Creating and running a fashion brand is starting to look as simple as creating and running a social media account… tap to design, tap to price, tap to finance, tap to market, tap to make, tap to retarget. A new wave of software platforms is finally connecting all the machines and systems behind the scenes, and the effect is nothing short of revolutionary.
This new generation of integrated end-to-end platforms will mean tremendous opportunities for increases in efficiency at all levels of the fashion business, likely some significant consolidation after a bit of a race, and a new breed of top dog fashion magnates: gamers.
The fashion industry is for once at the leading edge of a technology boom, thanks largely to momentum and fallout from recent retail-tech and fit-tech gold rushes.
One year ago, economist Michel Mandel predicted that 2019 would be “the year of the manufacturing platform,” and apparently more than one person in the industry was listening.
Several established fashion equipment companies like Gerber Technology and EFI Optitex have been moving in this general direction for a while, and we’ve seen dashboards for dedicated applications like hiring and planning for media and events (Swipecast and CastingCoin), but the company suddenly at the forefront of the total unification pack is Cala, a New York-based SaaS startup which at the base pricing tier functions much like the others: a designer can log on, connect their e-commerce platform to the system, and use automation tools to manage their sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution. Other companies in the space include N.A.bld from Nineteenth Amendment, the powerful and industrial Resonance Companies’ MAKE and create.ONE platforms from partners Lawrence Lennihan and Joseph Ferrara, and ethical fashion platforms Thr3efold and Suuchi’s GRID. Together, they’re leaving pioneering platform of yesterday Maker’s Row seemingly in the dust.
Cala is the one that appears readiest for mass adoption by a horde of neophyte users, and you can learn more about it in this deep dive interview Cathy Schepis and I recently recorded with Cala CEO and Co-Founder Andrew Wyatt for American Fashion Podcast:
The holy grail in this space is seamless end-to-end management of the complete product life cycle. If direct-to-consumer comes first, to start a fashion brand from scratch you need to go through roughly seven phases, each with their own unique quirks, processes, and complications. These (often overlapping) phases include Ideation and Design, Sourcing and Costing, Pricing and Financing, Manufacturing and Production, Marketing and Sales, Distribution and Logistics, and Analytics and Analysis. If you can put all of these phases into one dashboard, the entrepreneur starts to not need to directly employ any support staff or to ever visit a vendor or touch their own goods. Simpler garments can even get by with virtual sample rooms provided by companies like CLO and Tukatech, presenting 3D renderings to consumers instead of photographed samples.
These integrated end-to-end platform companies are going to start acquiring and partnering with a lot of other companies with various disconnected pieces of the end-to-end fashion business puzzle, connecting more and more pre-built parts into more and more powerful systems as adoption explodes and the race for dominance heats up. Prime targets may include the likes of the aforementioned Swipecast and Castingcoin platforms, possibly Maker’s Row’s database, factory communication platform Techpacker, supply chain management platform SupplyCompass, and factory matching site Sewport. Industrial equipment manufacturer Gerber Technologies already linked with OPM in 2018. Gerber also appears to be working with a group called PAAT, whose promises of technological advancement and list of partners seem large, but that company has yet to show any cards.
A single person could run multiple brands at scale from a smartphone using these systems. This isn’t a prediction about the future, Cala has already driven the proverbial transcontinental spike. They have integrated the full end-to-end process, not just from idea to product, but through analysis into the next product, even including factoring and financing for large orders, all at the tap of a finger. Perhaps what the aggressive brand owner needs now isn’t the mobile device in the coffee shop, but one of those giant ticker-filled multi-screen workstations stock traders sit behind, as they scan through order trends and place bets on what will move better tomorrow.
According to Cala CEO Andrew Wyatt, several major brands have already offloaded much of their logistics load to that platform.
What end-to-end management enables is not just getting the product out more efficiently, but the collection of data end to end, so the entire process can be analyzed in granular detail. In essence, fashion becomes fully gamified, and some people who are simply good at guessing how to satisfy customers based on data are going to drive massive new revenue streams. Many of the larger companies have had access to this sort of thing for a while, at least in parts. They built their own custom tools and it’s how fast fashion gets made, but the revolution here is in how much more accessible it is all becoming to outsiders. Now everyone can burn money trying to have their own fashion brand.
Do these developments herald the ultimate resource or a zombie clone brand apocalypse?
The speed to market is increased, the playing field is a bit more level, but if you can tap to make you can also tap to copy, and so can a basic machine learning algorithm, enabling AI-based automation or competition similar to high-frequency trading. All those recent experiments in appellation authentication systems like Lukso’s blockchain network and the Arianee “Digital Identity Consortium” are going to become much more important very soon.
There is little doubt that simplified on-demand nimble production, data-driven design, and consolidated operations are the future of the fashion business at large, but there are inherent dangers of adopting end-to-end platforms, notably the frightening specters of how much control you give up to the system when you can’t touch anything and how opaque they can make your supply chain.
The divide between the people who feel a need to make things with their hands and the people who really only care about what they can sell has been growing for years. Slow fashion and ethical fast fashion can coexist, but this evolution in automation may change the river between them to an ocean.