According to Bojack Horseman, Netflix’s horse headed misanthropist, “Time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses. It merely marches forward.” Whether you think that time is marching towards progress or to the contrary, there’s no turning back now. There was a time when almost all industries were cottage industries, where sweaters were spun and sold in their own hometowns, and bread was baked on the same street that it was eaten. Then came industrialization and everything changed, what was once the trade of artisans and craftspeople became the role of big businesses and entrepreneurs. Supply rose, the cost of production declined, and consumer prices fell. So began the age of mass production. Oh no!, I hear you exclaim. The age of mass production, the production of accountants and bean counters, the age of the insatiable desire for profit. However, much like a good pair of trousers, things are rarely black or white, they’re often grey.
In this maelstrom of mass production, where do the cottage industries and the niche fashion brands of our age find themselves? Being small fish in a big pond, it can be difficult to make ripples or waves in an industry that thrives on attention, marketing budgets, and celebrity influencers. But sometimes it’s not about taking over an industry, sometimes it’s about quietly finding your corner of the market where it’s possible to take advantage of all the resources available to you, to build a successful business with very different aims and goals.
The effect of mass production on cottage industries has been historically varied, and the future for regional craftspersons is yet undetermined, but cottage industries, as wonderful as they were, haven’t always been picture perfect. They were usually limited, restricted, and isolated. They were often built on very specific specializations, based in increasingly historical contexts, and they weren’t known for being adaptable to the changing times. While you can still rely on the Isles of Harris to be colder than a polar bear’s nose, and by extension, reliably produce some densely woven woolen cloth from its hardy sheep, you can’t always expect consumer demand to support the island’s traditions (although thankfully there are some areas of the world where quality wins out). What you can expect is for times and tastes to change, fashions to come and go, and buying habits to alter. They say that time makes liars of good men, well it also makes redundant what does not sell.
In an Articles of Interest’s opening sequence, Avery Trufelman describes how the first software, the concept of binary computing, was applied to looms, those great, big, hefty machines used to produce fabrics. She explains how the role of the drawboy was to move and adjust the threads to create a woven pattern. That was until the introduction of punch cards, which became the intellectual property of fabric manufacturers and master weavers, whereby the punch cards encoded the weaving process, making the purpose of a drawboy redundant. This innovation and its consequential redundancies were seen as modernization, machines alleviating the physical and deleterious workload of human beings. It was more efficient, more accurate and more productive too. This is a theme that would repeat itself throughout the 20th century. Production needed to be centralized, specialized, and produce higher quantities at lower costs in order to be competitive, raise the real wealth of its consumers, and enfranchise the poorer classes.
We sometimes forget, but fashion, the very serious business of fashion, is, at the end of the day, an industry. While huge numbers can often be abstract or even darn right alienating, modern estimates peg it at a value of 3 trillion dollars worldwide, which equates to 2% of the world’s GDP. As such, it’s subject to the same economic forces and laws as any other industry, but those forces need not be negative for modern producers and consumers, they can also present opportunity. As American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. pointed out, ‘Righteousness is easy in retrospect’ and it’s now, today, that we find ourselves at the end of a very long business cycle, one where the rules may have changed, suggesting that ‘Today – just might be – the best time in fashion’.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Today is not the same proposition for cottage industries, designers, textile producers or clothes manufacturers as it once was at the beginning of the 20th century. Today presents new opportunities that weren’t available before the modern globalized infrastructure. Some of the things that were great back then are still great now, such as brushed Shetland sweaters. At the same time, Japanese denim was unlikely to have taken off without Toyota Motor Corporations’ Model G automatic selvage loom, sportswear without synthetics, and it’s worth considering where rainwear would be without the invention of gabardine, Ventile, or Gore-Tex.
The invention of these new materials, as well as the automation of the machines on which to craft them, wouldn’t have been possible without big businesses and their ability to take advantage of economies of scale. It’s still much the same today with major innovations coming from the top down. Companies such as Wrangler are pioneering more sustainable modes of production, a problem all too familiar with natural textiles and driven home in Derek’s article ‘Dying for Meaning’. Small cottage industries just aren’t in a position to invest large sums of money in R&D. Even collectives would struggle to justify attributing large percentages of their funds to discovering environmentally friendly production techniques. It takes large scale production to be able to absorb huge sums into small margins, but when it’s successful, it can have big implications, a benefit that extends to those within smaller, niche areas of the fashion industry.
