On Creating Right-Brained Fashion

Thank you FASHION STUDIES JOURNAL for publishing Andrea from Fashiondex’ article on running a fashion business with the right side of your brain! http://www.fashionstudiesjournal.org/commentary/2017/6/6/on-creating-right-brained-fashion

And a big thanks and shout out to Dr. Sherie McClam from Manhattanville College’s Education for Sustainability program…. thank you for making us think so critically!

On Creating Right-Brained Fashion

Many fashion brands and retailers are losing money these days. Department stores are closing and many clothing lines—from fast fashion, to bridge, to high-end designs—have experienced a year of losses. These brands were offered hope about a month ago at a costing seminar that was convened in Manhattan. I attended this future-thinking-type of seminar where costing factors were explained as a solution for the current fashion-retail woes. The message was: if you’re not sharply costing, you’re leaving money on the table. Of course, I don’t disagree with that—not at all; however, the seminar encouraged apparel executives from dozens of major brands and fashion retailers to look more critically at the standard allowed minutes (also known as SAMs or SVMs, short for standard value minutes) on their cost sheets. I have heard these terms countless times in my career, but lately, and perhaps disconcertingly, these quantitative terms have become principle drivers of style change itself.

Less stitching detail means less SAMs. Less SAMs equals less cost. 3.5 SAMs for a shirt translates to three and one-half minutes to complete the sewing of one shirt. Each serged side seam, attached neck band, and double-needle hem stitched is 0.5 SAMs (or 30 seconds each). A factory measures and calculates SAMs to determine their production capacity per day, per week, and per month. And brands analyze SAMs to cost and price their styles.

Sitting in this seminar, my mind wondered away from SAMs to cost sheets in general, then to income statements, then to top line, bottom line, mark-up formulas, assortment plans, time and action charts, analytics, tech packs, PLM, efficiency, and lead times. Over and over in my mind I saw today’s fashion practices, terminology, charts, graphs, sheets, and line plans. Wow, I thought to myself, “What kind of fashion people have we become?” We are an industry concentrating on SAMs, line efficiency, duty rates, data, and procedures. Yet, we are the fashionindustry. Shouldn’t we be focusing on creativity, mood, inspiration and flair? Shouldn’t we be pondering over beautiful details and gorgeous shapes as opposed to how can we simplify a style just to sew it in as little time as possible? I think to the practice of haute couture, where it takes hours, days…even weeks of hand-stitching to complete one dress… those rarified places in Paris, Italy, and London where art is created. Of course, mass market is stitch of a different thread, so to speak, but I wondered, could the mass-market manufacturers in this seminar learn something by looking more closely at couture design and its celebration of fashion, instead of more precisely calculating SAMs?

And eventually it came to me—the realization that truly nothing of value and longevity can be produced in 3.5 minutes. Nothing of beauty and resiliency can be produced by concentrating on data.  I realized the reason many retailers, malls, and manufacturers are floundering is not because they aren’t producing and shipping clothing styles fast enough, but because as an industry, we are running our businesses with numbers—with the left sides of our brains. We are the fashion industry. Shouldn’t we be running our companies with the right sides of our brains?

If you Google “Right Side Left Side Brain” a slew of results will come up. In a 2016 article on verywell.com, Kendra Sherry writes, “a person who is “right-brained” is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. Thus, if a “right-brained” individual is more intuitive and inherently more creative, doesn’t it follow that a “right-brained” company would be more intuitive, thoughtful, and perceptive, too? And wouldn’t a “right-brained” company, in being more subjective, be more in tune with their audience’s wants, need and moods? And therefore more successful?

Charts that compare the functions of the left and right sides of the brain further explain each side’s dominance. While the left side of the brain is preoccupied with reasoning, data-aggregation and analysis, planning, analytics and linear thinking, the right side of the brain, by contrast, is better equipped to process art, imagination, feelings, intuition, perception, creativity, and holistic thoughts.

In the quest to become more competitive and obtain more supply-chain control, we’ve left fashion design in the hands of left-minded thinkers.

Taking all of this into account, I wonder, are we doing ourselves and our customers a disservice by running our companies so strategically? Indeed, with all of our talk about improving current business models, sharpening costs, and focusing on sewing minutes, we’ve allowed the left side of our companies too much control. In the quest to become more competitive and obtain more supply-chain control, we’ve left fashion design in the hands of left-minded thinkers. Today, numbers, costs, and data are driving garment design, rather than creativity and imagination. Didn’t we enter the fashion industry to be creative? We should be spreading dreams and creating beautiful garments, not number-crunching. Perhaps this is why so many fashion businesses have been experiencing bottom-line losses these last few years.

Maybe this numerical, analytical, planned, and digitized thinking is why many fashion companies are failing. I also believe that exact type of thinking is why our businesses have had such a large negative impact environmentally and socially. If we were thinking holistically—with intuitiveness, feeling, and imagery—would we still have created a global fashion industry built on economies of scale and speed? Would the right sides of our brains allow us to pollute soil and water, exploit workers, and create products that more-often-than-not sell only when discounted?

The answer for me is a resounding no. The right sides of our brains have empathy. And the right sides of our brain consider values—not in terms of the bottom line, costing and price, but of human worth, community value and concern for all.

