An in-depth analysis of the characteristics of pre-order fashion
Conventionally, the fashion business relies on a team of buyers and merchandisers who commands the styles, colours and materials for an upcoming collection. Their job is to ensure that each range yields financially sensible profit margins. However, as we now know, clothing sales are highly subjected to unforeseen circumstances (i.e. a pandemic) or any human error at trend forecasting.
When profit becomes the sole purpose for driving a fashion business forward, employing aggressive pricing on large quantities is a typical business strategy. This phenomenon of paying the lowest possible cost price inevitably condones an exploitative production system and a vicious cycle that perpetuates the infamous problem that fashion has: waste.
Fashion production can focus on smaller quantities and better quality—but at a trade-off for a longer waiting time. It seems almost counterproductive for fashion businesses to promote the antithesis of instant gratification in a reality where brands boast incessantly about "next-day deliveries" and courier services, and consumers are so used to receiving our purchases speedily. Sitting around for more than a week for a new pair of trousers seems almost unheard of—why wait if I have an Amazon Prime account?
From a business POV, in a time where convenience and delivery efficiencies are contributing motivations to buying fashion, waiting for clothing to arrive seems to be both a counter-intuitive and unproductive solution to attract new customers and retain existing ones.
Pre-orders: A technical explainer
Enter the pre-order model. Many fashion brands have been looking to fix their disrupted supply chains to survive the COVID-19 business lull. Though there is no empirical research statistics around how much clothing sits in warehouses during Singapore’s two-and-a-half-month quarantine, I am imagining a hefty volume of unsold stock hanging dry in inventories, threatening to be discounted for profit.
Right off the bat, a pre-order model ensures that sizes of inventories are smaller, more controlled and regulated. Many small, independent businesses in Singapore have been adopting this strategy to better account for and identify the right quantities through back-end data insights on customer preferences. Their existence cultivates a new way of shopping and stands against the traditional methods of running fashion businesses (cough fast fashion).
For Audris Quek, founder of Paradigm Shift, the pre-order business model is one that she is no stranger to. Having launched her first design ‘The Long Black’, a basic black dress with a Kickstarter campaign, the fashion label embarked on the pre-order model from its conception. After the campaign, Audris carried on with the nature of pre-order manufacturing, and ran more pre-orders on the same item, selling only one dress in the first year. She backs up her business decision as one that was difficult to make but the right thing to do.
But what does it really mean to run your business on a pre-order model? Is it just a stretched-out, two-way waiting game? Alicia Tsi, founder of Esse, a slow fashion brand that emphasises on building a progressive supply chain, explains how she goes about running the model. “We first pre-determine the quantity and match that with the materials we’ve already ordered, before placing the order with our makers."
How long is the wait? “It depends”, says Alicia, “[On] the time it takes to order materials and get them to the makers, followed by production, and then shipping to Singapore and factoring in potential delays in delivery given the current situation.”
Catch 22: Manufacturers have to share the same beliefs
The tender relationship between brand and supplier is what champions the effectiveness of a pre-order model. Founders of brands emphasise on the importance of flexibility and sharing the same values when it comes to producing fashion. Gin Lee, co-founder and designer at GINLEE Studio, mentions that in order to follow through with pre-orders, she prioritises working with factories that align with their production values. The brand recently launched GOOD, short for Get-Order-On-Demand, which focuses on slowing down fashion and creating less waste.
A flexible working relationship allows for fashion brands to adjust quantities on sizes and colourways, before and during production. Modifications can be proposed after assessing initial reactions from their customers. “My working relationship with the makers is a flexible one, so quantities and specs like colours and sizing are easily adjustable,” Alicia refers to her on-going partnership with Vietnamese makers, knitters and crafters, whom she works with regularly.
Paying up becomes priority, not an afterthought
By pre-funding manufacturing costs, the pre-order model guarantees that brands have sufficient dollars to pay their suppliers without delays. Conventionally, payments to suppliers are fulfilled, at the minimum, a month to two after orders are shipped and received. This practice exacerbates a toxic manufacturing environment: an unfair condition dependent on the brand's sales performance. In other words, until the labour of garment workers have proven to yield profit, receiving compensation will always take a backseat.
The pre-order model comes in particularly handy for independent brands with limited capital and few revenue channels. “I don’t have to worry about whether there is enough sales to pay our suppliers, we make only what we need,” says Audris. Receiving payment before production permits brands to pay workers upfront, as opposed to raising money to buy inventory and risk not having enough funds to cover production costs. This shows commitment and respect, that a brand cares more than merely paying lip service to their duty at labour compensation. According to Audris, brands need to ensure that they “walk the talk” and not use “sustainability” as anything more than a marketing buzzword.
Appealing financial incentives: a leaner inventory and better demand prediction
As long as fashion’s value proposition remains to be that of fashion-as-commerce, having operating cash flow takes precedence. Fewer alarming cash flow issues means a more accurate insight on profit. When asked if pre-order fashion presents any financial incentives, Audris mentions that “the profit that [she] makes is accurate and it helps [her] plan upcoming collections and align that with [her] vision.”
Additionally, having better control over a leaner inventory means brands can avert massive off-season discount campaigns. Brands dodge a bullet by not risking the value of their clothing diminishing through rampant sales promotions. Instead of running off-season discounts, GINLEE rewards customers for waiting with a 15% discount upfront when they commit to the pre-order. Gin backs up her decision of rolling out GOOD: “[they] did not want a discount to be [their] end game because it risks diminishing the integrity of the brand and feeds into a vicious cycle”—a vicious cycle of thoughtless production, sales promotions and annual warehouse sales. And repeat.
