The garment decoration industry seems to be in a good place at the moment and even appears to have weathered the recent economic downturn better than some other industries.
One reason for such positivity within the industry could be that consumer spending on garments is an antidote to economic gloom, however the chief explanation for the industry's resilience will be a familiar one to observers of most major industries over the last decade—the impact of the Internet, digital technology and personalisation (variable data printing).
Personalised garments for all
Of course, one of the biggest, recurring and seasonal trends in the garment supply chain is fashion itself. The materials being sourced, the innovative methods of manufacturing, design and printing, price and end-product location are all affected by the fashion of the day. Changing fashions are nothing new, but the frequency with which they change is.
According to 'fashion Bible' Vogue magazine, the AW2012 craze will include classic heritage print with an emphasis on Paisley patterns. There can be no denying that printed fabrics, regardless of whether they are screen - or digitally printed, are still at the heart of the industry. In terms of meeting the consumer's demands, it's the retailers that are in the immediate line of fire, but ultimately, the entire supply chain is being driven by the essential ability to foresee– and respond to- coming trends, and the high expectations of their clientele.
The culture of individualism has grown exponentially as celebrities, and consequently the general public have become more celebrated for their ability to create their own unique 'look'. Stores like Primark, H&M and Zara have risen to the challenge to tackle the fast fashion turnover. Offering stocks that change once a month, they appear to transfer clothes from the catwalk to the shop-floor in a matter of weeks, if not days.
For clothing manufacturers and garment printers, the quickening pace of fashion has created tremendous pressure, with companies working harder than ever to meet the deadline and quality demands of buyers. It has also opened up a gap in the market for new technologies to come through and make an impression on the apparel industry. Direct to Garment (DTG) printers, from companies such as Israeli supplier Kornit Digital, are increasingly common. With excellent image quality, the printer can transfer ink directly onto material, allowing unlimited colours and shades to be printed.
DTG is also ideal for fulfilling short run orders, meaning it can print one t-shirt or 100 without problems or wastage- ideal for a market where a prototype for each new line is a prerequisite, and new lines are tested with increasing regularity.
Companies who are quick to respond to customer demand will thrive in today's extremely competitive market, even with increasing material and manufacturing costs.
Power of online purchasing
The Internet has affected every single part of our lives, our communication methods, our shopping techniques and the general way we consume information.
On one hand, the consequences have been positive, with the development of global supply chains and global 24/7 customer bases. However, it has forced the industry to respond to more savvy consumers who demand more choice, instant availability of garments in a range of styles, and are quick to desert underperforming brands or outlets.
The most important lesson to learn is how the Internet and digital print technology have changed the industry in recent years, and why it will never be the same again.
The Internet connects all the players in the industry—consumers, designers, brand owners, decorators and retailers. Moreover, some consumers are finding ways to cut out the retailers all together, using the internet as a source for locating clothing designers and ordering items directly from their creator. It's yet another way for shoppers to state their individualism by rejecting high street and big name fashion lines.
Adding customer value by personalisation
Another movement the Internet has helped to cultivate is garment personalisation. Mass customization has been the "next big thing" in product strategy for a very long time, enabling the printer to add extra value to the customer beyond the traditional printed graphic.
Today's customer-facing technologies are less expensive and a lot more social. Consumers increasingly expect to be able to customise products in minute detail. Configurators, which help customers co-design their customized product purchases, are cheaper, better, and more ubiquitous than ever. Through variable data printing, customers can create a shirt unique to them by adding their name, personal image or phrase. They can also be integrated directly into a Facebook site to facilitate social sharing and group co-design activities.
The more revolutionary, creative and personal the creative experience is for the customer, the more appealing mass customized products will become. For example, Microsoft's Xbox Kinect shows the pathway towards the ultra-configurator: a device that can measure body contours and allow customers to put their own personal 'stamp' to a product's design, e.g. customers will be able to add pin-stripes or a hand drawn design onto a dress they are co-designing.
At a more basic level, a Google search for "customised rhinestone t-shirts" generates over 4.9 million links, highlighting the popularity of mixed-media garments where the emphasis is on "bling". Due to developments with low cost methods to duplicate the same design over and over using rhinestones, the printer can now benefit from the increased print margins.
The work-wear market, sporting goods, and school/university/club clothing are also big business for manufacturers. Tapping into that culture of individualism, these garments and the logos or messages they carry are an important aspect of personal identity. But personalisation isn't always as straightforward as adding some bling, branding it with a heat-transferred logo, foil branding or stitching a club shield on the arm; some consumers want all three on the same piece.
In spite of the growing demand for customisation, few of the larger high street stores, except perhaps Nike whose Nike iD range allows you to build and customise your own training shoes, have found a way to meet consumer requirements - yet. For those looking to add an aspect of their personality to their top, they must visit the online environment or local textile printing store. This door seems to be wide open; the question is whether any of the larger retail brand owners will take the leap. Digital garment printing technology certainly makes it possible.
Temptation of digital printing
Digital printing in garment is perfect for the short runs and fast turnarounds that underpin the "Just-In-Time" supply chains. It also slashes brand owners' time-to-market and, by making it easier to test market new ideas, encourages creativity. Plus it meets those consumer expectations of being able to personalise products and get them quickly over the Internet.
Not surprisingly, digital is already tempting new players in garment decoration to explore the potential for turning a profit from new business models. IT Strategies' research, for example, sees three types of companies investing in direct-to-garment inkjet: screen printers and embroiderers who are already in the direct-to-garment business; T-shirt printers currently using thermal transfer or colour laser printers and copiers, and companies that are totally new to the market, such as internet retailers and photographers.
It is well known that these are challenging times for business, but the opportunities in garment decoration are enormous. The businesses that thrive will be those that embrace new ideas.