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Key Takeaways:

  • Fashion companies rely heavily on intuition and prediction to develop products and bring them to market, but this is becoming increasingly challenging as cultural waves rise and fall in shorter windows of time.
  • Brands that were able to predict the surge in Barbie style were able to offer Barbie-appropriate products more quickly, but most companies struggle to keep up with fast-changing trends due to the inflexible supply chain structure of the fashion industry.
  • To remain competitive, fashion companies need to adapt their business models to be more agile and digitally-native, with a focus on on-demand production and closer collaboration with customers.

Barbie is back. Greta Gerwig’s first mega-IP movie is currently captivating critics, and expectations are that the eponymous film could rake in $100 million this opening weekend.

image: warner bros.

But for all the current fervour, Barbie never really went anywhere. From her introduction at the tail end of the 1950s, to peak sales of $1.3 billion in 2020 as the pandemic reaffirmed her relevance, Barbie has been a consistent bellwether for social evolution, individual empowerment, and the power of imagination – for longer than most of us have been alive.

As a case in point, consider how powerful the original concept of Barbie (in the words of Ruth Handler, who created the character and was a cornerstone of the founding of toy giant Mattel) still sounds, versus how constraining the horizons at the time were:

“Even in her early years Barbie did not have to settle for being only Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer.”

Safe to say the world has, thankfully, moved on from having women aspire to that narrow a set of possibilities, but the core concept has stood the test of time. Barbie is an emblem for a simple idea: decide what to be, and go be it. And don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.

In this sense, Barbie is about as modern as icons come. While she’s picked up an unfair reputation as a clothes horse, the reality is deeply different. Barbie doesn’t wear clothes as decoration, but as a signifier of inherent possibility and the idea that shedding limitations is as simple as shifting outfits. Just put the outfits on and make things happen.

So with all that history, fashion should have seen Barbie (the 2023 film and its marketing juggernaut) coming. From the central hot pink motif to the perennial stiletto heels, bringing non-licensed but still on-model products to market to coincide with the film’s release seems, in retrospect, like a slam-dunk.

But while some companies successfully predicted the surge in Barbie style, the pitch of the current fever has still taken some brands by surprise. The rental market may have been able to respond quickly, but for brands who didn’t secure licensing or collaboration agreements, there’s currently a rush to capitalise on the Barbie interest through creative staging of existing products or the acceleration of time-to-market of products in development.

And this is a timely reminder of just how strongly fashion still relies on intuition and prediction. For all but the most tightly-integrated brands – who own their production networks – having Barbie-appropriate products on the racks today would have meant committing significant amounts of time and money to book capacity and materials many months in advance. For most fashion companies, there is no way – within the current supply chain structure – to see a trend percolating to the top of the zeitgeist, and to quickly bring products to market to target it.

(Sidestepping the traditional fashion sourcing and manufacturing structure, and shifting to on-demand, can help with this, and The Interline recently investigated just how viable the make-to-demand, microfactory model is at scale.)

And as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to sit back, in summer 2023, and say that every brand should have Barbie-appropriate products on the shelves, but it’s a lot harder to work in planning, buying, or merchandising in 2022 (when the extended cast, beyond Margot Robbie, was revealed) and to make a big bet on the film becoming a cultural sensation. Because until the marketing machine whirred into its current high gear, a relatively indie director helming a film about toys did not feel like a sure-fire hit.

So would you, in that position, have known that Barbie was going to blast off the way it has this summer? How much would you and your colleagues have been willing to bet on it? Because informed speculation is still what a lot of fashion planning is about.

The benefits of that bet paying off are clear: having the right products, available through the right channels, at the right time to take advantage of a cultural moment.

The downsides of it being miscalculated are more insidious, but just as impactful: markdowns to move excess inventory, wasted material (hot pink is hardly the easiest colour to repurpose), and channel space lost to products that had a greater chance of success.

All of which is, of course, further evidence that fashion’s model of forecasting demand a full year in advance is outdated in a world where cultural waves rise and fall in much shorter windows of time. Unless you’re able to get your predictions right the majority of the time, which our research from the start of this year suggests is definitely not the case.

So what lessons can fashion learn from this particular Barbie?

From a cultural perspective, let’s all remember that just wearing pink isn’t really the point. It’s much more powerful to put on a helmet and be an astronaut. Which means assortment planning that caters more to the ideal of Barbie than just the surface level aesthetics.

From a business and process point of view, remember that similar moments are going to rise and fall next year, and the year after. The marketing machine just works that much faster than the cogs of fashion can currently turn. And while some brands will predict them correctly, prediction is no substitute for the kind of agility you can build through digital-native design and development, and on-demand production.

Under the current model, there’s simply no way of telling which waves are the ones to surf. The only answer is to get closer to the shore. Take a leaf out of Ken’s book: he does beach.

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