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Survival of the Fittest

 • 5 minute read • By Susan Chan •

IM Headquarters

Creativity hard at work.

I see natural selection play out in design offices every day.

The churn is so fast, so quick, designers either evolve or die trying. Many high street companies, fashion speak for mass market retailers, don’t understand or respect the time needed by the creative process.

Sketching itself can be done in a week, but the hunting and gathering of concepts is another story. These conceptual conversations go back and forth between print, fabric, and design teams who are all working in tandem to tease out the narrative and get an idea to sing.

“Out of chaos comes order”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Executives, perceiving such gestation as frivolity, will shorten the design calendar to accommodate more unrelated meetings. As a result, collections that would generally take two to three months are created in less than two weeks.

In contrast, the production of an approved garment takes six to eight months to produce. Six to eight months! Aside from the time needed to receive the raw materials and trim for assembly, this timeframe for production is quite cushiony compared to the design timeline.

By the time the actual garment arrives— adjusted, tweaked, and inflated to comp last year’s sales, the final concept rolls up unrecognizably stillborn. Then, when it bombs on the floor, guess who gets blamed? The designers. It’s mind boggling sometimes that no one has realized that cutting creative time kills full-price selling.

Many are able to trudge on, despite the relentless string of oh-shit emails, meetings, garment fittings, production follow-ups, and “this-trim-is-not-available-anymore-and-this-is getting-ready-for-assembly-so-how-do-we-put-out-this-fire?” meetings. But, anyone who can’t handle the inevitable pressure during deadlines or bad selling seasons is usually dispatched.

I witnessed and endured this chaos at one such company that shall remain nameless. While tasked with the rebooting of our jacket selection, I sat across from a succession of designers with impressive credentials like Dolce & Gabbana , Escada, John Varvatos, and Narciso Rodriguez. Some stayed long enough to warm the chair for several months, but others zipped right through and out.

After one exceptionally disastrous selling season, the executive team made some severe staff cuts. When the dust settled, the jacket responsibilities fell right on my lap and stuck.

I didn’t get very far before the company went under—they were ill-equipped to handle the changes in the retail landscape.

But I learned something from this experience: It’s not just talent that makes it out alive. Those who easily and continually adapt also survive. The designer who can cut through all the excitement, absorb feedback, improve the collection and impress their team by putting out fires left and right—that person will prevail.

Now let’s be fair. It’s not just designers who have the tread above water. With competitive markdowns across the board and consumers trained to buy things on sale, companies as a whole are struggling. The last two quarters especially have seen a vast array of fashion companies falter, including Boy by Band of Outsiders, C Wonder, Delias, Donna Karan Collection, Jones New York (though recently resurrected), and Kate Spade Saturday.

Other fashion behemoths like Gap, J Crew, and Polo Ralph Lauren are slashing teams and stores. Are they in the next stages of evolution or have they become obsolete?

Retail is evolving. E-commerce is changing the game. Companies need to consider integrating creativity more responsibly into the bottom line to stand out and have a fighting chance in this retail climate.

Designers also have to think about how to process these changes. We simply can’t understand by just shopping the stores & designing behind our desks anymore. We’re all in this together. Survival demands constant growth and creativity— fail to adapt and go in the way of the dodo.

Figuratively speaking, evolve or die.

*Photo of Isabel Marant HQ, origin unknown.

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