Why the industry’s conscious move to agile fashion buying is taking the risk out of product sourcing. By TradeGala’s Amber Domenech Patey

“Running a retail business of any type could be considered a gamble, but the fashion industry seems particularly suited to foment addiction. The excitement can be intoxicating – the heady thrill of tracking market trends and making predictions six months ahead of the game; competing with thousands of eager buyers at busy trade shows to source that elusive best-seller; negotiating deals with untested suppliers based on volume and expected sales; and finally placing the bet – the down payment for the collection that will make your store stand out from the crowd. Sometimes the gamble pays off and the stock sells out in weeks, making you wish you’d ordered more. But sometimes it doesn’t and you’re forced to cut prices to cost to avoid warehousing dead stock for another season. Either way, we accept the game as part of the fast and fickle world of the fashion retailer.

“This tried and tested method of fashion sourcing had been ‘just the way it is’ for decades, even as technology and society have long outpaced the industry. Fast fashion retailers create copycat looks direct from runways within weeks or even days, and designers are now under pressure to create extra pre-fall’ or resort seasons just to stay relevant and keep up with heightened demand. Fashion influencers on social media platforms can create or kill off trends from one day to the next. Both brands and retailers struggle to keep up with the roulette wheel that continues to spin ever faster, nobody wanting to be the first to slow down.

“And then Covid 19 happened. The Spring/Summer collections that had been touted as the next big thing in January were laughably out of touch by mid-March. Previously niche loungewear collections were suddenly the must-have trend for consumers in lockdown, while demand for everything from jeans to occasion wear plummeted to never-seen-before lows. Even now, a year later, it’s proving difficult to predict trends as far ahead as a month in advance as the industry attempts to read its audience without any prior reference as to what we can expect. How will consumers react as they navigate the uncertainty that takes us toward the end of this crisis? Will there be a boom in party wear and frivolous fashion as friends and family are able to celebrate weddings, parties and holidays once more? Or is loungewear here to stay as customers rebel against the idea of returning to more restrictive tailored styles?

Agile fashion

“Struggling stores have enough to contend with in the current climate, and there’s been a real sense of foreboding for the UK high street as retail giants like Debenhams and the Arcadia Group went under. Smaller independent retailers, particularly those with brick-and-mortar stores, can be forgiven for wondering how they will survive even as we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine roll-out and increased consumer confidence. But perhaps the crisis itself has presented us with the solution we were looking for – not only for the current situation, but also to combat the longer standing issues faced by the industry as a whole. It’s time for the Agile Fashion revolution.

“The Agile method may sound like typical corporate jargon used mainly by fast-paced tech companies to exclude the non-technically minded. However, when applied to retail, it suggests a new led-by-demand way of fashion sourcing that can cut costs, reduce waste and perhaps even cure the industry of its gambling addiction.

“The idea of Agile working can be traced back to the ‘Just in Time’ or Lean manufacturing principles established by Toyota in the 1950s. Designed to streamline the production process, workers would constantly evaluate what worked and what didn’t, adapting to changes as they happened to both save time and reduce waste. Other major businesses, particularly those in the IT industry, took this method and adapted it to work for them. We may not question why we our phones and laptops offer us regular software updates fixing the odd bug and offering a new function, but these are all based on user data. These small changes are designed to enhance the user experience without the investment and risk of launching major software releases every year or so.

Reducing waste

“It’s high time the fashion industry adopted the same model. We may talk of sustainability and ethical production, but if massive amounts of dead or unsold stock goes straight to landfill each year it’s of little use. By sourcing small amounts of short-order stock regularly, retailers are able to assess the popularity and adjust future orders accordingly – a technique that requires lower initial investment and subsequently less risk. This is one that industry giant Zara has used for years to help propel its extraordinary success. In the context of the pandemic, agile retailers were able to quickly stock small amounts of the newly popular loungewear and athleisure ranges while traditional retailers were stuck with months’ worth of summer beach and holiday wear that would never see the light of day. Reactive purchasing based on live trends could very well have made the difference between survival and bankruptcy for some fashion businesses.

“The Coronavirus crisis has made its mark on the fashion sector. Top designers are now creating ‘seasonless’ collections designed to outlast the traditional fashion calendar. Trade shows have been forced online, and the industry is only now waking up to the wealth of possibilities that wholesale online shopping can provide.

“All of these possibilities are embodied by wholesale fashion marketplace TradeGala – an online short-order fashion platform ahead of its time.

“With TradeGala, fashion buyers of all sizes can source popular and exclusive international fashion brands without having to step outside their door. Minimum orders start from as low as £50, meaning trialling new brands is now a minimum risk. Plus, with international courier shipments taking just days from order to delivery, fashion stores can update their stock the moment new trends become popular. With the reopening of the high street, stores will be vying for the attention of consumers – those stores with a regularly updated stock portfolio have a unique advantage allowing them to stand out from the crowd and keep customers coming back for more.

“Fashion brands can also benefit from this sales model; creating small batch capsule collections on a regular basis allows brands to test the market and adjust designs and production accordingly. And regular stock updates help attract and keep prospective buyers’ attention without investing in cost-heavy marketing strategies with no guarantee of ROI.

“As we look to the future it’s vital that we take the lessons learned from the pandemic and use them to build a healthier industry, both for business and the environment. Even as trade shows open their doors once more and international Fashion Weeks return, brands and buyers can now supplement traditional sourcing methods with the use of data-led technology and demand-driven platforms like TradeGala. Gambling may be a difficult addiction to face, but with a conscious change from fast to agile fashion, we may be able to get over it together.”