Not since WWII have manufacturers transformed their organizations so quickly, and so decisively. With shopping online driving spending during COVID-19, the pandemic accelerated many trends in textiles, particularly in our flat knitting industry. Making products with the least amount of human touch was a necessity that pushed many makers out of their cut-and-sew comfort zones over the past two years. Robotizing machines to automatically make 2D and 3D sequentially, helped short-staffed makers build everything from PPE to small-batch fashion for Tik Tok influencers and major film productions. Many of us surprised ourselves with how creative and resourceful we could be on short notice while taking on things we normally wouldn’t.
Just about every company that has flat knitting machinery felt the jolt of the pandemic and sensed the urgency of the situation was incumbent upon them to leverage their expertise in helping the PPE cause. Within weeks 3D face masks poured from just about every brand of flat knitting machine; tens of thousands of machines, making millions of masks, in hundreds of factories around the world. Even factories like renowned seating upholstery company Duvaltex in Grand Rapids, Michigan turned yarns into masks.
Now, that so much struggle and uncertainty is behind us, answers to the big questions facing our industry are critical to how the future of manufacturing proceeds from here.
· How fast can a company realistically respond to consumer changes in demand? Months, days, hours, minutes?
· What systems need to change or be created? Are the skills available in-house to make those changes?
· What business model is most agile in formulating that response? Smaller designers, large brands, or big box stores? Which business type is most vulnerable to market whims and disruptions?
· How can a business insulate itself in the future from similar massive market swings? Should we do more of these things outside our box?
Whilst retail outlets shut indefinitely, designing, merchandising, and then selling warehouses of perishable wholesale goods before markdowns kick in, quickly became unprofitable. Unsold stocks from 2020 and 2021 are now compounded with supply chain issues for new goods, where hundreds of cargo ships are unable to unload in US ports due to both Covid mandates on workers and truckers in California as well as new emission standards put in place in March 2021, which restricted trucks less than 12 years old from picking up goods.
Available warehouse space in the US has quickly diminished as truckers have refused to again invest in new trucks after similar policies in 2013 at California ports, including Long Beach, left them with investments in $150,000 trucks that were supposed to reduce emissions and ended up being lemons. Truckers disgruntled with policy changes and skyrocketing gas prices are now joined in their frustrations by train lines that have sustained considerable losses from uncurtailed freight pirates. Transporting goods in and out of California ports has become gridlock with containers being dropped off in local neighborhoods with no explanations.
Lockdowns in China are disrupting factories and ports, crippling supply chains. One in five container ships is stuck in ports worldwide. 30% of the shipping backlog is from China, which means rising costs of goods and supplies. According to Bank of America, China accounts for 18% of US imports; 35% of computers. 373 million people in lockdown cities represent 40% of China's GDP. Even though Shanghai's port has remained operating during the extreme lockdowns, Strict permit regulations are causing trucking backups and containers to stack up. It may take months or perhaps more than a year to catch up with the backlog. By them, much of the cargo in those containers may be obsolete.
Retailers and online stores alike are looking to local manufacturing to meet sales demands for customers wanting very different types of apparel and goods than pre-pandemic. Brands and designers are looking to onshore all or a portion of their product offerings, testing to see how the pricing and quality of products are received, being Made in the USA, Canada, EU, Mexico, UK, and even places in South America.
As the cost of everything skyrockets and lockdowns in China cripple supply chains, manufacturers and raw materials suppliers in the US, Mexico, Canada, EU, Central, and South America are scrambling to fill the voids and turn challenges into the opportunities we've been waiting for.
The last thing anyone needs right now is supply chain issues, but sourcing specialists are taking extra care to navigate the raw materials markets, which now include rediscovering North Carolina yarn mills, like UNIFI and McMichaels Sapona, as well as locally grown fibers like hemp, from companies like Bastcore.
Many flat knitting factories whose regular business was disrupted by clients unable to travel, made masks, selling in bulk to essential businesses, grocery stores, and first responders. Some, like Bilio in Oakland, sold upscale designer 3D masks direct to the public, while Fabdesigns sold 3D sport masks at cost on Etsy, and comfy knit tops from their custom on-demand line to workers making the best of endless video meetings. My Ugly Christmas Sweaters, by Ann Marie Blackman in Killington, Vermont, were by far the hottest holiday knitted item on Zoom for the past two years.
