Evolution of the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry is unique from other fields of manufacturing in that it is ruled largely by the same intention as its end product: change.

Parts of the Whole

What defines the fashion industry is largely based on the functions of the individuals who comprise it-designers, stores, factory workers, seamstresses, tailors, technically skilled embroiderers, the press, publicists, salespersons (or “garmentos”), fit models, runway models, couture models, textile manufacturers, pattern makers, and sketch artists. In simplest terms, the fashion industry could be described as the business of making clothes, but that would omit the important distinction between fashion and apparel. Apparel is functional clothing, one of humanity’s basic needs, but fashion incorporates its own prejudices of style, individual taste, and cultural evolution.

Anticipating the Wants of the Consumer

The notion of fashion as solely fulfilling a need is past, as the modern apparel industry finds its purpose in the conception, production, promotion, and marketing of style on the basis of desire. It reflects the changing wants of consumers to be defined by their attire, or more commonly to be accepted, which has precipitated change throughout fashion history-from iconic silhouettes referred to in the patronizing language of the early twentieth century, the Gibson Girls and Floradora Girls, to the enlightened New Look (a term coined by Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, in 1947) and evolving right on through an ever-changing lexicon of haberdashery. Changing styles always necessitate change through industry, notably in the ever-specialized fields of manufacturing and merchandising, as well as through the promotion of designs and designers, expanding their scope into what are known in the early 2000s as “lifestyle brands,” encompassing more than just fashion-incorporating the vernacular of fragrance, accessories, home furnishings, automobiles, jewelry, and writing instruments as well.

Constant Adaptation

Even limited to the business of making clothes, its components have continually adapted to the changes of fashion and prevailing consumer demands, whether for casual clothes or formal suits, American sportswear, or celebrity-endorsed street wear. Over the decades, crinoline makers have become bra manufacturers, suit makers have adapted to the rise of separates, and textile mills have discovered the comfort of stretch. Meanwhile, new advancements in fabric development, manufacturing, and information management have become as important commodities as cotton and wool in the ever more complicated and competitive field. Throughout it all, the industry has developed classifications of pricing and style to facilitate its basic functions of designing and selling clothes along the traditional dividing line of wholesale and retail, one that has become much less distinct in recent years.

Infrastructure

Following the traditional view of fashion’s infrastructure, as referenced in the textbook The Dynamics of Fashion, there are four levels of the fashion industry: the primary level of textile production, including mills and yarn makers; the secondary level of designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and vendors; the retail level, which includes all types of stores and distribution points of sale; and also a fourth level-the auxiliary level-which connects each of the other levels via the press, advertising, research agencies, consultants, and fashion forecasters who play a part in the merchandise’s progression to the end consumer. While the relationship between the levels is more or less symbiotic-they need one another to survive-historically, the competitive spirit of capitalism has also created a tension between retailer and manufacturer, where the balance of power is usually tipped to one side in the race to capture profits and margins. The degree to which each side benefits financially from the sale of apparel has changed gradually over the decades, subject to many factors from social advancements to economic swings to cults of designer personalities to wars-both between countries and conglomerates. Over the century, the retailer, in many cases, has taken on the role of the manufacturer, and manufacturers have become retailers of their own designs.

Mass Production

Mass production clothing

The mass production of clothing began roughly in the mid-nineteenth century, when some manufacturers began to produce garments that did not require fitting, but fashion did not become an established industry in the institution sense of the word until the twentieth century, when networks of neighborhood tailors casually evolved into manufacturing businesses, factories grew from necessity during the world wars, and the ensuing social and cultural changes signified the dawn of less restrictive and unilateral codes of dress. Changes in the business of fashion, and the establishment of designers as arbiters of taste, began to take shape in the early part of the century, although largely led by European houses. As the French designer Paul Poiret said during a presentation at the Horace Mann School in 1913, “Elegance and fashion have been the pastime of our ancestors, but now they take on the importance of a science” (quoted in Women’s Wear Daily in its ninetieth anniversary issue, 16 July 2001).

Working Conditions

Just as French couture houses were beginning to gain an international reputation in the late nineteenth century, following the styles introduced by Charles Worth, Jeanne Lanvin, Paquin, and Poiret, the fast rise of garment factories, meanwhile, was largely an American phenomenon. It was most visible as an industry in New York City, where more than 18,000 workers were employed in the manufacture of blouses by 1900 at the time of the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), a precursor to the modern-day apparel union UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), formed in 1995 with the merger of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The rapid shift of custom-made to ready-made clothes during the industrial revolution was stimulated by the growth of the middle class and a large increase in foreign labor, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who brought their tailoring skills from Europe and first organized themselves in tenements on the Lower East Side. However, the immigrant connection and overcrowded conditions generally associated with the industry led to zoning restrictions that quickly pushed production from apartment buildings into lofts and away from increasingly sophisticated showrooms. For twenty years, manufacturers continued to migrate north and west, often driven by law, such as when the Save New York Committee campaigned to move apparel factories out of the neighborhood known as Madison Square-where Broadway and East 23rd Street converge-because of fears that the factories would be a detriment to the atmosphere of nearby Fifth Avenue, known as the Ladies’ Mile.

