Interior of a Resonance Companies facility in Manhattan.
In September 2021, Resonance Companies opened a micro-sewing facility in Manhattan, where workers at 12 sewing stations stitch garments for 30 brands. — Resonance Companies

Why it matters:

  • Consumer sentiment, especially among millennial and Gen Z shoppers, is shifting away from mass-produced apparel manufacturing and towards sustainable, locally sourced clothing options.
  • The supply chain crisis has fashion brands looking for new methods of manufacturing.
  • Independent fashion designers, third-party manufacturers and commercial real estate owners stand to benefit from the trend.

The phrase “slow fashion” was coined in 2007 to identify a movement away from cheap, disposable fast fashion to clothes that are made locally, sustainably sourced and designed to be worn for years, not just a single season.

Now in 2022, shifts in consumer sentiment, new technologies and supply chain disruptions have expanded the definition of slow fashion and turned it into one of the fastest-growing trends in the apparel industry.

‘Sustainability is dominating consumer priorities and the fashion agenda’

In a survey conducted for the State of Fashion 2022 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., top fashion executives cited sustainability as both their biggest challenge and their biggest opportunity.

“More than ever, sustainability is dominating consumer priorities and the fashion agenda,” the report states.

Apparel and footwear companies increasingly are realizing that what’s good for the planet is also good for business, Cindy Elliott, director of business industry sector and corporate responsibility at analytics firm Esri, and a board member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told CO—.

“We are seeing this kind of extraordinary convergence now between business and environmental intelligence,” Elliott. “They are no longer separate from each other.”

Much of the made-to-order and slow fashion trend is happening at a “hyper-regional level,” with local communities being the “first line of engagement” for the consumer, but national and global brands such as Nike and Nordstrom are also innovating in the space, Elliott said.

An April 2021 survey by sustainable manufacturing company Genomatica found that a third of U.S. consumers said they would buy all their clothing at a sustainable store if one existed, and that more than 30% would support a “fast-fashion-tax” on unsustainable clothes.

The slow fashion trend encompasses everything from artisans and craftspeople selling handmade garments on Etsy, to next-generation manufacturers who are using the latest technology to deliver made-to-order clothes, made quickly.

Sisters Mica and Maya Caine launched Mive, an online slow-fashion sustainable marketplace in 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. The online site incorporates made-to-measure technology for size inclusivity, and Mive partners with designers in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and in Europe to create made-to-order clothes.

In December, Mive launched its own brand, Mithri, which it will manufacture in its own facility in Columbus.

[Read: The Zero-Waste Movement Is Creating Opportunities for Businesses Large and Small]

Making sustainable fashion as accessible as locally sourced food

Erin Houston and Emily Kenney founded Wearwell, a membership subscription service for sustainable apparel, after they saw how difficult it was to find sustainably sourced clothes for themselves.

“We were shopping locally and sustainably for our food, but when it came to our clothing and accessories, we realized it was just too time-consuming and difficult to shop that way,” Houston, Wearwell’s CEO, told CO—. “Not because the products we wanted didn’t exist – it just took a lot of research and digging around to find the things that fit your personal style, your budget, and the impact you wanted to make,” she said.

Wearwell offers 45 brands to its 1,400 subscription members. Its latest round of fundraising included investment by Refashiond Ventures, an early-stage supply chain technology fund.

[Read: Brands Leverage Diversity-Driven Marketing and Authentic Engagement to Court Gen Z]

Apparel and footwear companies increasingly are realizing that what’s good for the planet is also good for business.

Cindy Elliott, director of business industry sector and corporate responsibility, Esri

A made-to-order model designed to reduce overstock

Daniel Ralsky, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Satchel & Page, which makes heirloom quality leather bags and accessories, has seen that consumers increasingly are willing to pay more for something that will last.

The company’s briefcases, which have an average price of $500, were inspired by Ralsky’s grandfather’s map case from World War II and are meant to be passed on to future generations, Ralsky told CO—.

“We’re not a fashion brand at all. We’re still selling our first collection – the exact same designs – eight years later,” he said.

Lawrence Lenihan, chairman and co-founder of Resonance Companies, is on a mission to make fashion more sustainable, but he dislikes the phrase “slow fashion.” Made-to-order and made sustainably [don’t] have to mean slower, he told CO—. A sustainable sourcing strategy can also get designs by new creators to market instantly, with delivery times akin to current online orders.

In September, Resonance Companies opened its first micro-sewing facility in Manhattan, where workers at 12 sewing stations stitch garments for 30 brands including big names like Rebecca Minkoff, and up and coming brands like Tucker by Gaby Basora, The Kit by Daniel Vosovic and JCRT.

The garments are only made after a customer has ordered them online, eliminating wasteful production of styles and sizes that may not sell. An automated factory in the Dominican Republic prints and cuts the needed fabric, giving Resonance the ability to fill orders quickly.

The garments are tagged with a QR code that lets consumers see how the garment was sourced and made.

Resonance, which has raised $45 million in funding since its launch, plans to eventually have a network of third-party sewing facilities around the country producing clothes close to where they will be delivered and worn.

The Resonance model was envisioned to allow designers to create faster, and more profitably, than the old fashion production model, which requires brands to order large quantities of styles and sizes a year or more in advance, and mark down or destroy unsold goods.

Brands using the platform are doing $3 million to $5 million in sales with staffs of one to two people, and generating 15% pre-tax margins, Lenihan said. “They have positive cash flow every step of the way,” he said.

Today, to be a successful fashion brand, he said, “You’ve got to be profitable; you have to have cash flow. But you also have to be sustainable—you have to be responsible because our strong belief is that there are going to be real economic costs associated with not being so.”

Slow fashion market challenges: Retraining consumer expectations and scaling growth

From a consumer perspective, made-to-order still is slower than buying clothes in a typical chain store, “since they can’t walk out of a store with their made-to-order item,” Michelle Kluz, a partner in the consumer practice of strategy and management consulting firm Kearney, told CO—.

And while made-to-order and make-it-after-it-sells sourcing models are very attractive to brands for many reasons, thus far, they’ve have been difficult to scale, Kluz said.

“I do expect that we’ll see more brands trying it on a small scale, either to test styles, for production of products deemed riskier to buy in bulk, or for a made-in-America message,” she said. But “until it becomes competitively priced with overseas garments, businesses at scale will often find that the cost-benefit analysis is still tipped in favor of mass production,” Kluz said.

Consumers ultimately will be the change agents in deciding whether slower and more sustainable fashion replaces fast fashion, Elliott told CO—.

She expects to see more and more sustainability-focused brands for consumers to choose from. But, Elliot said, “it is [consumer] spending that makes the decision.”

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