The Trade Show
In July of 2012 I received my Master’s of Textiles degree from NC State University. Often I wonder what the heck I actually “mastered” though because I still have so much to learn about the fashion and textiles industry. My trip to New York City and the Texworld trade show was definitely one of those learning experiences. Though not my first time in NYC, it was my first experience at a trade show. I would highly suggest to anyone who is interested in fashion or textiles that they find a way to attend one of these events. It is an eye-opening experience on so many levels.
First of all, it became readily apparent that I had no idea what I was doing… so many booths, so many countries, so many different fabrics, so many colors, it is dizzying simply walking the aisles of the show. There are quite a few companies who have realized how intimidating trade shows are to emerging designers and are offering ‘How To’ guides. One of these is Fashiondex, a company based out of NYC that provides business resources to small designers. Their ‘The Small Design Company's Guide to Wholesale Fabrics and Trims’ includes a chapter on how to shop the fabric market. (For those of you in the Triangle area, I picked one up for the Redress Raleigh library so let us know if you’d like to look at it!)
I also was lucky enough to have connected with Tara St James, who is an amazing designer (Study) and incredibly active in the textiles industry, frequently serving as a mentor / consultant for younger designers - her interns have actually developed, produced, and sold their own collections under the name Study Hall. If you ever have the chance to shadow someone at one of these shows, do it; you will learn way more than you ever would from a book.
Problems within the Textiles Industry
Walking about with Tara, I was able to see how important it is to know what you are looking for and what to ask suppliers. It’s essential to understand how minimum orders are calculated and how that will affect the line you are producing. If you care about the environmental and ethical aspects of your fabric, it’s also necessary to ask more intrusive questions about where fibers are sourced and what kind of certifications the factories have. Any of the vendors should be able to answer these questions. And if they can’t, that’s a warning sign.
As the Strategic Director of an eco-fashion company, I don’t want us to be naive in thinking that eco-friendly fabrics are readily available or that being produced in the US is automatically better. At this particular trade show, only about 6 US-based manufacturers were present. And of those present, many did not even have the type of fabric that Tara was looking for or were unable to answer more direct questions about fiber sources. Some were also just the fiber supplier, meaning that the fabric for the garment is created by a different company.
If the US-based textiles industry is ever going to become a global force again they have to be able to compete, offering a variety of high-quality products. Tara herself, who is a huge responsible-made clothing advocate, mentioned that often Japanese producers currently have more innovative fabrics than the US. And those domestic manufacturers who are more innovative may actually be unable to attend because they tend to be smaller and the costs associated with a show of this magnitude become cost prohibitive.
There’s still an extremely long way to go to create a wave of change within the fashion and textiles industry. More innovation and transparency, in addition to more demand from designers and customers, is needed to move the industry forward. Although it seems that little action is being taken yet, the conversations are definitely happening.
As part of the tradeshow, the event offers multiple seminars on a variety of topics from trend forecasting to domestic manufacturing to marketing to new certifications and technologies. These are incredibly valuable both for learning about the latest developments within the industry as well as networking with others and seeing who is a leader in the field. Below are synopses for the seminars I attended. (PDF of the full schedule can be found here and videos of each seminar here.)
Sourcing in the Americas
The general discussion from panelists was that manufacturing is increasing in the US but not necessarily “moving back”. Recent problems abroad (rising labor costs / safety issues) have increased demand for more compliance and as a result a more equal “value equation” - meaning buyers are beginning to balance quality of product, time for shipping / receiving, employment conditions of workers, etc. with cost instead of only focusing on lowest price.
The National Export Initiative is also something that has helped increase exports out of the US, thereby opening new markets to existing manufacturers. The NEI is a government-wide strategy to promote exports - negotiating new trade agreements, increasing available export financing, and enforcing US trade rights, among other things.
One ongoing issue that surfaced during this discussion was how to find US manufacturers - many people in the room felt that they are somewhat elusive currently. The speakers mentioned resources such as the GIDC (Garment Industry Development Corporation, supporting local apparel manufacturing in New York); the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Textiles and Apparel USA Sourcing Database (though not very comprehensive, it’s a start….the OTEXA site also has tons of statistics about the textile and apparel industry); Maker’s Row (a relatively recently-launched online marketplace that wants to “make the manufacturing process simple to understand and easy to access”); and SEAMS (The National Association for the Sewn Products Industry, which offers a membership and annual networking conference).