It’s not just machines, intellectual property, or technically-advanced designed fabrics that the established fashion industry proffered into the collective fold of fashion production. It’s also responsible for nurturing the individuals at the forefront of fashion’s newest creations. Virgil Abloh of Off-White fame cut his teeth at Fendi long before starting his major hype brand. Ralph Lauren has long been an incubator for some of the biggest design names in fashion, Michael Bastian, Frank Muytjens, Todd Snyder, John Varvatos, and Antonio Ciongoli among them. The-interpreters of English tailoring classics, S.E.H Kelly, came to make the garments they do now by taking advantage of their connections to Saville Row. From high fashion to modern streetwear, and from tailoring classics to relaxed everyday garments, the fashion industry has helped to mold and shape the path of some of the more exciting modern brands. It continues to do so with projects such as the CFDA Fashion Fund, which brought to the fore designers such as Alexander Wang and Public School.
The New Era
Fashion is, however, a fickle mistress. Just as times changed for cottage industries of the early 20th century, for bespoke tailoring in the relaxing climes of the later 20th century, and for brick-and-mortar stores upon the mass adoption of the internet, times are slowly changing again for established players. Consumers used to shop based on quality, and they still do, but the overriding principle for the modern shopper is often price, which has encouraged a behavior of almost constant, never-ending sales paired with cost-cutting. Instead of offering one good thing that’s been made well, we have many things made to cover all possible consumer bases. This catch-all method of developing market share has dragged on for years, and its consequences are now starting to be felt in high-street balance sheets, with fast fashion retailers such as H&M holding unhealthy amounts of unsold stock from trends of years gone by, with ultimately no resale value. Much has already been said at Put This On about J. Crew’s inability to find its place in a polarising marketplace. In many ways, these companies are struggling because of their inflexibility. High-street companies are established and established businesses have established ways of doing things. They buy from certain fabric suppliers, they use certain factories for garment construction, they make their clothes in countries with favorable exchange rates and employee wages, and they use established distribution networks to deliver their products.
This globalized production model does indeed take advantage of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, which allows fashion brands to use international production to reduce relative costs, and therefore reduce the price of the final product that lands on their shelves. However, these processes also must be run through the corporate mill, from signing off designs over six months in advance, approving fabrics, putting in large seasonal orders at factories, and then dealing with freight lead times. This is a long, drawn-out process that increases the risk of a product hitting or missing with an increasingly discerning consumer when it finally does appear. In their article asking whether apparel manufacturing is coming home, a team of writers at McKinsey recently questioned whether “speed-to-market and in-season reactivity are now more critical than ever to an apparel player’s success.” They also argue that “the industry is at a crossroads where speed beats marginal cost advantage,” and I’m inclined to agree. Modern consumers who want to be ‘on trend’ want to be on trend now and not in six months, while quality conscious consumers are beginning to consider environmental sustainability, ethics, and cost-per-wear metrics. If that comes with sick fades, a rich patina, or hand stitched finishes, all the better. Even Highsnobiety is questioning whether streetwear is hype without substance, and if the industry’s ‘drop model’ is a bubble destined to burst.
The Best Time for Niche Brands
What does this mean for niche designers, brands, and textile producers — those who focus on real quality or those with a coherent voice that resonates with their particular tribe of consumers? Well, as Jerry Evensky writes about Adam Smith, father of modern economics: “Smith believed that we can develop an informed image of the ideal by culling from the lessons of history the principles that lead to progress and thus inform that ideal. For Smith, the ideal is a limit, not achievable but approachable.” So, if brands are to learn from the lessons of the past and approach that ideal, they will need to take advantage of fashion’s technological advances, fashion’s intellectual property, and the establishment of modern logistics and distribution routes. It’s now, like a phoenix from the ashes, that cottage industries should be looking to take advantage of major industry players’ saturated positions and overinflated hype to advance themselves using the internet and direct-to=-consumer marketing, to reach an ever-growing market with the stories of their products, and to create some real connections with their customers.
Speaking to Paul of S.E.H. Kelly, purveyors of “that sleepy British look,” he describes the change as so: “Running a business like ours in the days before the web would have been quite different. I suppose, instead of a website we would’ve sent out catalogs every month, ran classifieds in relevant newspapers and magazines, and perhaps managed some sort of snail-mail list.” While no doubt this would have come with its own set of die-hard catalog collectors, I can’t help feeling that SEH Kelly’s website and Instagram now reach far more passionate followers, creating a larger community, which helps to bolster both S.E.H. Kelly’s business and that of the factories and clothmakers they collaborate with.
So, whether it’s taking advantage of off-season production to produce quality-made basics, using your Saville Row connections, or whether you, in the words of Nigel Cabourn, “create styles that have the quality to last and get better with age,” it looks like now, right now, might be the best time for niche fashion brands to take advantage of “the best time in fashion.” Just maybe not in brick-and-mortar stores at metropolitan centers.