On Creating Right-Brained Fashion
Many fashion brands and retailers are losing money these days. Department stores are closing and many clothing lines—from fast fashion, to bridge, to high-end designs—have experienced a year of losses. These brands were offered hope about a month ago at a costing seminar that was convened in Manhattan. I attended this future-thinking-type of seminar where costing factors were explained as a solution for the current fashion-retail woes. The message was: if you're not sharply costing, you're leaving money on the table. Of course, I don't disagree with that—not at all; however, the seminar encouraged apparel executives from dozens of major brands and fashion retailers to look more critically at the standard allowed minutes (also known as SAMs or SVMs, short for standard value minutes) on their cost sheets. I have heard these terms countless times in my career, but lately, and perhaps disconcertingly, these quantitative terms have become principle drivers of style change itself.
Less stitching detail means less SAMs. Less SAMs equals less cost. 3.5 SAMs for a shirt translates to three and one-half minutes to complete the sewing of one shirt. Each serged side seam, attached neck band, and double-needle hem stitched is 0.5 SAMs (or 30 seconds each). A factory measures and calculates SAMs to determine their production capacity per day, per week, and per month. And brands analyze SAMs to cost and price their styles.
Sitting in this seminar, my mind wondered away from SAMs to cost sheets in general, then to income statements, then to top line, bottom line, mark-up formulas, assortment plans, time and action charts, analytics, tech packs, PLM, efficiency, and lead times. Over and over in my mind I saw today's fashion practices, terminology, charts, graphs, sheets, and line plans. Wow, I thought to myself, "What kind of fashion people have we become?" We are an industry concentrating on SAMs, line efficiency, duty rates, data, and procedures. Yet, we are the fashion industry. Shouldn't we be focusing on creativity, mood, inspiration and flair? Shouldn't we be pondering over beautiful details and gorgeous shapes as opposed to how can we simplify a style just to sew it in as little time as possible? I think to the practice of haute couture, where it takes hours, days…even weeks of hand-stitching to complete one dress... those rarified places in Paris, Italy, and London where art is created. Of course, mass market is stitch of a different thread, so to speak, but I wondered, could the mass-market manufacturers in this seminar learn something by looking more closely at couture design and its celebration of fashion, instead of more precisely calculating SAMs?
And eventually it came to me—the realization that truly nothing of value and longevity can be produced in 3.5 minutes. Nothing of beauty and resiliency can be produced by concentrating on data. I realized the reason many retailers, malls, and manufacturers are floundering is not because they aren't producing and shipping clothing styles fast enough, but because as an industry, we are running our businesses with numbers—with the left sides of our brains. We are the fashion industry. Shouldn't we be running our companies with the right sides of our brains?
If you Google "Right Side Left Side Brain" a slew of results will come up. In a 2016 article on verywell.com, Kendra Sherry writes, "a person who is "right-brained" is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. Thus, if a "right-brained" individual is more intuitive and inherently more creative, doesn't it follow that a "right-brained" company would be more intuitive, thoughtful, and perceptive, too? And wouldn't a "right-brained" company, in being more subjective, be more in tune with their audience's wants, need and moods? And therefore more successful?
Charts that compare the functions of the left and right sides of the brain further explain each side’s dominance. While the left side of the brain is preoccupied with reasoning, data-aggregation and analysis, planning, analytics and linear thinking, the right side of the brain, by contrast, is better equipped to process art, imagination, feelings, intuition, perception, creativity, and holistic thoughts.
Taking all of this into account, I wonder, are we doing ourselves and our customers a disservice by running our companies so strategically? Indeed, with all of our talk about improving current business models, sharpening costs, and focusing on sewing minutes, we've allowed the left side of our companies too much control. In the quest to become more competitive and obtain more supply-chain control, we’ve left fashion design in the hands of left-minded thinkers. Today, numbers, costs, and data are driving garment design, rather than creativity and imagination. Didn't we enter the fashion industry to be creative? We should be spreading dreams and creating beautiful garments, not number-crunching. Perhaps this is why so many fashion businesses have been experiencing bottom-line losses these last few years.
Maybe this numerical, analytical, planned, and digitized thinking is why many fashion companies are failing. I also believe that exact type of thinking is why our businesses have had such a large negative impact environmentally and socially. If we were thinking holistically—with intuitiveness, feeling, and imagery—would we still have created a global fashion industry built on economies of scale and speed? Would the right sides of our brains allow us to pollute soil and water, exploit workers, and create products that more-often-than-not sell only when discounted?
The answer for me is a resounding no. The right sides of our brains have empathy. And the right sides of our brain consider values—not in terms of the bottom line, costing and price, but of human worth, community value and concern for all.
If we shift our businesses and allow the right sides of our brains to stand up and take charge, we might see that there are methods to produce clothing less focused on calculation, measuring SAMs, and data analysis and more centered on creativity, visualization, and integrated with compassion, not facts.
Sustainably-run companies recognize the interconnectedness of their business practices and processes with the people and the planet. They are systems thinkers, world viewers and right-brained. It takes visualization, emotion, and non-linear thinking to change a company’s ways and develop a business model with Earth, people, creativity, and art at its core. It might not look right on paper as we can't measure human worth like we can a cost sheet, but as an industry we must consider our customers' feelings. They care about our planet and are concerned with the future. They have no interest in our SAMs. Perhaps we should forego planning how fast a factory can produce for us—for that's a left-brained way of thinking—and instead visualize how we can creatively design and bring a fashionable product to market. Using the right sides of our brains and reinventing the art of fashion is the right thing to do... for the planet, for our companies, for our customers, and, in the end, for our bottom lines.