Working conditions declined as manufacturers took advantage of the increasing pools of immigrants, influencing the rise of sweatshop labor as well as the move to unionize workers. The industry grew exponentially-by 1915, apparel was the third largest in America, after steel and oil. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 workers were killed, had finally led to the regulation and scrutiny of garment industry working conditions.

New York Garment District

The industry moved again beginning in 1920, when two sites along Seventh Avenue between 36th and 38th Streets were developed by the Garment Center Realty Co., an association of thirty-eight of the largest women’s clothing makers, sparking the first influx of apparel businesses in a neighborhood that has become the early twenty-first-century home to New York’s garment district. Yet change is still occurring, as most production has moved offshore to factories in cheaper locales and many designers have moved their offices to more “refined” neighborhoods away from the bustle of rolling racks and button shops.

In the 1930s, though, as the unified center for garment production, and the most highly concentrated apparel manufacturing capital in the world by this point, Seventh Avenue from 30th to 42nds Streets began to reflect the need for categorization within fashion. Although the industry can broadly be divided into two primary functions-wholesale and retail-the growing prevalence of department stores necessitated further distinctions. Certain buildings, in a tradition that continues in the early 2000s, house bridal firms, and others specialize in furriers, dress vendors, or coat companies, and within those categories grew distinctions of price or targeted demographic. The modern industry divides its pricing into four general categories of moderate, better, bridge, or designer apparel, from the least to most expensive, and within those categories are even more specialized distinctions, such as the relatively new silver and gold ranges (for prices that are too high to be considered bridge or too low to be called designer). There are also categories geared toward types of customers, such as juniors (a more generic classification for sportswear in the 1960s that is used to define teen-oriented labels), contemporary (geared toward young women and relating commonly to smaller sizes), and urban (reflecting the growing market for street wear).

Evolving Industry

Calvin Klein Jeans Store

For much of the twentieth century, the industry continued its evolution along familial lines, as the descendants of poor immigrants who had once operated those small factories along Orchard and Mulberry Streets on the Lower East Side began to establish serious businesses on Seventh Avenue, along with impressive fortunes behind companies with names that were for the large part inventions. Apart from the few pioneers of the first half of the century-Adrian, Bonnie Cashin, and Claire McCardell among them-the personalities behind the American fashion industry operated largely in anonymity compared with their counterparts in Paris, where Coco Chanel, Alix Grès, and Madeleine Vionnet had already become celebrities of international acclaim. Until World War II, it was common for American manufacturers to travel to the seasonal Paris shows, where they would pay a fee known as a caution to view the collections, usually with a minimum purchase of a few styles. They were legally permitted to copy these styles in the United States, where department stores began a tradition of lavishly presenting their copied collections with their own runway shows.

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, a growing number of entrepreneurial designers-many striking out in the business following their service in the war-began to make their way out of the backrooms to feature their own names on their labels, a development facilitated in part by the curiosity of the press and also by the ambitions of manufacturers to capitalize on designer personalities. Licensing a designer name into other categories became a common practice, and by the 1980s, propelled by an economic boom, designers had become celebrities-led by such ambitious and charismatic personalities as Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and Halston. Meanwhile, the advent of the modern designer business stood in stark contrast to the overall industry, which remained largely characterized by independent companies, with as many as 5,000 businesses then making women’s dresses, helmed by a prosperous but aging second generation. Since the 1980s, the apparel industry has come to be defined by consolidation, globalization, and the economics of publicly traded companies, where the biggest news stories have been the rush of many designers to Wall Street and the retail industry’s continual merging into only a handful of remaining department store companies-giants encompassing the majority of retail nameplates.

A Global Pursuit

Change continues to come. The fashion industry of the early 2000s is global, with luxury conglomerates taking stakes in American businesses and production constantly moving to countries that offer the most inexpensive labor. Garments are conceived, illustrated, and laser-cut by computers, and replenished automatically by a store’s data system alerts. Designers compete directly with their biggest customers by opening flagships around the world, and stores compete with designers by sourcing and producing their own private label collections, often based on the prevailing runway looks. Magazine editors and stylists have gone on to become designers, while Hollywood actors and pop stars have gone from wearing designer clothes to creating them. At the outset of the twenty-first century, what defines the fashion industry has little to do with the artisan’s craft of a century ago, but would be better described as the pursuit of profitable styles by multinational conglomerates with competitive technology and the most efficient delivery of timely merchandise.

