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How to create a future proof fashion team for digital transformation

By Guest Contributor


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Mysitical Shell Collection. Image by @hadee_art (Idiat Shiole) via The Digital Fashion Group.

Over the last decade, digital strategy has been largely concerned with digitization, and there has been no real urgency for digital transformation. And in the past two years, companies have had transformation thrust upon them, remodeling their internal and external processes to keep up. A perfect storm caused mainly by the pandemic and GenZ. This generation wants to go beyond the technology to emphasize and drive value. As Gen Z becomes more significant for sales, companies will need to listen and consider how best to satisfy their expectations for better, more consistent experiences, seamless customer service, and control over their personal data. Organizations will have to step up and use technology better to make their business more resilient.

According to the International Data Corporation spending on the digital transformation of business practices, products, and organizations is forecast globally to reach $2.8 trillion in 2025. This is more than double the amount allocated in 2020. Companies need to adopt a mindset of digital strategy for their entire business covering people, processes, technology, and data. This sudden market direction drives fashion leaders to re-think their teams. Digital transformation requires a new team with a different mindset and a new mix of knowledge and skills.

We brought together an expert group from education and industry to share their experiences and insights in the fundamental questions around how to begin re-thinking the fashion team for digital transformation.

This article is a collaboration between The Digital Fashion Group Academy and FashionUnited, written by Leslie Holden Co-founder at The Digital Fashion Group Academy.

Focus on people not technology

"It’s a people thing," says Anne-Christine Polet, the Head of Stitch and Hatch. Stitch and Hatch are a unique stand-alone start-up which was born within PVH. They have digitalized fashion within PVH and have worked closely together with designers and salespeople at Tommy and Calvin Klein to achieve this.

Polet explained that one issue to take into consideration about building a team today is that people tend to focus on technology: "It’s human nature when confronted by change that you want to choose the path of least resistance and lot of the times its almost wishful thinking that the silver bullet might be the software that you procure might solve all your problems whereas in reality the real solution sits in people and processes. If you change how, you do things the technology should be secondary." She believes that when it comes to the ‘New Team’ then not only the ability to deal with fast change is essential but also mindset. "You really need people that realise that it’s going to take a little bit of pain to go through the motion of change but they also have the creativity to find new ways to do things. And no matter where in the organization you sit, it’s this kind of mentality that really makes the difference for a big change project." Polet continues that another key point for the new team is that they need to break down the silos, and build a community that communicates and understands how everyone fits together in this new world, in order to create a better process and value chain for the future.

Collaboration between Industry and Education is important to develop the Digital Team

The cornerstone of teamwork is recognizing that each team is unique in the way that they think, operate, and execute. The design teams have one way of working, the productions teams another and the merchandising and marketing teams others . Much of this is due to behavioral preferences, but leaders must also consider the digital background of each. Some teams will be perfectly comfortable with digital technologies, while others will not.

Anita Mitchell is the Lead of Digital at Manchester Metropolitan Universities, Manchester Fashion Institute. She points out that as far as fashion teams are concerned: “Not all fashion businesses have made the move towards digital transformation and that many companies find it daunting especially with regards to ( digitally) upskilling the current team. There is often very little time, budget or headspace “

Manchester Fashion Institute places employability as a key objective of their education provision and have developed a placement programme which is aimed at helping students find employment in the digital sphere after graduation. At the same time, they aim to help industry tackle the issues of understanding the potential of digitalization. Mitchell explains that: "Students with the relevant knowledge digital skills are matched with companies for work placement to help the organisation understand the tangible benefits of tech quicker without having to make permanent employment commitments." The learning benefits of this scheme for both the student and the company are clear, but also as Mitchell points out: "This often opens up opportunities for the student to return to these companies after graduation as part of the team."

Another example of fashion education collaborating with the industry to develop the new team is at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Dtech Lab. Michael Ferraro the Executive explains that it is not only about interdisciplinary but also transdisciplinary teams. "To help achieve this FITs DTEch lab was established with a mission to engage faculty and students to solve industry problems with design and technology. A bridge between industry and academia, leveraging the talents and ideas of smart students and guided by expert faculty."

These FIT collaborations not only teach students about working in teams but also, as similar to Manchester, FIT are helping the industry to research in another way in another environment with time for experimentation and learning. Ferraro considers this as de-risking innovation for industry.

Digital Innovation needs to co-exist with traditional

The very nature of digital transformation is innovative — we’re now seeing new technologies, new ways of thinking, and new directions for fashion companies. To a certain extent, embracing the new often means compromising the old. What are called legacy technologies are those mechanisms that tend to hinder a company more than they push them forward, and it’s not always easy to identify what these are, or how to replace them.

David Clementoni is the President and Founder of Italian Artisan, which is the biggest made in Italy online platform for fashion manufacturing. Italian Artisan works with 700 manufacturers to support the digital transformation of both their processes and their teams. Clementoni points out that from the beginning, even though they are a company focused on numbers and digital, they really had to take into consideration what were the traditional approaches of the companies they were working with to understand in what ways they could help develop the teams. He says: "We had to develop an evolving approach. Like a tree. You look at the roots, these come first. The leaves and the fruits come after. The next generation and the (new) team of fashion must still be very much connected to the roots, respect the traditional heritage of manufacturing and try to evolve this instead of disrupting it. We all have to be connected to the roots to get more energy to grow more."

On-Demand manufacturing will change the structure of a team in the fashion value chain

One of the main challenges the traditional fashion value chain faces is that it is immense and operates with many disconnected teams. There is a strong business case to bring all these different activities as close to one another as possible in a local on-demand manufacturing structure facilitated by digitalization creating a single technology eco system. Ram Sareen The CEO and founder of Tukatech the Los Angeles based provider of fashion technology solutions for pattern cutting, designing and manufacturing, points out. "Today young people look at things very differently (than previous generations) they look at what they want to achieve and how technology can help them." He asserts that the traditional fashion system is fixated by doing everything in a certain way which is very unsustainable and time consuming exemplified by the design going back and forth between designer, pattern cutter, sample machinist, until it is correct. "The people absolutely stand in the way. I have heard many times from fashion professionals: 'if I do this (digitized process, ed.), what am I going to do?' , implicating they might loose their job. Teams have a resistance to implementing technology, but the pandemic changed that."

"Tukatech developed Tukacentres in the year 2000 and these have now developed into microfactories which are growing fast, offering services to fashion SMEs because as Sareen points out "In the future we are going to make what we have sold."

Teams clearly matter when a company strives for seamless digital transformation. Some fundamental directives were clear in this webinar.

1.We need to start with a focus on people rather than technology.
2. In the process of transformation, the industry can benefit from the support of education in many ways. The two we discussed here were providing digitally skilled students and graduates who can help the industry understand the tangible benefits of technology and provide the industry with a ‘safe’ environment to experiment and research without the fear of failure.
3. The concept of community came through strongly both in the sense of communication and also in on-demand local manufacturing. This sense of community will be a safeguard to ensure digitalization is employed for sustainable benefits.
4. The concept that in any team one needs to still respect the traditional values. Digital Innovation must co-exist with and build on traditional craft skills. The roots of the team will feed the fruits of innovation.

This article is based on the webinar "Digital Design : The New Team" hosted by The Digital Fashion Group Academy. You can watch a sneak peak of the discussion below and the full webinar at TDFGA's website.
Digital Fashion