The Report

How the crowd is making fashion design more efficient

How the crowd is making fashion design more efficient

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Traditionally, emerging fashion designers face a number of obstacles to turning their ideas into reality -- from finding suppliers to drumming up PR. But an emerging class of businesses is breaking down these barriers -- and creating a more efficient fashion design business in the process.

Take Stitch Collective, a New York company launched in 2012 that produces crowdsourced handbags. Here’s how its latest piece came about: On April 1, the company put out a call at fashion schools and design networks seeking submissions for “an evening bag that combined style and practicality.” Ideas poured in from places as far-flung as Estonia, Taiwan, Mexico, Massachusetts, Ohio and California.

Based on which designs were most feasible to produce, Stitch Collective chose 14 finalists, and over two weeks, its community of accessories enthusiasts voted on their favorite. The winning design -- a giraffe-print clutch -- will be available for pre-order any day now, giving Stitch Collective a good idea of how many to produce. Not only is the e-tailer unlikely to end up with excess inventory, “it helps kickstart these new designers’ careers,” says Loni Edwards, founder of Stitch Collective. “Omar Aguirre, who won the last challenge, was featured on Refinery 29 and New York magazine, and is now creating his own collection as a result.”

Stitch Collective is part of a rising new class of fashion businesses that, instead of handing down mysteriously conceived designs from on high, is turning to the crowd to decide what to make, and how much of it.

While the oldest of these types of companies, Threadless, which crowdsources T-shirt designs, has been around since 2000, it has taken a while for the model to catch on with other types of apparel. But last year, in addition to Stitch Collective, Shop Bevel, for jewelry, and Cut on Your Bias, for womenswear, menswear and home items, both launched with similar voting processes. Even the recent 10-year hoodie sensation (for which Flint & Tinder sought $50,000 on Kickstarter and ended up with more than $1 million) similarly received customer input. Although the company created the initial design, it ended up adding new colors and making optional a leather tag that was part of the original design, due to customer feedback.

“I don’t think that would have happened at a traditional fashion company,” says Flint & Tinder founder Jake Bronstein. “There, you design something nine months in advance and your production team supplies it six months in advance.”

Mike Samson, co-founder of crowdSPRING, a marketplace for creative services such as Web and graphic design launched in 2008, says crowdsourced fashion sites have hit upon an ingenious way to root out inefficiency: “When [these businesses] ask the community to vote on the design, they are actually gauging demand.”

He compared the process to that of a traditional designer that, say, makes a 200,000-unit run of a specific item, sells 130,000, and then has to sell the remaining 70,000 to a store like TJ Maxx for lower profits. “Threadless doesn’t have such a surplus, because they know the demand for a T-shirt design before they go to the printer,” he says.

Voting for fashion designs doesn’t just benefit emerging designers and manufacturers, it's good for consumers. “The designs you get on Threadless, Stitch Collective or Shop Bevel are designs from designers you wouldn’t normally have access to -- designers who can’t afford to open their own boutiques,” Samson says. “It gives consumers access to a wider range of designers, whether students or retirees or stay-at-home dads or moms. You’re going to pay the same $20 at Threadless, but you’ll have access to designs that your friends aren’t wearing.”

And there's one other aspect consumers won't get with a big name brand. “[Voters] are helping launching an emerging designer’s career," Edwards says, "so there’s a do-good factor in choosing what gets made.”

Top: Stitch Collective's CityBag by Omar Aguirre, the March winner (Courtesy of Stitch Collective)

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure