The Next Generation Must be SMART

Thinking about what knowledge and skills the next generation of designers, manufacturers, marketers and retailers will need for the future is more than a little challenging. It will be all-encompassing: a process of accepting responsibility for everything they do as well as taking untested risks. Let’s look at how these future fashion leaders need to prepare.

In a word, they must be SMART.

S = Sustainability

Once thought to be just another trend, sustainability is number one on all fashion leaders’ list. Modern consumers demand sustainability. But the word sustainability can be confusing due to its many parts. The University of Fashion defined it most succinctly as “ethical business practices, fair trade, supply chain transparency, minimal impact policies, give-back programs, upcycling, recycling, downcycling, circularity and … sustainable materials that make up an ethical collection.”

Whew! There’s a lot to think about and be ready to take on. Let’s briefly look at each part.

Ethical business practices pertain to social issues such as low wages, health and safety of working conditions, child labor and animal cruelty, among other issues.

Fair trade deals with some of these same social issues by creating arrangements with producers in growing countries to achieve fair prices.

Supply chain transparency deals with the lines of communication between all the players in the supply chain. Companies need to communicate not only their role in the chain but also receive information from the other companies operating in that chain.

Minimal impact policies are aligned with environmental concerns. The strategy is to create minimum harm to the environment through the operation of the business. This includes “greenwashing,” which is disseminating misleading environmental claims by fashion brands thereby leading the consumer to believe that the company’s products are environmentally friendly. This misleading practice is currently under intense scrutiny.

Give-back programs, like that of Eileen Fisher, allow customers to return clothing at the end of the use cycle and receive credit to be used on future purchases.

Upcycling, recycling and downcycling have similar purposes. They involve taking what has once been and making it new again. This year, California Apparel News reported the demand for dead stock (products that didn’t sell) has gone up 117% this year.

Circularity’s motto is “waste not, want not.” It is a simple concept whereby once the product has reached its end-of-life, it goes back into the supply chain rather than a landfill.

Sustainable materials are the first choice in the creation of any product. The textile world has come a long way in creating fabrics such as Econyl, which is regenerated nylon collected from landfills and oceans and a focus on zero fabric waste where scrap fabrics are used to create new designs.

M = Management of All Things

While this acronym really encompasses all of SMART, in essence it has to do with the responsibility for everything a company does. Only recently have companies been called on to track sustainable materials from their origin to the final product. This is a huge responsibility that includes supply chain transparency as well as the trust of trading partners in sharing data to create a frictionless process from origin to store.

A = Artistic Creativity

We’ve seen the wildly creative fashion designs that grace the runways of fashion schools. The missing element in these designs is marketability. Only haute couture (which, by the way, only represents less than 1% of the population) can get away with this type of design. These designs may be the definition of fashion, but not the definition of apparel. While not as glamorous as fashion, keeping up with current trends substantially affects the bottom line. Companies are constantly balancing the cost of production and net profit margin. Fashion students need to be taught to create designs that will sell.

R = Realistic at Retail

There’s a lot of consumer news these days about minimalism, capsule wardrobes and owning less. The main idea behind the “less is more” mentality is that it allows more time to enjoy life, more money saved and more happiness. This sentiment was expressed two years ago by the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of American) and the BFC (British Fashion Council) in an article that urged “brands, designers and retailers, who are used to fashion’s fast, unforgiving pace, to slow down.” These two eminent organizations and many designers agreed that clothes should hit the stores closer to need. This practice would prevent excess inventory and lost profit margin due to sales and markdowns.

McKinsey & Company went a step further calling for “in-season retail [and] seasonless design” in a recent report. The report suggested a buy-now-wear-now mentality and designs that would transcend seasons with styles occasionally added to coordinate with previous collections.

T = Technology

It’s not as simple as CAD (computer-aided design) or CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) anymore. The IoT encompasses it all. Artificial and augmented reality’s integration into fashion creation is just the beginning. The metaverse has created a new set of opportunities to expand fashion businesses — and the beauty of it is that designing for the metaverse doesn’t require the use of fabrics, doesn’t create tangible waste and production costs are next to zero. All it takes is the technology to be virtually creative without the constraints of sustainability. It’s the next frontier!

Demands on the youth pursuing fashion careers are immense. The success of designers and brands will depend on these new minds that can embrace change without resistance and may already have some of the necessary skills to meet the fashion market needs tomorrow.