How Steve Jobs Explained My Love for Fashion-tech

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Why is fashion tech so exciting right now? Because reinventing supply chains, reconfiguring manufacturing, and reimagining how we approach sizing and fit could turn a trillion-dollar industry on its head. By Carrie Mantha (Founder & CEO, Indira)

I was asked on Quora recently to quantify the difference between haute couture and mass apparel in terms of construction quality. Interestingly, the question was asked relative to a “lost” Steve Jobs quote about software/programmer quality and ended up revealing why I find it so exciting to be innovating in fashion-tech right now.

Steve Jobs’ comment, from a recently unearthed 1995 interview, is as follows:

In most businesses, the difference between average and good is at best two to one, right? Like, if you go to New York and you get the best cab driver in the city, you might get there 30% faster than with an average taxicab driver. A two to one gain would be pretty big.

The difference between the best worker on computer hardware and the average may be one to one, if you're lucky. With automobiles, maybe two to one. But in software, it's at least 25 to one.

Taking this argument to fashion products, I would argue that the difference between an haute couture garment and a mass market garment is far closer to that 25 to one ratio than two to one, especially in terms of construction quality and complexity.

Why is this? The primary reason is cost. Garment manufacturing to date has been a relatively linear process insofar as few companies have found a way to leverage their labor costs. More complicated, higher-quality construction takes more labor time and thus more labor dollars to manufacture.

Haute couture is designed to sell at a high price point (or more realistically, is allocated a large budget to spend on construction of garments that serve as marketing for lower price point items), so more labor time can be spent on interesting details and quality assurance. Mass market items, on the other hand, are designed to turn a profit at a low price point, so manufacturers are forced to cut costs on both materials and labor. Some cost savings are realized by purchasing fabric in bulk, but the majority comes from using less and lower-quality fabric and from spending less time on construction.

Beyond cost, systemic differences in the ways apparel is manufactured contribute to the quality disparity. Haute couture items are generally assembled start-to-finish with one person leading the process. That person has ultimate responsibility for the quality of the garment, is directed to pay close attention to that quality, and is often compensated based on the quality of each garment.

Low-price garments, on the other hand, are generally created in a batch process, similar to a traditional assembly line. With each person responsible for only one part of the process (i.e. one particular seam), no one person has ultimate responsibility for the quality of the outcome. Furthermore, errors introduced early in the assembly process tend to be continued or even amplified as the garments are handed down the line.

"Fast fashion" has made the contrast in quality even more stark. In the past, low priced garments might be made of very simple construction of reasonable quality. Now, low price point garments are more likely to mimic their higher priced counterparts in style, so instead of sacrificing construction complexity, manufacturers sacrifice construction quality.

Some newer companies have narrowed the quality delta by removing retail costs and reinvesting them in construction. Everlane, Bonobos, Elizabeth & Clarke, and Knot Standard all deliver higher quality products than similar-priced competitors by selling direct to consumers. Their direct, online-only models allow them to invest in better quality fabrics and finishings without raising prices.

Notably, however, these companies focus on staples that are relatively simple, conservative garments. Those are large markets, no doubt, but the fact that innovative companies delivering high-quality products are all focused on staples is also driven by a lack of innovation in apparel manufacturing.

Outsourcing manufacturing to contractors using the same methods and machinery that have been in place for over 50 years binds companies to that linear system: the amount you can spend on construction labor directly dictates how much quality and complexity you can put in a garment. That, however, provides a tremendous opportunity for the next wave of fashion-tech innovation.

Reinventing supply chains, reconfiguring manufacturing systems, and reimagining how we approach sizing and fit are not only exciting intellectual pursuits, they’re a path to delighting customers and meaningfully impacting a trillion-dollar industry.

We don’t have to inch down that 25 to one ratio between haute couture and mass market products — we can take a giant leap and narrow the gap to next-to-nothing. And we can create deeper, more exciting connections between online and offline products by innovating simultaneously on software, hardware, and processes. Innovators in fashion-tech have the opportunity to do something else Steve Jobs admired: “going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful.”

Photo credit: A Continuous Lean via Flickr.

Women 2.0 readers: What other old-school industries are ripe for innovation?

About the guest blogger: Carrie Mantha is the founder and CEO of Indira, a fashion-tech startup that delivers couture-quality customized bridesmaid dresses, accessories, gifts, and wedding décor via an interactive online atelier. She has a passion for making things bigger, better, faster, and prettier. A former Miss Florida USA, physician, and investment professional, she was responsible for over 500 million dollars in biotechnology investments and is a die-hard Florida Gator. Follow her on Twitter at @CarrieMantha.