As New York Fashion Week recedes to a memory, it strikes me that there are two very different worlds of fashion. For most outsiders, New York Fashion Week epitomizes the fashion industry: celebrities, couture, runway shows, glossy magazines and after-parties where It-girls, designers, bloggers and editors rub shoulders.
But while the cameras were flashing, the garment district -- just 10 minutes south of New York's Lincoln Center -- is bustling with other realities.
The morning after, as many woke up with champagne-infused hangovers and thousands of 'likes' from last night's Instagram pics, I woke up to a disgruntled factory owner, a retailer asking for a chargeback and an endless flow of emails outlining all the problems in my current production. And the one bright spot, an order from a major retailer, but I see they'd countered all my prices to a point where I'd be selling every piece at a loss. It is just another day in the "glamorous" world of fashion. When I am asked whether Fashion Week is a busy time for me, I laugh. I am so far removed from that world, I might as well be sitting in Bangladesh.
At this level, the industry is struggling to remain relevant. Fast fashion, off-price retailers and a sluggish economy have changed the consumer's spending appetite. Many prominent brands have lost their caché, and the consolidation of department stores has led to fewer places for them to sell. Increased global costs and the media's scrutiny of compliance have put intense pressure on how these companies can manufacture.
There is a stark difference between what I do and what people perceive -- a vast misconception of what our industry actually does on a day-to-day basis. Rather than chasing trends, I'm chasing factory owners at 2 a.m. for my delayed goods shipments. And deciding what to manufacture is based more on sell-through data and margin requirements than on anything like style, trend or a designer's unique point of view. When it comes to colors, it's not just about what's hot, but is about understanding what colors work for each retailer. Manufacturing comes down to what different consumers in different parts of the world, the country, the city will buy, rather than what a designer envisions.
While the "fashion" industry is a trillion-dollar global business, very few of us get to create couture gowns for celebrities or travel to Milan to handpick the finest silks. Paris runways, have on the whole, been replaced by sweater factories in Bangladesh. A fashion house can easily spend upwards of $100,000 producing a 30-minute runaway show. But when it comes to making jeans, many times getting a buyer to sign off on a $6 jean is a challenge, much less getting a retailer to pay $1500 for a factory audit of compliance standards, or even less likely, getting a factory to pick up the cost when they fail to meet those standards.
Designers may attract the limelight, but major retailers and brands like Zara, H&M, PVH and Gap are the ones outfitting the masses. We think of Tom Ford and Diane von Furstenburg as icons, and people covet tickets to their fashion shows -- but it's the mass-market brands that have the buying power. Consider the department stores that are outlets for high fashion clothing. Neiman Marcus has 40 locations worldwide, including Bergdorf Goodman; Nordstrom has about 275 stores, but more than half of them are off-price. In contrast, TJX has more than 1,000 stores, Gap has more than 3,000, and Inditex -- the biggest fashion group in the world, with brands such as Zara, Massimo Dutti and Bershka -- operates a whopping 6,200 stores globally.
What does this say about what clothing people are buying -- and more importantly, what price they're willing to pay for it?
There's the fashion industry, and then there's the apparel and textile industry -- the group of people toiling away in garment districts across the world. What I do is not about not creating trends, styling the rich and famous, or winning awards for my design innovation. I am catering to the 99 percent and creating clothing for the masses. Doing so requires an entirely different set of skills and ambitions. I'll never be remembered as a great designer -- no one will wear my name. Although I manufacture millions of units of clothing a year, outfitting more people in a year than some renowned designers will in a lifetime, I am a trader, a merchant, and a businessman finding opportunity in a marketplace.
It's important to keep the vision, creativity, and yes, glamour of fashion alive, but the industry also needs to train the next generation of apparel executives. I imagine very few designers go to school with hopes and dreams of one day designing $19.99 denim. But the reality, good or bad, is that most of the jobs in this field are not in couture -- and many students would, in fact, be fortunate to work for a major retailer developing their collections. They'd find more stability and benefits, with the trade-off of turning in the big, sparkly gamble of designing for themselves -- "making it" as a name fashion brand -- in exchange for designing for the consumer.
The apparel industry needs the sartorialists, tastemakers and innovators. They set the trends, and while at times it may take seasons -- or even years -- to trickle down to the masses, fast fashion retailers and discounters really do take their cues from what's happening at their level. New York Fashion Week, for all its glitz and glamour, offers only a teensy sliver of the reality of the apparel industry. And no wonder this is the sliver everyone wants to see -- who wouldn't rather be partying in the plaza in front of Lincoln Center than sweating it out (or, as last spring, risking life and limb) in the manufacturing houses in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh?
Founder and Publisher of Sourcing Journal, a publication that focuses on the retail apparel and textile industry, Edward Hertzman is also a private label manufacturer and an apparel sourcing agent.
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