magazine | Sep 2, 2020 |
Why the design industry is obsessed with newness

If everyone agrees that there’s too much fabric on the market, then why are so many brands rushing to make more of it? We explore who's launching new collections—and when and why—in search of a unified theory of newness.

Get weird with me for a second: What exactly does new mean? It’s a word—a concept, really—we use so frequently in our daily lives that even asking the question seems silly. New is just new. A new car, that’s new. A new haircut, also new. January 1st? Happy New Year.

But when you start probing the idea a little, new gets confusing. You’re likely familiar with the experience of an antique dealer drawing your attention to a 300-year-old piece of furniture by saying, “This is new.” Sure. When it was assembled, stained and polished in an 18th-century workshop, it was new. Then, when it was purchased and placed in the home of an aristocrat, it was His Lordship’s new chair. Three centuries later, when your dealer bought it in Paris, marked it up 200 percent and placed it in his shop for the first time, once again, it was new. And when you buy it, you ask your friends, “Don’t you love my new chair?” New is relative.

Why the design industry is obsessed with newness
Selections from a recent Schumacher releaseCourtesy of Schumacher

Even the small act of moving an object 10 feet can give it the spark of newness. In researching this article, I spoke with independent sales rep Nancy T. Stout, who told me a story about working for Scalamandré in the middle of a relocation: “They were amazed, because all of these duds that we rarely sold were suddenly selling,” she recalls. “I told them, ‘It’s because you moved them to a different spot in the showroom. People see them differently.’”

New, really, isn’t an objective quality. It’s just a funny little wrinkle in our brains that gets us excited about things we haven’t seen before (or think we haven’t seen before). But what amounts to nothing more than a minor quirk of human nature helps explain why parts of the fabric industry are slowing down—and why parts of it are getting much, much faster.

The Newer the Better

A few years back, the CEO of a fabric company approached Timur Yumusaklar, the head of Schumacher, and made a stark observation: “Either you don’t know what you’re doing, or I don’t.”

Why the design industry is obsessed with newness
A Schumacher wallcovering featuring art by Jackie GendelCourtesy of Schumacher

Not the normal executive-to-executive banter—but then, Yumusaklar isn’t your typical fabric company CEO. German-born, young and cerebral, he was working for a fast-growing fashion e-commerce platform in Berlin before he came to Schumacher in New York. In a world of old-school textile industry stalwarts and third-generation owners, he stands out.

When he arrived in 2015, the company was releasing new product in much the same way that it—and most large fabric houses—had been for decades: large collections unveiled in spring and fall and distributed in enormous books of samples to designers around the country. “It gave me anxiety,” he says. “Having a super-dense introduction is just not that interesting to customers anymore. In a short time frame, every designer gets 20 of these books—how do you really celebrate the fabric?”

It’s a fair point. The twice-yearly, big-book model is based on a less crowded, more leisurely industry. Forty years ago, designers had more time to carefully browse through sample books and edit their libraries. There was also less competition, and thus less noise in the marketplace, so big fabric houses could reliably expect that designers would pay close attention to what they were up to. Those days, Yumusaklar says, are gone.

“Customers want to have constant engagement, constant inspiration,” he explains. “[Releasing more product] is just more fun. It’s more engaging, there’s more content to [create], more stories to tell, and every product by itself has more room to breathe.”

It’s a trend that many have been noticing in the industry: These days, design is happening at the rhythm of the internet. Clients expect Amazon-style speed and convenience—and as a result, designers do too. Meanwhile, discovery and marketing is mostly happening on Instagram and Pinterest, two platforms that voraciously crave and consume newness.

“Designers are working on projects now,” says Stout. “They’re not thinking about projects in the future; everything is now.” The quickening pulse of the industry incentivizes brands to come up with reasons to constantly grab designers’ attention—and nothing grabs attention like fresh product.  

The biannual release schedule was one of the first things Yumusaklar changed when he arrived at Schumacher. Working with creative director Dara Caponigro, he pushed the fabric house to release more new products, more frequently. By 2016, Schumacher had doubled its rate of new releases. Now, it debuts designs almost every month.

My colleagues will all say the same thing: ‘If I don’t have anything new, I can’t show it.’ That’s the first line in any email I send to designers: ‘I have new product.’
NANCY T. STOUT, Independent sales rep

The company’s rapid release strategy is explicitly borrowed from the world of fast fashion—a model in which companies like H&M and Zara release new pieces constantly, capitalizing on the latest trends in the market. To be able to respond to trends, Yumusaklar also accelerated the company’s production time: Instead of two years to develop a line, it now takes six to 12 months.

Schumacher isn’t alone in ramping up the new. Anderson Somerselle, the textiles manager for multiline showroom John Rosselli, has observed that fabric brands across the spectrum have been changing their release schedules to echo the cadence of fashion. “Over the last four or five years, some brands have been doing the fast fashion thing, where they’re infusing a few additions throughout the year,” he says. “They’re constantly putting things out. If you don’t put out anything new, people tend to forget.”

In a certain light, this strategy feels like pure common sense. The design industry is speeding up, attention spans are getting shorter, the old ways are fading—why not constantly pump out new product?

