The customized, environmentally friendly future of fashion

After moving up the corporate ladder in fashion retail, Sherri Barry (MBA ’10) returned to school to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a fashion designer. While learning the ins and outs of design, development, and manufacturing, she launched her own company and line of women’s apparel in 2008. It didn’t take long for Barry to discover the challenges up-and-coming fashion designers face in bringing their creations to market.

“One of the fundamental problems in the industry is manufacturing smaller quantities,” she explains. “It is too cost-prohibitive. I met so many designers and, universally, everyone has the same issue.”

Smaller batches were often pulled off the production line to accommodate high-volume orders mass-produced by established brands, and glitches in the supply chain were common. One such error converted Barry’s pattern measurements from inches to centimeters, resulting in pieces that were too small, ruining her $25,000 order — a major setback for her business.

Despite that, Barry’s experience on the front lines opened new doors. In 2016, she founded the Arizona Fashion Source, a small-batch apparel manufacturer in Tempe, Arizona. The same year, she and her current business partner, fashion designer Angela Johnson, established F.A.B.R.I.C., a fashion incubator, and the nonprofit Arizona Apparel Foundation. Both organizations offer emerging designers resources to build their brands and grow them locally and sustainably.

“It’s extraordinarily complicated to launch a fashion line, especially from a different city,” Barry says. “We both had to shut down our businesses because there were no local resources, and we knew that happened to hundreds of other designers.” The city of Tempe embraced Barry and Johnson’s mission to support its local talent and donated use of its former 26,000-square-foot performing arts center to house the nonprofit. In the past two years, F.A.B.R.I.C. and the Arizona Apparel Foundation have provided more than $1 million in programs and services back to the community and helped launch 300 independent fashion brands.

“The city of Tempe is proud of the partnership with F.A.B.R.I.C., as it supports our city council’s financial stability and vitality strategic priority by creating new businesses, which create new jobs in our community. F.A.B.R.I.C. also supports our goals for small businesses and arts and culture, thus making it a great fit for our community,” says city of Tempe Economic Development Director Donna Kennedy.

“The model is based on pulling together a public, social, co-op enterprise,” Barry says. For her part, Barry’s company offers pattern making, with no minimum requirements. Designers can also tap educational consulting, marketing, and creative services and utilize the nonprofit’s photography studio and event space for fashion shows.

“We call it the headquarters to Arizona’s fashion industry,” Barry says. “Now we are working on building a 21st-century factory so designers can make smaller batches for niche segments and do it reliably, responsibly, and sustainably.” Devoting nearly two decades to retail fashion pre-internet, launching her own fashion line, and working with artists who are now growing their brands in ways that were never before possible thanks to technology and social media — it all gives Barry a unique perspective on retail trends of the past and future.

Once upon a time

Barry spent her early career in retail management at Famous Footwear, where she rose to divisional vice president and ran 350 stores on the West Coast. At the time, fashion lines required million-dollar advertising budgets for print, TV, and traditional media, and the industry cycled by season.

“Buyers would guess what would sell and they’d mass-produce it and hope they were right,” Barry says. Companies moved to manufacture overseas and retail expanded with power strip centers and malls opening everywhere. “It was a race to make items at low cost and high volume to put them in more stores,” she says. Fashion styles also became very generic, and companies started knocking off trendy items to beat the others to market.

The mass production of this era created sustainability issues that the industry still grapples with today: According to Barry, fashion ranks second next to petroleum and oil as the most high-polluting industry. What’s more, mass production created an excess of clothing along with textiles that are not biodegradable.

Tuning in

Since the introduction of e-commerce, fashion retail has undergone a major transformation to accommodate increasingly socially conscious consumers. Technology and social media enable designers today to not only build brands but also express their personalities beyond their creations, like their commitment to the environment.

The demand for styles has changed as well. In the past, younger consumers wanted to wear what everyone else was wearing, but today, “everyone wants to be an individual,” Barry explains, adding that retail is moving toward more individualized products, reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. “It’s why everyone loved fashion,” she explains. “You could always find the next unique thing. When fashion became homogenized and industrialized, it lost that.”

Today, brands are personalizing items, and social media makes it possible for consumers to interact and choose colors, fits, and styles. Many big brands are also opening pop-up shops with individualized products that can’t be found anywhere else. For example, a Vans store in Manhattan offers customers one-of-a-kind prints on its tennis shoes, Barry says.

Buyers are monitoring social media to gauge what consumers want instead of guessing, and the market has switched from push to pull.

“It’s completely flip-flopped,” Barry says. “Everyone’s looking toward social media and where their customers live so that they can produce what the customers want, instead of what they think customers want and pushing it into the market and hoping it will sell.”

Today’s retailers need to be on multiple channels — internet brands are moving to retail stores and retail stores are moving online and to social media. Consumers are much more segmented, as well. “If you’re a millennial, you’re shopping on Instagram and Snapchat and you’re looking for stuff your influencers have,” Barry says. “If you’re a baby boomer, you may be on Facebook and shop in traditional stores.”

Fashion forward

Barry predicts that if retailers are not providing customers with engaging retail experiences, they will not remain competitive. What’s more, brands need to craft strong social personalities beyond the garments they sell and keep up with ever-changing technology to remain relevant.

“If they aren’t presenting a brand and personality that resonates with their customers uniformly and uniquely and marketing on all of those channels, they’re not going to survive,” she says.

What does the future hold for fashion? Beautifully made, heirloom-quality custom garments, a continuing trend toward customization to serve niche markets, and local micromanufacturing. There will also be a continued trend toward environmentally friendly fashions.

Barry predicts that 10 to 20 years out, consumers will be designing their own clothing on virtual avatars, “kind of like ‘The Jetsons.’ I’m very excited and hopeful about the future in fashion,” she says. “I believe we can sustainably and responsibly bring that age of individualized fashion back, people can express themselves uniquely and wear things that make them delighted, and retail stores will offer unique experiences and entertainment that make shopping fun again.”

By Claire Curry
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