Image Credit: https://tinyurl.com/4te3uth6
With the pandemic shuttering malls, resorts, boutiques, and shopping centers for weeks, then months, then extended to an unthinkable two years, brands, designers, and makers scrambled for alternative ways to get products to end consumers. Almost immediately, entire business models shifted from a linear system of making a planned warehouse full of products to fill retail racks according to regional tastes and demographics, to more reactive customer-centric retail options that are marketed directly to consumers on platforms like Tik-Tok, Facebook, and Instagram.
The already popular DTC (Direct to consumer) trend amongst small designers, startups, and experimental programs at big brands like Ralph Lauren’s Custom Polo accelerated due to the tremendous increase in consumer screen time.
This perfect storm for designers, brands, and manufacturers unable to receive goods and supplies made in Asia, coupled with consumers comparatively shopping thousands of buying options simultaneously online has created brilliant opportunities for locally made products to meet many of these demands. The desire to onshore has never been greater even with soaring fuel prices raising the cost of everything from groceries to consumer products. Made in the Caribbean products have exploded, especially for athleisure apparel.
Large and small brands alike have quickly leveraged the at-home brainpower of their employees to crunch analytics data and adapted the online digital marketing environment to a seasonless but customized experience for each individual consumer. By shifting more exclusive products to their own sites, or building cross-market partnerships, brands are attracting and cashing in on a huge chunk of super consumers, their VIPs. VIPs are willing to pay a premium for what they want as well as what they do not want, which is to look like they shop with 50,000 others in Walmart or on Amazon. Exclusive, limited edition, and NFT (non-fungible token) is the new measure of a trend’s life cycle rather than a season.
British pop star Harry Styles’ viral Tik Tok cardigan is now an NFT.
Consumers are finding brands, designers, artisan makers, and celebrities are in a unique position to give them authentic VIP experiences and unique merchandise that retailers really can’t. The top products, such as Harry Styles Cardigan, are creating overwhelming demand and makers are delivering on the demand for authenticity and uniqueness. The cardigan is actually a technical as well as a digital masterpiece, taking over 300 hours to create. VFX artists built each individual piece of yarn in 3D before knitting them together to perfectly replicate the intricate patterns, recreating the man-made imperfections present in the physical garment.
In an industry where designers and brands constantly struggle with overseas imports copying knit designs for clothing, footwear, and even technical textiles that take weeks, months, and in some cases years and significant costs to develop, might NFT be the answer?
Fast-fashion knockoffs made in volume, with lesser materials, and price points at a fraction of the original designs are typically only a shadow of the unique and sustainable products that inspired them. But there is little that can be done about stopping the flood of copycats without the significant legal expense and attracting public attention plus even more sales to the counterfeits. There have been fashion forgeries since Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, and it doesn’t seem like much is going to stop reproductions as long as there is a market. https://tinyurl.com/ycxeywj4
Fakes can be found in street markets and back alleys in just about every major city. In today’s digital environment where everything is digitally posted, large brands, startup brands, designers, and artists are searching for the holy grail to combat this illusive age-old problem. The moment that paparazzi post photos of Kanye seen wearing a new pair of Yeezies, imitations pop up within the week, along with dozens of YouTube videos of how to tell fakes kicks from the real deal.
Exclusives, limited edition merch, NFTs, along with transparent supply chains like those of New Zealand’s Knitted which traces material back to the sheep, and Everlane, who show the ethics of sourced materials as well as the fair treatment of factories and workers who produce their knitwear, seems to be resonating with consumers who care not only about the footprint of the products they buy, but also the handprint.
Consumers are demanding more information about the beneficial environmental impacts of the products they buy, the purity and quality of the materials they’re made from, the distance measured in the energy of each component in shipping, how the people who make them are treated, and the impact on their community. In short, consumers want to know the ripple effect of everything that goes into their purchase from ideas to their hands, in terms of the planet and impact on the lives of others.https://tinyurl.com/4xkn5ktn
Some say these concerns are just for wealthy consumers who have the advantage of making choices based on ideology rather than financial reality, but the truth is even big-box retailers Walmart, and Target have been prioritizing and employing environmental strategies and partnering with vendors on closing the loop for more than a decade. Both have made significant strides over the past several years in social accountability because consumers, as well as shareholders, are voting with their wallets. https://tinyurl.com/yc2rbdbh
Things to think about:
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series of "Rethinking Knit Thinking."
Connie Huffa – Fabdesigns, Inc.Copyright © 2022 Fabdesigns, Inc., All rights reserved. Mailing address: 28714 Canwood Street #110, Agoura Hills, California 91301Website: www.fabdesigns.com Email questions of comments: firstname.lastname@example.org