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DuPont’s Innovation Buzz

The apparel industry has been one of the most successful at cutting costs in the past decade, and also at passing on the benefits. U.S. apparel prices are slightly lower than a decade ago, compared with inflation of more than 100 percent, noted Bill...

The apparel industry has been one of the most successful at cutting costs in the past decade, and also at passing on the benefits. U.S. apparel prices are slightly lower than a decade ago, compared with inflation of more than 100 percent, noted Bill Ghitis, president of apparel for DuPont Textiles & Interiors, during a special presentation.

“We should be consumer heroes, but we’re not,” Ghitis said. “Despite our decade-long fire sale, most of the trend lines point down. Why? Because clothes are simply boring.”

Ghitis theorized that because of the industry’s focus on low-cost sourcing, fueled by a progressive rollback of global tariffs that will culminate with their elimination in 2005, creativity has ultimately been sacrificed, while consumers have looked for innovation in other product categories such as technology, entertainment and health care. While Ghitis anticipates the industry focus will remain centered on cost — and not value — at least through that period, he questioned whether companies are really prepared for the future, once there are no more cost frontiers to cross.

“It could be that innovation will be our new driver. We need to think in terms of radically different apparel products, service and concepts, conceiving and promoting them on a scale that will change attitudes toward clothes. Think package holidays, car radios, mountain bikes, fitness centers and cell phones.”

While DuPont has been investing heavily in innovation and has promised 25 new fabric inventions within five years through its DTI division and also spends about $2 million a year on customer research, Ghitis had several thoughts on how other companies should look toward innovation.

“The consumer industries that have been most successful in the past 20 years — technology, entertainment, travel, health care — have brought new products to market on a regular basis. They’ve redefined consumer expectations of newness. We must recognize this and rethink our approach to apparel creativity. This has to be more than just about fashion and changing the way clothes look every few months.”

Some ideas that have already been discussed are clothes that change color and size, ones that have medical benefits, offer entertainment or even keep a family safe. There are barriers to their development on a mass scale, he noted, which is exactly what companies should be looking at to begin developing their feasibility through sourcing and production so that new products will be ultimately available to a range of consumers.

“Are we looking at a problem?” he asked. “Not if we can figure out how to get from mass to mass customization. The idea isn’t new. The automobile industry has read the same tea leaves and has made huge investments to move in this direction. Clever combinations of fashion and high-tech functionality, such as digital sizing, could bring new meaning to the concept of ‘My clothes.’”