Changing With the Times

But change in fashion-or the fashion industry-is nothing new. It seems fitting to refer to the opening line on page 1 of the first issue of Women’s Wear Daily, which was founded as Women’s Wear in June 1910, in response to the rise of the women’s apparel industry: “There is probably no other line of human endeavor in which there is so much change as in the product that womankind wears.”

The harsh truth about the fashion industry, is it right for you?

A lot of people come to me for my coaching services + are looking for help in realising their fashion ‘dream’. This usually involves designing clothes they love, promoting them with glossy photos on Instagram + becoming fashion world famous, which to a lot of people involves lots of shopping, front row seats at fashion week + parties. I hate to burst people’s bubble, but at the same time I’m a realist + people come to me for my insight, so in the best interests of the client, I often have a bit of a reality check with them. In this post, I’m going to explore some of the common misconceptions of the fashion industry, some of the lesser know + ‘unglamorous’ sides of the business + also help you try + figure out if it’s for you. Each role in the industry comes with different pro’s + con’s + I’ll cover each of these in a future post. For now, let’s look at the industry as a whole;

Misconception number 1; Fashion professionals go to lots of fashion shows

Let’s think about this one logically. If you have a fashion brand, would you invite your competitors to your show, so they can see what you’re doing? Of course not! As a fashion designer or business owner, it’s very unlikely you’ll be going to any fashion shows. They’re invite only + places are limited, so brands only ask the media, buyers + essentially anyone who is likely to put money in their pocket, or direct others with money to them. Fashion shows, sadly, aren’t a spectator sport. In recent years there has been a rise in ticketed fashion shows, these are fun to go to if you fancy it, but are by no means an industry event. In my 13 year career in the fashion industry, I’ve worked over 50 fashion shows, but have attended only 2 as a guest. Both of which were a kind twist of fate; the first was a chance meeting of a member of the Alex Perry team in Australia, the second with Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey, who visited the same University I attended (he’s from the area originally). Aside from those 2 experiences, my view of fashion shows has been the stressful backstage area, doing damage control which has included sewing garments onto models, gluing them into shoes + many, many staples.

 

Misconception 2; When I’ve ‘made it’ I can design whatever I want

That would be nice, but sadly no. Sure, you could start designing whatever you’d like, if you wanted to, but the chances are that this wouldn’t be good for business. For example, let’s look at a large retailer I worked for. In the design team, we loved coming up with exciting new concepts and trying new things. We always made an effort to show some new + exciting styles in the collection. The press generally loved them, but the customer response was often lukewarm. Our bestsellers were the basics, classic styles that we had made for years. This is often the case – people have limited funds + often choose the practical items over the extravagant ‘will be worn once’ items. Not very exciting for the designer, but we have to work towards a profitable range.  You may have also read in Wednesdays post about things that we have to consider as designers. These considerations of commercial viability, how the garment will be made + sold will always have to be followed if we want to have a profitable business.

Misconception 3; When I’m the boss, I can just do the fun stuff

Erm, no. While I’ll admit I am somewhat of a control freak + take on more tasks than I should, there’s a lot of boring, but important decisions to be made + I don’t want someone else having that much control over my company. If you own a fashion brand you’ll have a lot of seemingly dull tasks to do that you’d probably love to hand over to someone else, but you need to think about what’s best for your business + also how you’d feel if someone else made the wrong decision. For example, quality control. This can be very tedious, but do you really want to give someone else the final say on what quality is acceptable for your brand? Another example is cost prices, a lot of people hate the thought of numbers + an excel spreadsheet, but do you really feel comfortable in paying bills for things you’re not involved with? For one, there might be a cost saving opportunity that an employee (who doesn’t have to pay the bill!) hasn’t explored, or worse, a dishonest employee could be giving business to someone they know, rather than the person best for the job. If you can only commit to one boring job, it has to be finances. I’ve literally seen companies with large sales go into bankruptcy  because the owner didn’t have a handle on the expenses.

Misconception 4; I won’t work any overtime

You must be dreaming! If you’ve worked in the industry before + know how much unpaid overtime is required, you may start your own company vowing not to do that to yourself. When I started this business, I myself had the same hope, that my own business would mean achieving that elusive work-life balance. No chance. When you have your own business, sure you can take time off when you need it, but at the same time you’re never really off work. It’s not an option to put an out of office on, without it having a detrimental effect on your business. The same goes for in industry, a friend of mine is at the very top of the chain, she’s the Director of Womenswear + she gets calls, emails + video conferences at weekends + holidays. What I will say is that, working for yourself, there is the hope that it’s all worth it in the end, as it’ll be you who is benefitting from your hard work, rather than the shareholders or your boss (fingers crossed!).