If we shift our businesses and allow the right sides of our brains to stand up and take charge, we might see that there are methods to produce clothing less focused on calculation, measuring SAMs, and data analysis and more centered on creativity, visualization, and integrated with compassion, not facts.

Sustainably-run companies recognize the interconnectedness of their business practices and processes with the people and the planet. They are systems thinkers, world viewers and right-brained. It takes visualization, emotion, and non-linear thinking to change a company’s ways and develop a business model with Earth, people, creativity, and art at its core. It might not look right on paper as we can’t measure human worth like we can a cost sheet, but as an industry we must consider our customers’ feelings. They care about our planet and are concerned with the future. They have no interest in our SAMs. Perhaps we should forego planning how fast a factory can produce for us—for that’s a left-brained way of thinking—and instead visualize how we can creatively design and bring a fashionable product to market. Using the right sides of our brains and reinventing the art of fashion is the right thing to do… for the planet, for our companies, for our customers, and, in the end, for our bottom lines.


by: Andrea Kennedy

So you are thinking you want to take steps to become more sustainable. And maybe you’ve been thinking this way for awhile. So, what’s stopping you? Most often the answer is…. Cost.
Companies fear that moving to a more responsible design and production model will cost too much. They believe the customer will not pay more and they therefore will lose money. It’s really not possible, it’s thought by many, to be sustainable and profitable. Many businesses fear the expenses are too great in time and in dollars to research, initiate, and implement sustainable practices.

Photo byFabian Blank @blankerwahnsinn

Well…. yes, it certainly costs more to do things right. It costs more to pay workers fairly, to use natural or recycled fibers, and to inspect and audit factories. And, it does cost more per unit to manufacture with greener components and on the same hemisphere. But if we look away for the moment from the fact that each component and line item may cost more, and instead look at the total lowest cost, then things start to look different.
Just operating with less waste and more efficiency, which is the true essence of sustainability, will lower a company’s operating costs immediately. Efficiency and a no-waste commitment can be every company’s first step. And that costs nothing to implement! If you choose to use less energy, water and materials in your offices and supply-chain facilities, then immediately you will see usage rates decrease and will pay less in overhead costs.
This is an initiative already place at Mara Hoffman. Dana Davis, director of sustainability, notes they continuously strive to reduce energy consumption in the Mara Hoffman offices and on bright days work with the lights off and keep the windows open far into summer to consume less electricity. Lower usage bills have help offset some of the increased costs accrued in producing their responsible collection. This is something we all can do!
In terms of raw materials, with consumer environmental concern on the increase, and the waste of the fashion industry receiving so much media focus, it’s never been a better time to introduce responsibly-produced fibers, fabrics and trims. Organic, recycled, and low-impact fabric may cost on average 30-40% more per yard, but if you find innovative ways to use all leftover fabric scraps, you can balance the additional costs. For instance, companies can print on leftover fabric scrap squares and use as hangtags, then there is no longer a need to purchase cardstock tags. And utilizing all excess fabric and trim means less waste entering our factory-area landfills.
Companies can also cut all non-value adding (and wasteful) components from their practices and their cost sheets. Non-biodegradable items such as poly bags for buttons or individually plastic sleeves for garments can be omitted. In forcing themselves to commit to sustainability, companies are forced to think in more innovative ways, and although at first uncomfortable, innovation always leads us to more operating efficiency and cost-cutting practices.
Increased costs up front for using sustainable and responsible materials and production practices can save companies money in the long run, as customers are taking notice and staying loyal to green and sustainable companies. More and more businesses are showing positive financial performance, despite the increase in costs, due to an increase in sales. This growth in sales certainly balances the increase in cost of goods sold, especially if your overhead is lower due to decreased resource utilization, less waste and tax incentives.
Yes, tax incentives are another perk of sustainable business practices. State and local tax-breaks for businesses supporting environmental and human wellbeing initiatives are increasing every year, as well there are federal tax credits offered to US businesses for being energy-efficient.
A focus on sustainability equates to a competitive advantage like no other for those willing to go that extra mile to deliver responsible products. If you concentrate on the full value cost and not individual line-item costs, you will see that you can still be profitable while being sustainable. It may take a while, but if you are still doing business in the manner you have for the last ten-to-twenty years, then it is time for a change. As 66% of customers state that when given the choice they will select and pay more for sustainably-produced products manufactured by companies committed to positive social and environmental impact (Neilsens, 2016). And when surveyed this year in January, 78% of US consumers stated they “feel better” when they buy sustainably-produced products.  If you become a brand that is part of making a difference and no longer part of the problem, you will stand out to customers who are looking for products produced by companies that mirror their own concerns at this very moment in time. This will increase your sales, show in your bottom line, and create customer relationships for the long-term.
So you are thinking you want to take steps to become more sustainable. Don’t let costs stop you. The benefits of customers knowing you care and the advantage of customers thinking you are part of the solution, should help you realize that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to practice sustainability, and that any additional monies spent to develop and produce your products are certainly worth eliminating waste and treating people and our planet with respect. These actions in turn build brand-respect, create greater perceptions of quality and value to your products… and will bring you business!Thank you Fashion Mannuscipt for publishing this article in Fashion Mannuscript, April 2017 edition