The Fashion Industry consists of companies that design and sell clothing, footwear and accessories. Product categories include everything from basics, such as underwear, to luxury items, for example, cashmere sweaters and alligator-skin handbags. Traditionally, Apparel companies are wholesalers, selling large quantities of goods to retailers, which mark up items and sell them to consumers for a profit. However, it’s become more difficult to draw a line between wholesalers and retailers; most Apparel companies now have both types of operations.
The Apparel Industry is fragmented and highly competitive. There are several major players, but there are also countless niche stores and private companies that cater to specific demographics. Too, general merchandisers and foreign companies bring more competition to the sector. Consequently, Apparel companies need to be nimble and highly efficient to survive in this cutthroat industry. Having the right product is also essential. Fashion trends change frequently, and companies need to adapt to varying consumer tastes quickly.
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The most important thing to realize about the fashion industry is that it changes constantly. Trends and styles come and go with the seasons, so it is necessary for those working in the industry to be adaptable and ready adjust to the latest market demand. Although fashion can be hard to break into, the opportunities are plentiful once you have your foot in the door. Becoming a designer is not the only option; you can make your career in: Marketing, Merchandising, Retail, Buying, Finance, Planning, etc. The one thing these careers all have in common, apart from being based in the fashion industry, is that they require an education. Quite often it is not raw talent, but a detailed understanding of the industry that gets you the job.
If it's design that you're interested in there are a few things to consider. Most fashion experts say that you need both technical training and formal art training to compliment the personal qualities that a designer must also have: integrity, leadership skills, aesthetic and practical ideas, dedication, and ingenuity to name a few. A designer must also have the ability to predict and understand what consumers want even if that differs from what he or she thinks is fashionable. The creativity required to become a designer makes it the most difficult job to land within the industry. However, hard work, a solid background, and determination can get you there. According to most fashion designers, the glories of the career make up for all the difficulties endured obtaining it.
On the other hand, if you are looking into marketing, merchandising, or any of the other, more administrative careers, you have some different things to think about. Marketing requires decisions about what styles, designs, and articles of clothing should be targeted at what audience (Men or women? Old or young?). You connect the designer to his or her public, get the public interested in the clothing, and convince the public that what you are promoting is indeed that latest trend. A merchandiser has a similar job, but instead of working to gain the interest of the public, a merchandiser is purchasing the designer's clothing line and presenting it in stores. On top of that, the merchandiser is often responsible for creating the "mood" of a store or runway by utilizing different display and lighting techniques.
As you can see by these short descriptions, there are many opportunities within the fashion industry, and many potential careers might not be ones you have considered in the past, such as: trim buyer, pattern maker, sample maker, quality control expert, fashion consultant, personal shopper, etc. Each of these careers, however, require the knowledge and expertise that can only be provided by studying at an accredited school or earning a degree through an accredited program.
Although clothing is a basic need, people have wide discretion as to when they update their wardrobes and how much they spend. When times are good, apparel sales are usually brisk, but during periods of economic uncertainty and contraction, clothing is an area where people can easily trim outlays.
Historically, very few fashion designers have become famous “name” designers, such as Coco Chanel or Calvin Klein, who create prestigious high-fashion collections, whether couture or prêt-á-porter (“ready-to-wear”). These designers are influential in setting trends in fashion, but, contrary to popular belief, they do not dictate new styles; rather, they endeavour to design clothes that will meet consumer demand. The vast majority of designers work in anonymity for manufacturers, as part of design teams, adapting trendsetting styles into marketable garments for average consumers.
Designers draw inspiration from a wide range of sources, including film and television costumes, street styles, and active sportswear. For most designers, traditional design methods, such as doing sketches on paper and draping fabric on mannequins, have been supplemented or replaced by computer-assisted design techniques. These allow designers to rapidly make changes to a proposed design’s silhouette, fabric, trimmings, and other elements and afford them the ability to instantaneously share the proposed changes with colleagues—whether in the next room or on another continent.
Most people in the world today wear what can be described as “world fashion,” a simplified and very low-cost version of Western clothing, often a T-shirt with pants or a skirt, manufactured on a mass scale. However, there are also numerous smaller and specialized fashion industries in various parts of the world that cater to specific national, regional, ethnic, or religious markets. Examples include the design, production, and marketing of saris in India and of boubous in Senegal. These industries operate in parallel with the global fashion industry on a minor and localized scale.
