How Change Happens In The Fashion And Apparel Business

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Coastal Farm, a west coast-based retailer, says its people change pipe, feed livestock, hunt, fish, enjoy the county fair and rodeos, and get their “hands dirty, day in and day out.” Kim Brownell, Divisional Merchandise Manager, says customers “enjoy the farm lifestyle” and are most likely to be female and drive a Ford F-250.

There’s a good chance that many, perhaps most, customers of Coastal Farm have purchased a pair of bib overalls at some point. But until about five years ago, a female Coastal farm customer could only buy bib overalls that were designed for men.

The need for women’s bib overalls has been growing for a long time as the number of women working in construction increased. According to the National Association of Women In Construction, women made up about 10% of the labor force in construction jobs in the U.S. in 2022.

But the established players in the market kept producing the men’s bib overall they knew how to make so well.

Outsiders Wake Up An Industry

About five years ago, two women in the landscaping business, Kate Day and Sara DeLuca, were frustrated with the choices they had for workwear. They founded Dovetail Workwear to create “pants that last” and “feel comfy” and “make our asses look good.”

The big players like Carhartt took notice and started creating women’s products themselves. But according to Jodi Roberts, Workwear Buyer at Coastal Farm, “Women’s was a tough launch for Carhartt” and it took Carhartt “five years to figure out what the women’s customer needed.”

Why It’s Harder For The Established Players

Women’s products have often been developed by a process the industry cynically refers to as “shrinking and pinking,” making men’s products in smaller sizes and feminine colors.

The low barriers to entry that the fashion and apparel industries have is a threat to the established players when they don’t see how change can happen. A better idea can gain traction and an outsider’s point of view is very often a catalyst for change and innovation.

The Dovetail founders’ original insight was understanding how women’s needs are different, not just in fit and appearance but also in how the products are used. Their new Drop Seat Overalls pictured below allow a female construction worker to do her business without having to completely disrobe in the middle of a work day.

Dovetail identified a group of consumers whose needs weren’t being served. As more women went into construction work, the design process for related garments didn’t change and the opportunity grew right under the noses of the established players.

Dovetail’s functionality in a market segment that was previously unaddressed and ignored screams empowerment, equal rights for all people, respect for the unrecognized and ultimately, equal pay for equal work. Getting a bib overall to say all that is a big lift for a small company.

The messaging lets the brand go beyond construction sites. Because women identify with it, they are wearing Dovetail outside of work just as you might wear a Patagonia vest to a meeting, dinner or conference.

Brownell of Coastal Farm says that women “have been underserved in workwear forever.”

Meeting the needs of consumers who were previously frustrated is about the highest form of customer satisfaction. It’s often when customers tell their friends and that supercharges a brand’s marketing at no cost to the brand.

Even after five years, Roberts of Coastal Farm says that Dovetail was up more than any other brand in their store in 2022. “I cannot think of anyone who is as innovative” in women’s workwear as Dovetail, she told me.

So there it is: Underserved customers, outsider thinking, values messaging.

Simple concepts. Very hard to do.

Those ingredients are how change happens in fashion and why leaders in the industry turn over pretty quickly time after time. The leaders who endure are able to see themselves as outsiders do and create ongoing change and innovation.

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