Each season, it must be something new, be it in colour, cut, or fabrics, when it comes to casual wear or party outfits in the clothing stores around the world.
Fashion design immediately brings to mind names of such cosmopolitan cities like Paris, Milan, London, and New York, where teams of fashion designers from famed fashion houses keep busy year round to design clothes that cater to the ever-changing tastes of the high fashion world as well as the mass market and keep the cash registers ringing in the retail stores.
Bangladeshi apparel manufacturers are now realising the value of development of their own designs to enhance competitiveness in the market and make the business sustainable by coming out of the practice of making clothes only as per designs by buyers.
If a garment designed by the manufacturer is liked by a buyer or brand, its price goes up by as high as 20% as the supplier gets additional export orders for that product, say industry insiders.
They said more than 100 apparel exporters in the country now have their own design and innovation centres, 25 of which have world-class design and innovation studios.
Many of them have offices and designers in foreign countries.
In addition to exporters, a number of companies that sell clothes in the local market also have quality design centres, according to stakeholders.
Entrepreneurs have said now it is difficult to survive in business by making ordinary quality clothes.
Amid the new normal brought in by the novel coronavirus pandemic, many buyers are now planning on reducing the cost for their own design and innovation teams and, therefore, are encouraging the suppliers to set up their own design centres.
Sparrow Group, one of the largest woven apparel exporters in the country, set up its own costly design studio in 2014. Its scope has increased day by day. Going beyond the national borders, the company has recruited designers in Europe as well.
The business conglomerate, having annual export earnings of about $150 million, has another garment factory in Jordan.
More than 400 people, including three foreigners, work in the company's design studio. They develop designs for buyers based on research on what changes might take place in the fashion demand of the buyers in the next one or two years.
More than half of the garments exported by his company are designed by their own design team, Shovon Islam, managing director of the company, told The Business Standard.
"If our design is liked by a buyer or if it becomes popular in the market, we get the opportunity to make the product for that buyer for the next two seasons," said Shovon. "In this way, in addition to building buyers' confidence, large-scale export opportunities are created in the long run, with up to 20% increase in product prices."
Denim Expert Limited, located at the Karnaphuli EPZ in Chattogram, has been running its own design centre for several years. The company is also marketing its own brand of denim pants called "BlueXonly" in the European market.
Mostafiz Uddin, the owner of the firm, has gained special recognition in the international arena beyond the borders of the country for working on clothes designs.
"I visit various parts of the world and try to analyse the fashion trends there. I try to find out what kind of cotton, fabric or wash buyers prefer, and what are the designs they may like in the next season, " he told TBS.
It is not necessary that a company must have design studios in countries where it exports products, he said.
"I need to know the design or fashion trends in the market where my buyers live. That's why I try to know the design trend in my export markets. I also have designers in Europe."
He further said exporters sometimes fetch up to 50% extra price on own-designed products.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association or the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, two apex bodies of apparel exporters, do not have exact information on how many exporters have their own design centers in the country or what percentage of exports are their own designs.
The government agencies concerned do not have any such information either.
On the other hand, due to business strategy, not all the people involved in the sector come forward to make such information public.
So it is difficult to get real information about this.
A survey by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) conducted in 2018, however, found that 21% of the country's export-oriented garment factories have design and development centres.
About 83% of large-scale factories have their own design centres, while the proportion is 23% and 16% in the case of medium-sized and small-scale factories, respectively, according to the survey findings.
Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the CPD, told TBS that the survey was based on samples from 220 factories.
If 3,500 garment factories in the country are taken into account, the number of design and development centres in the garment industry will stand at more than 700, he said.
Experts say most of the country's denim garment exporters have to have a separate team for wash, a technology which is used to change or modify the outlook, appearance, comfortability, and design of garments. Many people consider this team a design centre but, in reality, the idea of a design and innovation centre or a design studio is much broader, they noted.
According to a majority of stakeholders, there are around 25 large and "quality" design and innovation centres in the export-oriented garment sector in the country.
Based on information gathered by speaking to the heads of at least 10 apparel exporters who have their own design and innovation centres and by visiting the websites of major exporters and speaking to brand representatives, it has been learned that Epyllion Group, Viyellatex, Snowtex Group, Ananta Group, Sparrow Group, SM Knitwear, Sharmin Group , Team Group, Denim Expert Limited, Pacific Jeans, KDS Group, Square Fashion, Vintage Denim Studio, SQ Group, TAD Group, Fakir Fashion, Sonia Garments, Urmy Group, Meghna Knit and Interstoff Apparels Limited have relatively larger-scale design centres.
Among the home textile exporters, Noman Group and ACS Textile are also in this list.
About a decade ago, only a very few companies thought of setting up their own design centres. One of them was Pacific Jeans Limited, a concern of Chattogram-based Pacific Group.
After that, many of the large-capital exporters started walking this path.
Large exporter Team Group has its own designer team in Spain, Italy and Germany besides that in Bangladesh. The company is going to recruit a design team in the United States as well.
Abdullah Hil Rakib, owner of the company and a director of the BGMEA, told TBS, "If our design is chosen by a buyer, the additional time of ancillary activities is saved. As a result, the lead time can be reduced by 25-30 days."
Although the exporters are talking about their own designs, representatives of the buyers' organisations say the amount of garment exports of Bangladeshi exporters in their own solid designs is still very low.
Marks & Spencer, one of the largest buyers of Bangladeshi apparels, purchases around $1 billion a year worth of garments from Bangladesh.
Shwapna Bhowmick, head of the company's Dhaka office, said, "We take a lot of inputs from suppliers on some products. Through this, co-creation is created. If it is not exactly what we want, then we take alternative inputs. Through this, a design is developed."
She said M&S currently buys products from about 80 companies in Bangladesh and product designs are co-created with 20 of these or made in collaboration of both parties.
She, however, mentioned that Bangladesh has made great strides in its own design development in the field of readymade garments over the last several years.
Citing the example of SQ Birichina, a lingerie exporter based in Bhaluka, Mymensingh, she said, "After starting with small orders, we now have about $1-million yearly business with them," she said.
She further said the more advanced the design and innovation, the greater the benefits of the business.
She also reminded the entrepreneurs of Bangladesh about the contribution of M&S in their own design development, noting that it is very difficult to be sustainable if they cannot develop their own designs and diversify their products.
"The entrepreneurs had a mindset to make low-cost clothes, but we showed them how to make a product expensive through the use of good chemicals and washes. In the last 6-7 years, Bangladesh has come a long way in this regard."
Industry people have said a huge amount of money has to be invested – including trained manpower and logistics – to set up a design and innovation centre. Many entrepreneurs do not want to take this pressure, they added.
Shovon Islam of Sparrow Group said a good-quality design studio requires an investment of $2 million or about Tk17 crore or more.
And there are regular expenses after that, he maintained, adding, for this reason, many exporters do not want to come forward to do this.
Instead, a good number of companies collect designs from designers in Europe and America for a fixed fee, he continued.
Many entrepreneurs, however, say that it is a matter of mindset.
Many are still focused on making low-cost products, they said, adding even some companies that export over $100 million worth of products a year also have this attitude.
There is still a lack of world-class and efficient designs. Again, many get disappointed when their own designs made at the expense of big investment do not get expected success.
Is there any institutional initiative?
Even though there are 2-3 foreign designers in most of the large design centres in the garment sector, most of the demands are being met through local manpower for the last few years.
According to stakeholders, the BGMEA University of Fashion Technology (BUFT) and some public and private universities have played a good role in this regard.
The BGMEA said the organisation has recently taken initiative to set up a specialised center called "Centre for Innovation" that is expected to start operations soon.