 

Misconception 5; I’ll host lots of glamorous parties

You could, but do you really want to pay for them? Not to mention have the stress of organising them, knowing who to invite without ruffling anyone’s feathers + making sure the event is a success? It might be the right decision to host a party for your business, maybe a launch party to show press the new range, or a shopping night for your best customers. The thing to remember is this is unlikely to be a fun evening for you. There’ll be an agenda + a reason that you’re spending money on this party for your business. You’ll need to stay focused, even if you’ve hired people to run the party in terms of food, decor, etc. It won’t be an opportunity to relax + have drinks, you have to be on form, making a  good impression + subtly encouraging people to do whatever it is your goal is for the night, be it sales, features in the press, or an increased brand awareness. If you’re looking for a fun crazy party, I’d recommend calling your friends, rather than colleagues. Sorry to be a buzz-kill, but I warned you I’m a realist!

Is the fashion industry really for you?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the fashion industry. I don’t for a second regret giving up a law career + there’s nothing else I’d rather do. But there are days I want to tear my hair out, other’s when there’s no chance to sleep (my current record is 38 working hours without sleep) + weeks where I’ve worked over 130 hours (I didn’t realise there was that many hours in a week, either). I suppose I felt obligated to write this post to let you know that, behind all of the styled photos, mood boards, international travel + creativity there’s a lot of hard work + always will be. It’s not for the faint hearted + there will be times that you have to choose work over friends + family. A few things to ask yourself; ‘do I love the idea of having a fashion career so much that…..’

  • I’m willing to stay up all night
  • I’m ok with checking emails on holiday
  • I will cancel plans with friends + family to work
  • I’ll accept that there’s always more work to be done
  • I’m ok with getting negative feedback from people

If you don’t agree with some of the above, it might not be the best industry for you to work in. If this is the case, it does’t mean you have to give up fashion all together. You could have a fashion business as a side income, so there’s no pressure to make a living from it. Or you could keep it as a hobby, which might not be what you want to hear, but if you value your free time, this might be for the best.

I apologise if I’ve scared you a bit with this post, but I feel that it’s best to be prepared, so a few years down the road you’re not wondering what you’ve let yourself in for! If it’s had the opposite effect + you can’t wait to get started in the fashion industry, but not sure what step to take next, I might have just what you need. My Fashion Startup online course walks you through the process of going from fashion idea through to garment production, step by step. Cosmo also posted about the truth of fashion so don’t be scared that much.

How to Effectively Spoil Her

Gift-giving can sometimes be a difficult task. Not only is it a polite, thoughtful thing to do on special occasions, but some might even go as far as to say it’s expected. Birthdays, promotions, anniversaries, Christmas… and what about giving gifts outside of holidays? Those gifts you buy for no other purpose than to show someone you appreciate them? That’s a lot of shopping in the span of a single year. The longer you know someone, the better you know them – yet with time, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay original.

It’s one thing to shop for someone you may not know all that well; it’s another thing entirely when you’re shopping for your woman. Fortunately, in that case, you should already have a solid place to start from. Not to mention that shopping for women is generally easier, unless you find the mind-boggling amount of choice overwhelming. It’s all right. We’ve all been there.

So, what will it be? Books, perfumes, coupons for a day at the spa? Perhaps simply taking her shopping and giving her free reign? If you’d rather it be a surprise, then you had better start thinking. The first thing to consider is: what does she like? What would be such a great gift that she wouldn’t even think about taking you up on the offer to return it in exchange for something better? Well, that depends on her. However, if she happens to be the sort of lady who likes her accessories, then you are in luck.

Jewelry and accessories are nothing if not a constantly expanding source of gifts. The sheer variety is sure to come in handy over the years. Besides, the pieces she gets for special occasions can also become the pieces she wears on special occasions. Just think about what you have already seen her wear, or which pieces she paused to take a look at in passing. Does she prefer earrings because bracelets get in the way of her day-to-day activities? Perhaps she really likes a good necklace, or a brooch. Rings are also an option – make no mistake, they are far more than the connotations usually tied to them.

Now, what may be a little daunting is the affordability. If you can afford branded jewelry made of exceptionally expensive materials, then by all means, go for it. After all, the main goal is to make her happy, to see her smile. Luckily, you don’t need to splurge to achieve that. What’s more important is that she likes it and appreciates it as the sign of affection that it is. The variety mentioned earlier is what will make this much more painless.

The internet has made it easier for designers and jewelers to put themselves out there. With its recent growth in popularity, handmade jewelry has become quite easy to come by these days, while still retaining its authenticity and quality. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for something discrete and delicate, something bold and unique, or something simple and classic – the right piece is out there. If you strike gold, you’ll create a memory for your lady, and a daily reminder of your love.