In a famous scene from The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s ice queen fashion editor disdainfully dresses down her clueless assistant for failing to grasp the importance of the fashion establishment, ending by telling her, “you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”
The world has changed a lot in the 15 years since The Devil Wears Prada was released, but the decisions about which trends will show up on retail shop floors are still largely centralised. And even though social media has democratised access to information and made consumer preferences more accessible than ever before, the input of end consumers is still conspicuously absent when it comes to fashion brands’ collection planning.
Fashion production volumes have ballooned over the past few decades. But it’s clear that while fashion brands can now more easily produce huge volumes of inventory, there’s a mismatch between supply and demand. Tens of billions of garments every year are produced and never sold, and within the industry, 75% sell-through is still considered great performance.
Co-creation with customers offers a better way forward. It provides a means for brands to involve their customers in the process of product development, helping to ensure the production of items customers actually want to buy. It offers a path to cutting down on unsustainable overproduction by better matching supply and demand. And increasingly, it’s what consumers want: 44 percent of Gen Z wants to be in on product design, and 66 percent say it’s important for brands to value their opinion.
Some brands are already impressively successful at involving their customers in product development. Zara is the classic industry case study in building a feedback loop between customers and product, but newer brands are seizing on the practice too. The DTC beauty darling Glossier has co-created its way to over $100 million in revenue by “listening and continuing to listen [to customers] at scale.” Rebecca Minkoff has embraced crowdsourcing as a core product-development strategy. And the Swedish brand NA-KD, which has over $250 million in sales, has produced an entire collection based on input from Instagram followers.
While social media has made end consumers vastly more accessible, it’s still possible to get co-creation wrong. Conducting an Instagram poll of a brand’s followers about what they like usually isn’t sufficient, because the items consumers “like” aren’t necessarily the ones they want to buy. Customer input must be controlled and standardised, and collected together with information on demographics and sizing. But when it’s done right, co-creation can be a powerful tool for generating decisive predictive insights for fashion brands and retailers to complement the creativity and expertise of designers and buying and merchandising teams.
For fashion brands that want to thrive post-pandemic, co-creation and listening more to customers will be crucial. Making products that are relevant to consumers and that they actually want to buy is not only what consumers want, it’s also key to building an industry that’s more efficient, less wasteful, and more sustainable.