Sunday, April 28, 2013

Accepting Change

When I first started my career as a young design assistant, I had no idea how frequently things change in the world of fashion. Yes, I knew things could quickly move in and out of style, and I always heard about how fast the world of fashion moves. What I didn’t know was how much a product could change within the design process. It was a mystery until I made it through my first product life cycle. For those outside the fashion industry, maybe some background would be helpful. Color, fabric, details and styling are generally conceived about a year before a customer ever sees the product. Financial plans are made, strategies are built and prototypes are put into work. As more information becomes available, meetings to review prototypes, financial plans and customer behaviors are discussed. This is what we call the product life cycle. With each check point and meeting there are changes. Changes to the amount of product needed, changes to the type of product needed, changes to the fabric, changes to the styling, changes to the color, and other changes seem infinite from the moment of conception all the way until the customer sees the product. There’s even been a case where, as a young designer, I was sent to the retail selling floor to change out a label. Changes were endless.  What was next, heading to the customer’s closet to make an update they requested?

When I first started working, I thought the changes were going to drive me crazy. A manager would drop by, make a declarative statement regarding the color red. In the industry, this is sometimes referred to as the “swoop and poop”, as in the manager swoops in and poops on whatever it was you had planned for that day. As a consequence to the manager’s disapproval, the team would change to a new color and work until midnight in order to update the corresponding paperwork. It wasn’t quite the glamorous career for which I was hoping. I had come to learn about three different types of change after I had a year of professional experience under my belt: natural change, business change and indecisive change.

Natural Change-These are changes that happen because something doesn’t work out the way you thought it would. An example would be:  when a prototype comes in and looks ridiculous. There was one famous situation where I selected a button to put on a jacket. The button selection process takes place in the paperwork stage. I was a young designer and I didn’t have a reference point, so I just added the button that I thought would look good.  When the sample came in, it was clear that I was wrong. My production counterpart still makes fun of me to this day regarding that button size. She said they looked like dinner plates on the jacket. Of course, I had to make this change.  This tends to happen less the more you know what you are doing, but can never fully be eliminated if you are taking risks on new strategies or product.

Business Change- This is change that results from customer behavior. For example, the team built a line of shirts. Later, we see the shirts currently on the market were not selling. The trend had changed and our customers no longer wanted to buy shirts. We cancelled most shirts that were in development and changed our strategy to build a line of dresses for our customer. We had a few dresses online and the sales were fantastic. This was what the customer wanted to buy.  We made this change in order to grow profits and revenue.

Indecisive Change- This is change that happens because of competing opinions. There is no one to make a final decision and each mid-level manager contributes an opinion that is not consistent. Again when I was a young designer, I sketched a black and white sweater with a striped pattern. My merchant and I agreed it looked great. A senior merchant later came into the picture and said she didn’t like the stripe pattern, change it and make it more colorful. A more senior designer came in, saw the style, and said the yarn quality wasn’t right. Change it. A director saw the sweater and said ‘why is this stripe so colorful? Why don’t you make this black and white?’ Then it was time to show the sweater prototype to the president of the division in one of those meeting check points. When he saw the product, he asked why I didn’t use the specific yarn quality he saw in the first presentation. He thought that was great. The changes brought the product full circle back to the original design.

I had an ‘aha’ moment after a couple of years in the fashion industry. Here it is: change is just part of the job and one cannot completely avoid it. Once I firmly accepted that change happens and is part of working in fashion, my job satisfaction significantly increased. In the course of my career I learned it was impossible to avoid any of the three forms of change. If dealing with change is currently a struggle for you, you have three choices: accept it, minimize it or get out of the industry. Tomorrow: how can you minimize change?

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