Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An article on Shape by Vanessa Friedman

On the latest article is one about shape and fit and my experience as a fit model inspired me to share this article. I did fit for a teen, tween brand, and I do feel that fashion designers and those in the world of design need to wake up and know that the average girl is short. Yes, without heels, like under 5'5"! Which means her legs are not able to fit in the length of those pants, and the waist and arm length is not fitting and balanced to fit her. If they want to get the sale, the design has to fit and when I shop I hate to also calculate "how much will this cost me to tailor?" It can be a pain in the a**. Enjoy the article and Thanks Vanessa!

Shaper of change for fashion world
By Vanessa Friedman

Published: December 10 2008 02:00 |

As moments of epiphany go, Janice Wang's seems less than Damascene. "Have you seen a toddler? They're all bums and tums," she says. "But if you look at a mannequin of a toddler, it's a little shrunken adult body, like a little alien. If you're making clothes and using that as the model, it's not going to work."

In recent years, though, the 31-year-old Chinese entrepreneur and chief executive of Alvanon has built a multimillion-dollar business on the back of this observation. Her Hong Kong-based start-up makes mannequins - not the Barbie-like bodies found in department stores, but the forms that are used as the basis for the fashion industry's clothes patterns. With 65 employees and a factory in China, the company expects revenues this year to reach $15m.

The wider significance of Ms Wang's high-precision mannequins, however, has been to slash the time it takes the garment business to get its products from factory to shop floor, while more accurately reflecting contemporary physiques.

In today's mass market fashion business, a relatively small problem between factory and design studio can be time-consuming to resolve. As the garment sector has globalised in the past decade, production has increasingly moved to low-cost countries far from head office. Where a designer or executive could once tell the factory manager down the road why a sleeve needed to be longer, the factory might now be on the other side of the world, and staffed by employees who speak a different language.

Sizing matters. According to a study by Kurt Salmon Associates, the retail consultancy firm, around 85 per cent of customers would return to a brand because of how its clothes fit. This has big implications for the bottom line. Good mannequins on the production line can greatly improve accuracy of fit while reducing the need for designers and samples to travel back and forth for multiple tweaks.

Which begs the question: why did a change not come sooner? "Everyone also thought mannequins were a [craft] business - something you did with your hands, which is to say a niche thing," says Ms Wang, a slight but self-possessed woman. "They had never thought about how you could apply technology to the process."

The garment trade is in her blood. The eldest of five children (she has four brothers) born into a Hong Kong manufacturing family, Ms Wang began cutting swatches and sorting buttons in her early teens before spending summers on the factory and trading floor. The original family business, Sterling Products, had been launched in 1955 by her grandmother, a refugee from the Cultural Revolution, as the Asian partner of an American children's wear company called Mamiye Brothers. Kenneth Wang, Ms Wang's father, later became head of the company and now also chairs the board of Alvanon, Sterling's sister company.

"I always felt manufacturing was a part of me, which is typical of a lot of my peers in Hong Kong," says Ms Wang, "but I could also see that there was a trend towards the manufacturing business getting more and more difficult; the margins were eroding and the competition was getting bigger, and we were working on pennies."

Educated in the UK (at Cheltenham Ladies College) and Hong Kong, she majored in East Asian studies and economics at Barnard College in the US. Her first start-up was Texwatch, a fashion internet business that fell victim to the dotcom crash. She then joined Li & Fung, a sourcing and trading company with revenues of $10bn. Her role was to look at improving company performance.

"It made me realise, first, that everyone has a similar experience and issues," she says. "Second, timing is everything and, third, implementation is hard. It's easy to identify problems; difficult to fix them. But the problems this company had were not that dissimilar from my father's problems, so I realised if I could create a product that would address some of them, it wouldn't necessarily require much, but would have a major impact."

It was here that she conceived Alvanon, named after Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor, which she founded with seed funding from her father in 2002.

The idea was simple: create anatomically accurate mannequins using three-dimensional scanners. Ms Wang says that potential clients initially balked at both her youth and the product's expense - the mannequins cost an average of $15,000 more than the ones previously in use - and in the first year revenues were under $100,000. But the turning point lay in the realisation that the company could demonstrate that proper sizing gave its clients a significant marketing edge.

Early converts were brands such as Liz Claiborne and Target, and the company now lists almost all the big mass-market brands as clients, including Boden, Debenhams, Disney and Nike. In six years Ms Wang's factory has grown from 1,000 sq ft to 15,000-20,000 sq ft, and her business has expanded at a rate of 35 per cent a year. She also diversified into consulting, after clients began asking her questions such as: "I need to target 18-30 year olds on the East Coast of the US; what should my ideal shape be? Larger in the hips or smaller on the legs?"

It is this, Ms Wang says, that defines the niche she has created: her company is attempting not only to make mannequins, but to provide any service related to size issues, including questions of inventory and stock planning.

It is also why she is increasingly looking to the world of luxury for growth. As China becomes the new promised land, companies are grappling with creating well-fitting clothes for the smaller bodies of Asian consumers.

To this end Alvanon recently scanned the bodies of 32,000 Chinese consumers: when the results are compiled Ms Wang should be able to tell a client brand if there is any point in it, say, shipping extra-large sizes, not extra-smalls, to the Beijing store, and how many size 6s it will need to maximise sales.

"Executives often know the answers to stuff intuitively," she says, "but if you're putting money into product development, you want proof. It's not enough just to go out into the malls and look. You need numbers."

Hasty decision to diversify that taught a lesson in simplicity

Janice Wang, founder of Alvanon, says her biggest mistake was trying to diversify too quickly.

From 2002 she spent two years trying to follow up her initial success with fashion mannequins by marketing a computer programme that would enable companies to model the way a garment would look on a body in three dimensions.

In theory this would allow brand owners and manufacturers to make virtual changes in real time, eliminating the time and cost of shipping samples. In reality, no one wanted it, Ms Wang says.

"First, it was very slow - we were pushing 15 megabytes back and forth, and the bandwidth was not powerful enough. That has changed now, but it was too early."

A more fundamental problem emerged, however. "The biggest hurdle was people's habits," Ms Wang continues. "If you say to a company, 'You can have this mannequin in two weeks, and it will cut your costs now, or this technology that won't really be ready for two years and then you will have to retrain everyone' - what do you think they'll pick? It really taught me the importance of focusing on implementation, not just ideas, and that you should never be afraid to start with the most obvious solution."

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