The Oxford School of Fast Fashion
By Michael D. Cole — July 03, 2008
Oxford Collections, an apparel designer with a heritage dating back 70 years, is certainly not immune to the competitive challenges of today's breakneck industry.
"A growing part of our business is fast fashion," says Mark Wolk, the firm's president. "It is what we're becoming known for. Speed to market is so critical as retailers reduce their calendars."
Oxford Collections is undergoing transformation on several fronts.
Previously it was the women's wear division of its namesake, publicly traded Atlanta-based Oxford Industries, where its niche focused on supplying retailers including Target and Wal-Mart. In 2006, the firm was sold to Hong Kong-headquartered Li & Fung Ltd., in a transaction typifying the rampant globalization of the apparel industry (estimates of the sale range from $37 million to $60 million).
The acquisition was an early step in supporting Li & Fung's stated strategy to build its U.S. presence and complement its core sourcing competencies with other functional value-added operations across the supply chain, including design, access to retailers and logistics support. (Since its purchase of the Oxford unit, Li & Fung has acquired four Liz Claiborne brands as well as the global sourcing operations of Tommy Hilfiger.)
Today, as a subsidiary of Li & Fung USA, Oxford Collections, based in New York, has expanded its breadth; while serving a similar customer base it now specializes in the design and product development of a wide range of sportswear and some swimwear - across men's, women's and children's categories. Its portfolio includes both licensed brands and private labels. "Li & Fung is a very aggressive company," Wolk comments. "There's no question that [the acquisition] has been very energizing to our organization."
That assessment is especially evident through design initiatives such as a unique David Bowie-inspired collection of eclectic men's wear it recently collaborated on for Target. The limited fall 2007 collection, "Bowie by Keanan Duffty," featured tuxedo jackets and pants, dress shirts and t-shirts with music-related decals. (Duffty, a fashion-designer-turned-musician from the U.K., has idolized Bowie since childhood.)
The involvement of Oxford Collections (which continues to develop other "Keanan Duffty for Target" lines) with the distinctive David Bowie collection is illustrative of how a focus on fashion has stretched throughout the industry even into the mass merchandiser realm, low-cost pressures notwithstanding.
And according to Wolk, such design undertakings have been significantly facilitated by his company's deployment of CAD technology, adopted two years ago.
Optimizing its workflow
Oxford Collections selected a suite of CAD tools from OptiTex, including its Pattern Design System Grading and Digitize (PDS) software. With implementation, the fashion house upgraded its pattern making, having relied solely on manual processes previously. In installing OptiTex, Oxford Collections also replaced a prior system it used for grading and marking, a program it deemed to be outdated. The company went live on the OptiTex software within six months of selection, a timeframe largely based on training needs.
Though the selection of OptiTex was finalized around the time of Li & Fung's acquisition, Wolk notes that industry demands had already influenced the company to select the system well before the sale. OptiTex's customer list includes Target; the solution is also being used by Li & Fung overseas.
"It was actually because our retail partners were already using OptiTex that we first entertained the idea [of choosing it]," he says. "Being able to communicate with them by having the same software means we can ultimately hold hands all the way from our retailers to our production pattern makers in Asia and we can all be speaking the same language."
Additionally, Wolk says the OptiTex system offers ample compatibility in communicating with manufacturing vendors that are using alternative CAD systems (including programs offered by Lectra, which Wolk points out are particularly popular in Asia).
Working with Target, Oxford Collections receives a design pack from the retailer with specifications. Oxford downloads a sloper placed on an FTP site by Target, and the company creates patterns to support the design pack. Oxford Collections checks for size specifications to ensure a match with the sloper and relays that information to its vendor factories.
In collaborating overseas, Wolk says CAD patterns produced from OptiTex are often completed by nighttime and transported electronically to Li & Fung's Asian sample room. "It is morning when employees on their end receive," he notes. "They can start their day by making samples and begin planning their markers." The process averts costly (and timely) overnight shipping charges that were utilized previously, says Wolk.
Beyond all those advantages, other tangible workflow benefits have been dramatic, according to Wolk, who says transitioning from paper pattern designs to CAD automation has yielded noteworthy efficiencies. Typically, manual processes, utilizing papers, pens, scissors and rulers, consume an entire day creating a pattern. Further corrections to a garment such as "slash and spread" and other alterations often require another half-day's work of tracing and re-cutting around new patterns. By contrast, Oxford's CAD system routinely performs such functions within a matter of seconds.
Room for even further advancement
Mindful that its designers are accustomed to earlier established processes (some had never operated computers), Oxford Collections adopted an incremental approach to CAD implementation, Wolk says. The firm started out with four workstations installed with the OptiTex solution, but has since doubled that total to eight.
"It's a challenging transition for pattern makers who have been schooled and educated [manually] and all their experiences have been based around that," Wolk says. "With newer people in the industry, [CAD is] sometimes an easier adjustment." Wolk says in some special cases, because some of the company's designers "are so well skilled at the manual function of pattern making, we still allow them to do that but we can still plot the pattern [via OptiTex] and transmit everything overseas. We still get the same benefits of speed."
Despite all the enhancements already realized, Wolk anticipates even greater technological improvements for the future, some which he expects to be achieved pending Li & Fung's eventual selection of an organization-wide product lifecycle management (PLM) system.
Although Oxford Collection's technical designers are currently using OptiTex's 2D CAD system, the company had already implemented the CAD provider's more sophisticated 3D Runway Designer and 3D Runway Creator Software at the outset of implementation two years ago. Wolk says the company will ultimately graduate to the use of the advanced solution.
"There are levels of the software that go from the fundamental to the complex so we've taken it slowly," Wolk says. "There's always more to learn in this industry. But this has been a huge time saver."
Michael D. Cole is associate editor of Apparel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org fast facts
Company: Oxford Collections
Headquarters: New York
Specialty: Designer of men's, women's and children's apparel.
Recent Developments: Sold by Oxford Industries to Li & Fung in 2006. Company is now part of Li & Fung USA.