NEW YORK — Architects and engineers may treat Autocad with almost biblical reverence, but among apparel designers the drafting software is practically a dirty word.
Not at Sears, however. Twenty or so design and product specification staffers at the Chicago-based retailer are using Autocad-based software to draw meticulous stitching and construction diagrams for the company’s private-label designs. As the bulk of Sears’ growing assortment of private-label goods is sewn in non-English-speaking countries, the clarity of the new diagrams is a definite plus. For Kim Broxham, director of technical design at Sears, a “very clear” picture is worth a thousand words.
“Now that we are designing our own brands, we specify everything to the nth degree,” she said. “We give the contractors front and back sketches with all the details, a bill of materials and lists of all the components for each specific garment — from fabric to trims and buttons to labeling, care instructions and hangtags.”
All this is necessary, according to Broxham, who said consumers are demanding better private-label clothing. The inferior private-label goods of the past won’t cut it anymore.
“Now, people are more cost-conscious,” she said. “People want more value for the dollar. Private-label goods aren’t available in just one color or one finish anymore. Consumers want the same breadth of selection they would get in a designer label.”
Retailers who offer better private-label goods and back up those goods with advertising and promotions are giving their house brands an appeal that rivals national brands. Penney’s has had just such a success with its Arizona Jeans Co. line, and Sears has answered with Canyon River Blues.
“Private label is very new for Sears,” Broxham said. “It’s only over the last year or so that we’re really emphasizing it. And we’re doing that for a number of good reasons. You can offer goods at a better price point, you can get higher margins than you get on national brands, plus you have your own color palette and your own look — something that sets you apart. This is a very high priority at Sears now.”
But before a retailer goes about heavily promoting its private-label lines, it must make sure it has something worth promoting. That’s why accurate production specifications are so important to Sears.
“In the past, the buyer would rely on the source to design the private-label line,” Broxham explained. “And we’d pretty much have to live with it. We might make recommendations on a pattern to suggest a better fit, but even then we would never actually see the pattern. We’d just fax a corrected measurement sheet to the foreign contractor.”
Sears is currently sourcing private-label goods in many countries. China is first among them in volume, but goods are also sourced in Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Sri Lanka, Kenya and throughout the Caribbean Basin and Mexico. The retailer has 10 international buying offices that act as liaisons for instructions on construction as well as what fabrics and trims should be used, and even what companies those fabrics and trims should be supplied by.
Broxham, who outlined product specifications for foreign contractors for the Gap prior to coming to Sears, said she learned the hard way that giving precise instructions pays off.
The software Sears is using to draft the construction diagrams is Karat CAD Designer, from Montreal-based Karat Systems. Broxham said AutoDesk technology is the power behind the package.
“Autocad is the most powerful tool in the industry today,” she said.
But Autocad’s association with architecture and engineering has been something of a hurdle when Karat goes to sell Karat CAD Designer to apparel makers and retailers doing private label.
“A lot of people are scared away because they think Autocad is for engineers,” commented Joel Barmish, president of Karat Systems. “But what we’ve tried to do is put an apparel face on Autocad. Autocad is really the best system for drafting precise diagrams. And if you are a retailer contracting abroad for private-label goods, the kind of attention to detail this software offers is really a plus.
“Karat CAD Designer lets you do very, very accurate technical drawings that show every stitch and the precise spaces between them,” he continued. “And accurate technical drawings transcend language barriers. They make the specs very easy for foreign workers to follow.”
Broxham said Sears’ product specification staff took to the Karat CAD Designer software relatively quickly, despite the fact that it is Autocad-based.
“We installed the program in January of ’95, and two months later our people were creating specs that were actually used,” she said. “They were not put off by the blueprint-like quality of the software. Now they are going on to develop bodies. Even though we are a retailer doing private label, we’ll function like a brand-name apparel maker when it comes to design and pre-production.”
In addition to technical drawings, Sears sends its contractors a measurement box with grade table breakdowns and an instruction sheet listing all the operations involved in the production of a specific garment in the correct order for the sewer to follow.
One of the early paybacks of the detailed product-specification software is in turnaround time on samples.
“It takes about three weeks to get each incarnation of a sample back,” Broxham explained. “But if you have all of your specifications right from the start, you might review one or two incarnations rather than seven or eight.”
Once a garment goes into actual production, the clear specs remain critical.
“We get quicker turns because we give them more specifications up front,” Broxham continued. “The software allows us the give them a better pattern too. The sewing diagrams and the instructions are very important, but the pattern is equally important because that’s the fit.”
Though Barmish said the Karat system allows retailers to send product specs to foreign contractors over the Internet, Broxham said Sears is not doing that, at least for the time being.
Currently, Sears faxes the diagrams and instructions to the international buying offices it has scattered around the globe. There, Sears personnel often translate the information into the native language to make everything that much easier to follow. The foreign offices then fax the instructions to the contractors.
This month, Sears is piloting a program whereby the specs will be received by its foreign offices as Lotus Notes documents via modem.
“The quality of the printouts will be better if the files are sent electronically,” Broxham said.

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