What Newness Costs

I was introduced to Stephane Silverman, the founder and CEO of New York boutique fabric company Castel, by a mutual friend. When we connected over the phone, one of the first things Silverman asked me was, “Did he tell you about my unfiltered honesty?”

Why the design industry is obsessed with newness
A selection of fabrics from CastelCourtesy of Castel

It was an accurate warning: Silverman is extraordinarily candid in discussing the ins and outs of the design trade. It’s a business he knows well, having grown up with parents who were the U.S. presidents of noted French fabric houses Manuel Canovas and Boussac. He himself went on to manage exports for P/Kaufmann before starting Castel in 1999. In other words, Silverman is a fabric lifer.  

Castel is one of many fabric companies that, like Schumacher, have recently broken from the traditional model of releasing two collections a year. But instead of ramping up, Castel is scaling back: In 2018, Silverman opted to introduce only one collection of his own, then distribute the wares of a Spanish house, Güell Lamadrid, and one of its brands, Les Créations de la Maison, as the year’s other release. “We love developing collections—we want the product to be special,” he says. “In some ways it’s the most fun part of our jobs, but it’s a commoditized game that’s highly inefficient.”

In fabric, newness is pricey. It’s not so much paying for the creative work that goes into developing new patterns—like most creative people, fabric designers tend to have more ideas than they know what to do with—but rather the need to manufacture and store enormous volumes of product and ship them for free to designers and showrooms as samples. Then, multiply that cost across the three to 10 years that most houses commit to supporting each of their patterns, in every colorway.

Like Yumusaklar, Silverman made a comparison to the world of fast fashion, but he used it to illustrate the challenge of newness. “Imagine if H&M and Zara brought out new collections twice a year, but were asked to keep those SKUs in stock for six years,” he told me. “That’s what we’re doing.”

In fact, the challenge is even greater. Unlike fashion trends, fabric designs take a while to catch on with their intended customers. A new jacket from Zara might sit on the shelves for three months before it’s either refreshed or pulled; a limited release by a super-hyped brand like Supreme might last only one day. By contrast, it usually takes anywhere from six to 18 months for a fabric to peak in sales. Or, put another way, imagine Broadway producers who have to keep a show up and running for almost two years before they know if they have a hit.  

Add to that the challenge of competing in a market that feels saturated to the point of bursting. It’s a complaint almost universally shared by fabric insiders: There’s too much damn product out there. The reasons why are complex, ranging from a shifting culture among mills to an increasingly frictionless global marketplace. Whatever the cause, the effect is simple.

“Everything has been done six ways to Sunday,” says Silverman. “It’s like trying to come out with a new ice cream flavor. Unless you go for something really crazy and out there, like mixing rocky road and bubblegum, [it’s been done]. Instead, you start saying: ‘My chocolate is organic.’ As in, ‘I have solution-dyed acrylics you can spill wine on.’” It’s never been harder to put out something new that actually feels new.

No wonder, then, that Silverman dialed down the newness. Speaking with him, it was easy to draw the conclusion that, given the expense, risks and industry bottlenecks, fabric companies should almost never come out with new lines. Yet Yumusaklar, operating in the same world, came to the exact opposite conclusion. How is it that two fabric executives can feel so wildly different about the issue?

The Gatekeepers of New

Getting back to that quirk in the human brain, here’s a marketing email you will never, ever receive: “Come on by the store—we’ve got old stuff in stock!” By the same token, interior designers will never get a call from a sales rep asking to set up an appointment to check out a collection from two years ago, or to drop by “just because.”

It’s common knowledge among reps that new stuff is what gets you in the door. “My colleagues will all say the same thing: ‘If I don’t have anything new, I can’t show it,’” says Stout. “That’s the first line in any email I send to designers: ‘I have new product.’”

Those four words—I have new product—have enormous implications for the way the design industry works. That’s especially true at a time when design center traffic is down across the board, but even in bustling showrooms, the dynamic is the same. “People walk in the door and the first thing that they ask when they see their salesperson is, ‘What do you have that’s new?’” says Somerselle, who works with 30 textile brands (and keeps tabs on all of their latest releases) at the John Rosselli showroom in New York. “I have to reorder ‘new’ signs all the time.”

Yes, there’s a good amount of discovery happening online. But from a brand’s perspective, direct sales from representatives are a huge driver of actual business. It makes sense. In a time when the market is overflowing with product, a personal connection with a rep is often the reason why a designer chooses one pale cream linen over a near-identical pale cream linen.  

Reps make a difference, and reps need new to get a designer’s attention, so brands continue to give them new, even if it’s expensive and unwieldy to produce. Silverman has cut Castel’s own new output in half, but he still puts out around 50 SKUs a year and relies on the Spanish lines to make up the difference and keep reps engaged. “If you don’t come out with new product, you’re dead,” he says.

Paradoxically, a crowded marketplace ends up demanding more new releases than an empty one. With so much fabric available, it’s increasingly difficult for a brand to stand out from its competitors by releasing something truly unique. So instead, they release something new—which in turn makes the market even more crowded, exacerbating the problem. The need for new perpetuates itself.  