Holds spaces for other areas of development in a creative team
By eliminating the distraction of ridding unsold stock, brands can channel more time and energy into creative work. According to Gin, “[they] can put manpower towards better design of products and experiences”. Founder and creative director of Studio Gypsied, Aqilah, points towards the importance of other aspects of the business besides transactional exchanges. “Pre-orders can help to reduce waste of resources that can ideally be channeled back into other areas of running a label that is just as important - innovation, research and development, and employee training.”
Ensures that size inclusivity is baked in production
The nature of the pre-order process incorporates a broader range of sizes in a production run. Despite how there should be no two ways around it, catering to larger sizes with a lack of capital is often deemed as a risky business decision. Running pre-orders allow business owners to get accurate information on which sizes their customers want and make what they order. With the sustainable fashion space continually running into trouble with accountability towards their commitment to the plus-size community, the PO model seems to be a temporary relief for brands who wish to cater to members of the plus-size community with elements of customisation and on-demand ordering.
The pre-order model is not fashion’s redemption
Despite all the best intentions and outcomes that pre-order manufacturing enables, this model is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all fashion brands. Even for brands with largely unique stories and products and a loyal community of customers, pre-order is not a fail-proof strategy. “Sometimes quantities are difficult to meet”, admits Aqilah. The reality of the business world is that market demand triumphs. Without sufficient demand, intentions and brand purpose don't matter. “I [have] opened pre-orders where I was unable to generate enough interest and momentum for the item," adds Aqilah.
Besides, the world of Amazon gratification and the proliferation of convenient shopping are tough monsters to fight when considering the scales of large fashion corporations v.s. independent fashion labels. Pre-order fashion cannot provide the same speed, price and element of trend as compared to fast fashion brands.
When asked if more Singaporean fashion brands should incorporate the pre-order model into their business operations, Alicia thinks that it will be difficult for retail stores with the main bulk of their process focused on brick-and-mortar presence, to make the pivot from what already works for these brands. As of now, change seems unlikely to happen—especially since it will necessarily mean a complete re-do and reorganising of what’s already been tried-and-tested.
A misstep: disregarding the inherent class privilege that comes with the luxury of time
“Planning ahead is a measure of class.”
- Gloria Steinem
Before moving forward, this space has to be careful to covet the pre-order model as the solution to retail. Holding blind faith that this is what will fix fashion’s stringlong problems is ignoring the link between consumption patterns and class. Members of the working class definitely do not have the luxury of time and capacity to think about clothing that can only arrive in weeks to months. When style and fashionability come secondary to survival, it is crucial to bear in mind that the pre-order model is not at all attainable for consumers who do not have the privilege of planning ahead.
An important caveat to bear in mind is that the pre-order model only works effectively with seasonless clothing. Trendy styles cannot withstand a 2-month waiting time, therefore eliminating fast fashion brands from adopting this model into daily operations. Additionally, brands that sell time-sensitive collections i.e. childrenswear, may find it challenging to adopt the pre-order model. The scalability of pre-order fashion is therefore restricted to that of smaller, emerging brands with a stronger focus on artisanal aspects and slow production.
The Future of Pre-Order Fashion
Put simply, pre-order fashion abandons the convenience of fast fashion that we have all been used to.
If you’re looking to purchase: It may be a hassle to book in-person appointments for fit assistance. Or a 2-month wait might not be your cup of tea. But this process of committing to a particular fashion item—filters out impulse buying and ensures that a brand only produces quantities that reflect genuine consumer demand.
If you’re looking to sell: Perhaps look into potential partnerships to display your items in a dedicated showroom space before closing a pre-order. This allows potential customers to try on pieces in-person before committing. “As a business owner I would love not to have an inventory and just have everything on pre-order. That would be a dream,” emphasises Alicia.
The trick is to ease into it. To allow for a smoother transition into pre-order fashion, Alicia suggests that “brands could strategically trial it with a few products”. For Gin, it is on the agenda to optimise their pre-order operations one step at a time. “We are rolling this out by stages. To different degrees of customisation, made to order and on-demand manufacturing. It has to make sense for the company and our design ethos,” says Gin.
Transitioning into Made-to-Order: Pre-order fashion could be a prequel to the gradual incorporation of made-to-order fashion in our habits of fashion consumption. Made-to-order usually caters to brands that sell hand-made pieces of great artisanal value and therefore would take longer than the duration of pre-orders. This process promotes a greater appreciation for slow production, customisation and personalisation and proliferates the “good things are worth waiting for” mindset. The value of the piece, therefore, holds time, money and the craftsmanship of the artisan.
The power of collaboration: Aqilah refers to the ability of combined forces of small, independent brands in Singapore for the pre-order model to take off. She is hopeful and believes that this space can grow stronger through collaboration. “Besides awareness and education, perhaps small businesses can join forces, organising pre-orders during the same retail period — and this is a long shot — even have a platform that groups pre-orders together in one place, creating content together that will benefit consumer knowledge,” Aqilah suggests.
Is it a systemic resolution or a superficial band-aid?
Pre-order fashion changes the way fashion is made and sold. It tackles fashion’s problematic speed, quantities, production systems and cultivates a new way of shopping. Juxtaposed against next-day deliveries, a longer, but deliberate wait through pre-order fashion could gradually diminish one’s interest in shopping fast fashion. However, to slow down and honour fair and equitable transactions for fashion’s sake, it is vital to take into account even the subtlest nuances and multiple caveats to be inclusive of all members of communities.
While the industry continues operating within a capitalistic system, pre-order fashion serves as an adequate but superficial band-aid.
Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.