One significant development in the field of ethno-religious dress was widespread adoption of the hijab (religiously appropriate attire) among Muslim women not only in the Middle East but throughout the Islamic world in the early 21st century. With millions of Muslim women living in numerous countries worldwide, veiling norms and styles are myriad. For some, veiling can mean a withdrawal from the vicissitudes of fashion altogether. Other women, including those for whom modest garments are obligatory in public, may wear fashionable European styles underneath their more conservative street attire. Still others have sought looks that are themselves both chic and modest. At the beginning of the 21st century the international market for modest fashions was growing.
Muslim and non-Muslim designers produced a widening selection of appropriate and stylish looks, and numerous fashion blogs and magazines targeting Muslim women became available. Some designers and manufacturers confronted not only the aesthetics of modest attire but also the practical challenges associated with conservative dress, as seen in efforts to produce modest yet effective swimwear and sportswear for Muslim female athletes.
The Fashion System
The fashion industry forms part of a larger social and cultural phenomenon known as the “fashion system,” a concept that embraces not only the business of fashion but also the art and craft of fashion, and not only production but also consumption. The fashion designer is an important factor, but so also is the individual consumer who chooses, buys, and wears clothes, as well as the language and imagery that contribute to how consumers think about fashion. The fashion system involves all the factors that are involved in the entire process of fashion change. Some factors are intrinsic to fashion, which involves variation for the sake of novelty (e.g., when hemlines have been low for a while, they will rise). Other factors are external (e.g., major historical events such as wars, revolutions, economic booms or busts, and the feminist movement). Individual trendsetters (e.g., Madonna and Diana, princess of Wales) also play a role, as do changes in lifestyle (e.g., new sports such as skateboarding) and music (e.g., rock and roll, hip-hop). Fashion is a complex social phenomenon, involving sometimes conflicting motives, such as creating an individual identity and being part of a group, emulating fashion leaders and rebelling against conformity. The fashion industry thrives by being diverse and flexible enough to gratify any consumer’s desire to embrace or even to reject fashionability, however that term might be defined.
Apparel companies design and produce/source items that they sell to retailers, including department stores, specialty shops and discounters. Often, a company owns licenses to manufacture goods under particular brand names and will market and advertise these lines. One license can cover many products. In some instances, an Apparel company may only have the rights to produce specific items under a brand, such as ties and shirts, but not pants or sleepwear. Production is often outsourced to developing countries, where labor costs are inexpensive, relative to those of the United States and Europe. The wholesale market is seasonal. Retailers stock up on merchandise before shoppers hit the stores during the peak back-to-school and holiday periods.
Brand names, those familiar offerings with a good reputation for quality, style or value, are popular among shoppers. A clothing company possessing a broad line-up of well-known brands has a competitive advantage over its peers. This is not always the case, however. In tough economic times, consumers might turn to similar private-label goods to save money. Private-label goods are found in department stores and discount chains. Though they are less expensive than branded items, such goods are often more profitable for the seller. Brand-name items and private-label goods compete against each other for shelf space throughout the business cycle.
Only a minuscule number of designers and manufacturers produce innovative high-fashion apparel. An even smaller number (mostly in Paris) produce haute couture. Most manufacturers produce moderate-priced or budget apparel. Some companies use their own production facilities for some or all of the manufacturing process, but most rely on separately owned manufacturing firms or contractors to produce garments to the fashion company’s specifications. In the field of women’s apparel, manufacturers typically produce several product lines (collections) a year, which they deliver to retailers at predetermined times of the year. Some “fast fashion” manufacturers produce new merchandise even more frequently. An entire product development team is involved in planning a line and developing the designs. The materials (fabric, linings, buttons, etc.) need to be sourced and ordered, and samples need to be made for presentation to retail buyers.
An important stage in garment production is the translation of the clothing design into a pattern in a range of sizes. Because the proportions of the human body change with increases or decreases in weight, patterns cannot simply be scaled up or down uniformly from a basic template. Pattern making was traditionally a highly skilled profession. In the early 21st century, despite innovations in computer programming, designs in larger sizes are difficult to adjust for every figure. Whatever the size, the pattern—whether drawn on paper or programmed as a set of computer instructions—determines how fabric is cut into the pieces that will be joined to make a garment. For all but the most expensive clothing, fabric cutting is accomplished by computer-guided knives or high-intensity lasers that can cut many layers of fabric at once.
The next stage of production involves the assembly of the garment. Here too, technological innovation, including the development of computer-guided machinery, resulted in the automation of some stages of garment assembly. Nevertheless, the fundamental process of sewing remains labour-intensive. This puts inexorable pressure on clothing manufacturers to seek out low-wage environments for the location of their factories, where issues of industrial safety and the exploitation of workers often arise. The fashion industry in New York City was dominated by sweatshops located on the Lower East Side until the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 led to greater unionization and regulation of the industry in the United States. In the late 20th century China emerged as the world’s largest producer of clothing because of its low labour costs and highly disciplined workforce.
Assembled garments go through various processes collectively known as “finishing.” These include the addition of decorative elements (embroidery, beading); buttons and buttonholes, hooks and eyes, snaps, zippers, and other fasteners; hems and cuffs; and brand-name labels and other labels (often legally required) specifying fibre content, laundry instructions, and country of manufacture. Finished garments are then pressed and packed for shipment.
For much of the period following World War II, trade in textiles and garments was strictly regulated by importing countries, which imposed quotas and tariffs. These protectionist measures, which were intended (ultimately without success) to prevent textile and clothing production from moving from high-wage to low-wage countries, were gradually abandoned beginning in the 1980s. They were replaced by a free-trade approach, under the regulatory aegis of the World Trade Organization and other international regulatory bodies, that recognized the competitive advantage of low-wage countries but also the advantage provided to consumers in rich countries through the availability of highly affordable apparel. The advent of containerization and relatively inexpensive air freight also made it possible for production to be closely tied to market conditions even across globe-spanning distances.
Although usually not considered part of the apparel industry for trade and statistical purposes, the manufacture and sale of accessories, such as shoes and handbags, and underwear are closely allied with the fashion industry. As with garments, the production of accessories ranges from very expensive luxury goods to inexpensive mass-produced items. Like apparel manufacturing, accessory production tends to gravitate to low-wage environments. Producers of high-end accessories, especially handbags, are plagued by competition from counterfeit goods (“knockoffs”), sometimes produced using inferior materials in the same factories as the authentic goods. The trade in such imitation goods is illegal under various international agreements but is difficult to control. It costs name-brand manufacturers hundreds of millions of dollars annually in lost sales.
Once the clothes have been designed and manufactured, they need to be sold. But how are clothes to get from the manufacturer to the customer? The business of buying clothes from manufacturers and selling them to customers is known as retail. Retailers make initial purchases for resale three to six months before the customer is able to buy the clothes in-store.
Fashion marketing is the process of managing the flow of merchandise from the initial selection of designs to be produced to the presentation of products to retail customers, with the goal of maximizing a company’s sales and profitability. Successful fashion marketing depends on understanding consumer desire and responding with appropriate products. Marketers use sales tracking data, attention to media coverage, focus groups, and other means of ascertaining consumer preferences to provide feedback to designers and manufacturers about the type and quantity of goods to be produced. Marketers are thus responsible for identifying and defining a fashion producer’s target customers and for responding to the preferences of those customers.
Marketing operates at both the wholesale and retail levels. Companies that do not sell their own products at retail must place those products at wholesale prices in the hands of retailers, such as boutiques, department stores, and online sales companies. They use fashion shows, catalogs, and a sales force armed with sample products to find a close fit between the manufacturer’s products and the retailer’s customers. Marketers for companies that do sell their own products at retail are primarily concerned with matching products to their own customer base. At both the wholesale and the retail level, marketing also involves promotional activities such as print and other media advertising aimed at establishing brand recognition and brand reputation for diverse characteristics such as quality, low price, or trendiness.
Closely related to marketing is merchandising, which attempts to maximize sales and profitability by inducing consumers to buy a company’s products. In the standard definition of the term, merchandising involves selling the right product, at the right price, at the right time and place, to the right customers. Fashion merchandisers must thus utilize marketers’ information about customer preferences as the basis for decisions about such things as stocking appropriate merchandise in adequate but not excessive quantities, offering items for sale at attractive but still profitable prices, and discounting overstocked goods. Merchandising also involves presenting goods attractively and accessibly through the use of store windows, in-store displays, and special promotional events. Merchandising specialists must be able to respond to surges in demand by rapidly acquiring new stocks of the favored product. An inventory-tracking computer program in a department store in London, for example, can trigger an automatic order to a production facility in Shanghai for a certain quantity of garments of a specified type and size to be delivered in a matter of days.
By the early 21st century the Internet had become an increasingly important retail outlet, creating new challenges (e.g., the inability for customers to try on clothes prior to purchase, the need for facilities designed to handle clothing returns and exchanges) and opening up new opportunities for merchandisers (e.g., the ability to provide customers with shopping opportunities 24 hours per day, affording access to rural customers). In an era of increasingly diverse shopping options for retail customers and of intense price competition among retailers, merchandising has emerged as one of the cornerstones of the modern fashion industry.