The challenge for brands churning out all the new is that individual reps are extremely narrow sales bottlenecks. Silverman has a dedicated showroom in the D&D Building in New York, but throughout much of the country, he sells through agent showrooms like Thomas Lavin in Los Angeles or David Sutherland in Texas. Reps for these multilines have many brands to show, and generally visit their clients only once or twice a season. If a brand doesn’t have something new, reps won’t show it. But if a brand has too much new, it’s spending dearly to develop product that’s competing for a very narrow slice of attention.

In other words, in some ways it doesn’t matter how quickly the broader design world is moving. If you’re selling fabric through multiline showrooms, you’re moving at the pace of their sales reps—a tempo that hasn’t changed much in decades.  

“The new stuff gets your reps an appointment. But designers don’t always buy it.”
Bernie De le Cuona

The reason Schumacher is able to pump the market with a fresh collection every month is mainly a matter of distribution. The company is far larger than Castel, and with its own network of showrooms and dedicated reps across the country, it controls more than 90 percent of its own distribution. As such, Yumusaklar is free to send his reps out into the world to whip up enthusiasm for the brand’s new product as frequently as they can manage to get appointments. (He says that initially he had hoped reps would visit clients monthly—an overly ambitious goal that has been scaled back to accommodate the needs of individual clients.)

Why the design industry is obsessed with newness
In merchandising its Spring 2020 collection, de Le Cuona mixes old product with the new.Courtesy of Bernie de le Cuona

If you control the distribution the way Schumacher does, you’re free to release as much new product as you think the market will bear. It’s in many ways an enviable position, but it carries its own risks. Yumusaklar faces the same structural challenges as any fabric maker: The product is expensive to produce and support, and the more Schumacher releases, the more its sampling and storage costs go up. Yumusaklar also had to quadruple the company’s design staff in order to command the creative firepower necessary to turbocharge its release schedule. All of that is expensive.

“It’s not so much profit, it’s cash flow,” Yumusaklar says of the challenges he has faced in shifting to a new pace of product distribution. “Your working capital is going through the roof, but it’s a challenge we had to [take on]. We thought there was so much energy in this brand, but it does need additional fuel to light the fire.” He says that after four years of tweaking, the new model is paying off. It has also re-energized the brand and freed up the creative team to take more risks, like an edgy line with vibey fashion house Libertine. Full of punk rock safety pins, velvet tigers and quotes from 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, it’s the kind of attention-grabbing collaboration that probably wouldn’t have made it into a twice-yearly sample book.

But releasing a lot of product means releasing a lot of product that doesn’t catch on. And even with a dedicated sales staff, Yumusaklar says it can be difficult to get enough eyeballs on each collection. It works for Schumacher, but unbridled newness has its challenges.

A Little Goes a Long Way

One last weird little fact about newness: It doesn’t sell. It’s an open secret in the fabric business that those sought-after new patterns don’t usually end up making much of a dent in a company’s balance sheet at the end of a quarter. Some will go on to be bestsellers, but most won’t. “New product does not drive your business,” says Silverman. “New product is more about marketing and keeping people engaged than it is about sales.”

Bernie de Le Cuona, the South African founder of her eponymous fabric company, echoed the sentiment. “The new stuff gets your reps an appointment,” she told me. “But designers don’t always buy it.” Like so many others in the fabric business, de Le Cuona has been experimenting with a way to break out of the “two big collections a year” model. Her strategy, implemented for the first time in 2020, has been to release collections whenever they’re ready. It’s partially a way to have the time to perfect each cloth; it also avoids logjams with mills overwhelmed by a glut of spring and fall launches. Plus, it’s a way to generate more frequent debuts, as the company will be releasing product five times a year instead of two.  

But like Silverman, de Le Cuona has mixed feelings about the need for so much novelty. “Our products will stay in the collection for 10 or 15 years if they’re good products,” she says. “I don’t think new is necessarily better, but I do think new is what people are looking for all the time.”

Her strategy has been to blend in the old stuff. “If a client comes into the showroom, we will show them new mixed with existing every time,” she says. “When we do any marketing or social media, we never just show new.” Often, she finds, designers can’t really tell the difference. “If you show an interior designer a product from 15 years ago alongside a new product, they’re not likely to know that they’re not both new products,” says de Le Cuona. “They’re bombarded with so much stuff that they can’t possibly keep track—as long as the fabric is timeless, it doesn’t really matter.”

In essence, that’s the unified theory of newness for the design industry today: There’s so much good fabric out there already that it doesn’t make sense anymore to flood the market with enormous collections, but without the zip of the new, it’s impossible to get anyone’s attention. So brands are trying, however they can, to release smaller bits of new, more often. Newness is now a spice, not a meal.

“Companies aren’t coming out with massive collections anymore. They realized that after they come out with it, they can’t support the stock and the sampling,” says Stout. “Yes, new is [important] to my clients, but it can be just two things ... a little new goes a long way.”

This article originally appeared in Summer 2020 issue of Business of Home, Issue 16. Subscribe for more.

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