fleischer: I believe all online volumes should eventually be made to order. Once we get down to 1-2 days delivery time and comparable cost levels, I don’t see any reason why not. And the same is true for offline retail. The physical space will then have more of the function of a showroom and you get the items shipped home. We’re already seeing many brands exploring the option of merging online and offline retail in the sense that people can place their online order from the store rather than taking the piece home from there. So why not produce it after it has been ordered instead of holding inventory? Granted, there should probably still be some items that customers get with them instantly – for example, raincoats when it’s pouring outside. I would still say 75% of offline retail should be made to order.
Once big volumes go made to order, algorithms will be able to predict a lot of sales, and in some cases, they could then start to produce the 1-2 days lead time before the customer actually buys the item. Whether that kind of production can be called “made to order” will be a philosophical question for future supply chain engineers.
The Interline: For the production that does move to more localised, on-demand manufacturing methods, can you explain how working this way can improve accountability and transparency in ways that go beyond the manufacturing facilities simply being closer to brand HQ? If we’re designing and developing digitally, and then demand is triggering digital production, then it stands to reason that we’ll be building greater visibility into the end-to-end product lifecycle as well…
Jess Fleischer: Simply working with production partners that are in closer geographical proximity to the HQ is only half the deal. In our case, that means that all our production partners are located in the European Union which certainly has many benefits, for example when it comes to guaranteeing good working conditions.
But from there, it all depends on how closely you work together. Here, a shorter distance is a huge advantage but both don’t necessarily always go hand in hand.
Made to order requires close and regular contact between all parties. And our focus on decreasing our delivery times over the last years means that we together have created a detailed overview of all steps involved. This offers transparency and allows for traceability: we can trace every item back to the people who made it.