The last problem that kept resurfacing is that investors right now have “cautious optimism” about domestic manufacturing in the US. They don’t want to invest without knowing the demand is there. One of the ways WE as customers and designers can encourage domestic manufacturing growth is to keep purchasing Made-in-the-USA when we can and keep advocating for more resources and more options.
The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is an “independent testing and certification system for textile raw materials, intermediate and end products at all stages of production” - meaning products such as finished yarns, raw fabrics, and ready-made articles such as bed linens and textile toys. The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is related to the product, whereas the new STeP certification introduced focuses on the production. Any production facility in the textile chain - from spinning mills to finish facilities - can have their production and working conditions certified.
STeP is a bit different from other certifications in that it is specifically for textiles, is accredited by independent test and research institutes, and offers more transparency to the public. It builds upon existing ISO Standards / Quality Management programs that many manufacturing facilities already have in place. STeP is also a modular assessment system, taking into account that certain segments may be more important than others depending on the type of company. (For example: chemicals and their use in a dyeing facility.) For companies who want to communicate their achievements in sustainability, STeP encourages continuous improvement beyond the initial certification - creating an initial benchmark intended to be increased over time.
There are quite a few certification programs out there currently, but STeP is the result of a collaboration from two leading research and textile firms: the Hohenstein Research Institute and the Austrian Textile Research Institute. As leaders in the field, these two companies developed the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 in the 1990s in response to consumer demand for textiles that are harmless to health. I am curious to see if their clout as forerunners in the drive for sustainability within textiles leads to greater adoption of this standard over others.
Fibers from Formation to Finish
Focusing more on innovative fibers, this particular seminar explained more about how Tencel and Lenzing Modal are made. Each is produced from wood pulp from different types of trees. A life-cycle assessment on Tencel showed it needing 70% less land as compared to cotton, as well as less water and energy use.
These particular fibers also have other benefits in terms of softness and thermodynamic properties - a few designers we’ve showcased as part of Redress have used them as well, such as Casey Crespo and Jamie Powell. A couple of the other panelists also discussed how there is a growing “fitness fashion” trend - people wanting to wear comfortable cutting edge fabrics for everyday activities.
For me, I would love to know more about what is being explored in the fiber realm. I definitely think that in order for sustainability to move forward new technologies and innovations need to happen, and these need to be promoted. I also found it interesting that the speakers thought the activewear market is growing so much; I am intrigued to see whether that continues or not.
Marketing: Strategy and Communication for Emerging Brands
Starting with a discussion about the difference between branding (the story of the company) versus marketing (the process of continuously promoting your brand to an audience), this session covered quite a bit of ground. Overarching themes were 1) knowing who you are; 2) knowing who your audience is; and 3) having a good product.
Bridging the gap between authenticity and telling a story in a way that connects with people, that draws on emotion, is part of knowing who you are - connecting because you were that person or are that person. This also needs to be a consistent identity, which is why it’s important to have an overall strategy that applies the ‘story’ to all channels you are using. This strategy helps you understand you so that you can communicate that to others - it can start as simple as a one-pager that would explain the company if you were not there.
At the same time, it’s important to understand who you are selling to - what channels is that audience looking at? Who are you trying to speak to and are you reaching them with your current communication methods? Last, sometimes it is important to “tame down the story” - the story cannot be the only reason people buy it, it has to be a good product. It’s important to adapt and prove your reason to exist - creating a want where there isn’t a need. It’s also imperative to have your goals in mind - whether you want to be “rich” versus “famous” - for example, the person who sells underwear to Wal-mart, or a well-known designer like Isaac Mizrahi.
This trip to NYC was an overwhelming experience - physically and mentally - but I am so glad that I took the time to go. I think that travelling is essential to expanding your knowledge of the world and connecting with people from different perspectives is enlightening. It was fascinating to learn how many different aspects of the textile and fashion industry I still have to learn about. The trip also inspired me to keep moving forward with Redress Raleigh - we have so much more we want to share with you all!