Fashion designers and manufacturers promote their clothes not only to retailers (such as fashion buyers) but also to the media (fashion journalists) and directly to customers. Already in the late 19th century, Paris couture houses began to offer their clients private viewings of the latest fashions. By the early 20th century, not only couture houses but also department stores regularly put on fashion shows with professional models. In imitation of Parisian couturiers, ready-to-wear designers in other countries also began mounting fashion shows for an audience that combined private clients, journalists, and buyers. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, fashion shows became more elaborate and theatrical, were held in larger venues with specially constructed elevated runways (“catwalks”) for the models and played an increasingly prominent role in the presentation of new fashions.
By the early 21st century, fashion shows were a regular part of the fashion calendar. The couture shows, held twice a year in Paris (in January and July) by the official syndicate of couture designers (comprising the most exclusive and expensive fashion houses), present outfits that might be ordered by potential clients but which often are intended more to showcase the designers’ ideas about fashion trends and brand image. Ready-to-wear fashion shows, separately presenting both women’s and men’s wear, are held during spring and fall “Fashion Weeks,” of which the most important take place in Paris, Milan, New York, and London. However, there are literally dozens of other Fashion Weeks internationally—from Tokyo to São Paolo. These shows, of much greater commercial importance than the couture shows, are aimed primarily at fashion journalists and at buyers for department stores, wholesalers, and other major markets. Extensively covered in the media, fashion shows both reflect and advance the direction of fashion change. Photographs and videos of fashion shows are instantaneously transmitted to mass-market producers who produce inexpensive clothing copied from or inspired by the runway designs.
Media and marketing
Media of all kinds are essential to the marketing of fashion. The first dedicated fashion magazines appeared in England and France in the late 18th century. In the 19th century, fashion magazines—such as the French La Mode Illustrée, the British Lady’s Realm, and the American Godey’s Lady’s Book—proliferated and flourished. Featuring articles, hand-coloured illustrations (known as fashion plates), and advertisements, fashion magazines—together with other developments such as the sewing machine, department stores, and ready-to-wear clothing produced in standard sizes—played a significant role in promoting the democratization of fashion in the modern era. The development of effective and inexpensive methods of reproducing photographs in print media in the early 20th century led to the rise of fashion photography and of heavily illustrated fashion magazines such as Vogue. Magazine advertising rapidly became a principal marketing tool for the fashion industry.
The creation of cinema newsreels—short motion pictures of current events—and the rise of television made it possible for people all over the world to see fashion shows and to imitate the fashionable clothing worn by celebrities. The dominance of visual media continued in the Internet age, with fashion blogs emerging as an increasingly important means of disseminating fashion information. Red-carpet events such as awards ceremonies provide an opportunity for celebrities to be photographed wearing designer fashions, thus providing valuable publicity to the designers.
There are several reasons why Apparel companies establish retail divisions. Having stores dedicated to a single brand gives a company control over a line's image and identity. Apparel companies have some control over branding and merchandising at department stores, and their influence is diluted further at the boutique level. Dedicated retail stores allow a company to highlight its own merchandise, without worrying about competing labels.
Retail stores are typically more profitable than their wholesale brethren. By selling its own merchandise at retail, an Apparel company can cut out the middleman and increase profits. However, this strategy can be risky. Instead of just designing and producing clothes and filling wholesale orders, companies with retail operations also have to find store locations with good potential, manage inventory, and avoid big markdowns.
The Internet is another important platform for retailers, especially since consumers are increasingly Web-savvy and have access virtually anywhere. Shoppers want to quickly find what they are looking for on line, and demand fast processing and shipping. Direct sales via the Internet can be a boon to a company. These sales do not entail expensive storefronts and related staffing and, thus, are more profitable than traditional business.
Apparel sales at the retail level tend to be highly seasonal, with the majority of revenue booked during the holiday and back-to-school periods. Market analysts review total year-to-year sales to identify trends. Notably, they focus on "comparable-store" sales, which indicate the year-to-year performance of locations open for a year or more. Sales-per-square-foot is another important metric that measures how efficiently a retailer utilizes its floor space.
As with wholesalers, the success of retailers is visible in their reported gross and operating margins. Retail margins are influenced by several factors, including markdowns and promotions and SG&A expenses. Product mix also plays a roll in determining profitability. For instance, a weighting toward accessories is favorable, given their high margins. Accessories' one-size-fits-all nature involves lower costs than do fitted clothes.
Because of the seasonal nature of the wholesale market, it's better to compare sales on a year-to-year, rather than sequential-quarter, basis. Gross and operating margins are the best gauges of a company's health. Sales volume, supply chain efficiency, sourcing costs, and selling, general and administrative (SG&A) expenses determine profitability.