Applique lettering

Retail Recon

Erich has more than 18 years experience as an award-winning digitizer, e-commerce manager, and industry educator. He empowers decorators to do their best work and achieve a greater success. A current educator and long-time columnist, Erich takes every opportunity to provide value to the industry. Find more information on Erich and his publications here.

Retail-inspired. If you haven’t used this term, you’ve certainly read or heard it used to describe garments and decorations. In an era when designers photograph, share, and promote the latest trends often before they reach full-tilt production, we all feel pressure to be current. Our garment vendors once took years to replicate clothing styles available in retail stores, but it’s now a matter of months between a new arrival hitting the shelves and similar blanks arriving in our catalogs.

With this demand to achieve parity with retail garments and decoration in our own offerings, how can we keep up without entering the legally dangerous and morally dubious area of producing knock-offs? We need look no further than that oft-used term, ‘retail-inspired.’ We can learn a great deal from retail sources and create pieces inspired by retail without descending into the realm of copycats and counterfeiters. We simply must research current styles, seek out garments and decoration that serve as prime examples of the trends facing our customer base, and stay aware of the latest garments, materials, and techniques available to our industry. We can train ourselves to capture the essence of our sources of inspiration and to analyze, break-down, and remix those trends.

Retail research

The first step in becoming ‘retail-inspired’ is pretty intuitive—we need to find inspirational source material. The temptation is to run to the local mall, smartphone in hand, snap some pics, and run back to our shops to replicate styles whole-cloth. But it doesn’t take a copyright lawyer to know that we shouldn’t take that path. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a trip to retail stores as part of our research method. We just need to go about gathering and processing our inspiration in a targeted and creative way. To do that, we need a little preparation.

Find that focus by analyzing your current (or intended) customers. Though I suggest casting a wide net for inspiration, if your shop primarily serves a business-to-business function, visiting surf-shops to see the latest decorated board-shorts probably won’t be the best plan. Instead, when looking in retail stores for inspiration, discern whether the styles will jive with your customers by looking at the way the styles are marketed. I.e., do their offerings match what you know of your audience?

You can find inspiration on fashion blogs, the Pinterest pages of people who belong to your target audience, and the wardrobe of your customers themselves. Find influencers speaking to your customers and follow them via social media. If all else fails, you can actually take that tempting trip to the mall, just as long as you learn how to capture and use what you’ve found in an ethical and original way.

In addition to following blogs, pages, and retail stores, you should be subscribed to the newsletters and social streams of garment vendors and other industry suppliers. They are also chasing the current trends, and you never know when a new heat-press material, machine improvement, thread type, or machine may come out to help execute your ideas.

Moreover, many of the vendors are doing style analysis similar to what we’ll discuss in this article. They may provide you with styles and processes that you can use in your retail-inspired offerings. The materials and garments you’ll discover are the media in which you will create. Those that are aware of the current landscape of supplies are able to react to current trends and make connections quickly between what is in the stores and what you can provide your clients.

Step one: Gather inspiration

Capturing inspiration sounds simple—with the complete ubiquity of always-connected recording devices in our pockets, snapshots would seem rule the day. But relying on photography alone can lead to too closely mocking our source material.

Sure, you still want to take pictures or use your favorite note-taking software to clip images from online sources. But you should also use multiple inspiration-capturing tools and employ additional analysis. These avenues help to beat the ‘tracing urge,’ so you can find your original creative direction. Follow these three steps to get refined, ready-to-use inspirational gold.

1. Capture: Though you can start with images, note-taking is always helpful. Record decoration styles and the qualities of a decoration or garment. I.e., does it look hand-made, is the texture rough or smooth, is it bold or subdued; what kind of materials are used; what fibers, fabrics, and colors; how would you describe it?

You also want to categorize the garment/decoration and write down some initial responses. Sketching is also useful here; non-photographic reproduction is imperfect, and those little imperfections that you provide as a ‘filter’ can be the beginnings of your own spin on a style.

2. Analyze: Break down the captured material from a capturing session. Find common themes, decoration styles, materials, or qualities (colors, textures, placements, etc.), and isolate them. Create a list of these qualities for future reference.

If you see overarching decoration styles, this is also a good time to describe technique. Look at your original captured images and sketches and describe how these pieces can be reproduced in your own shop. If the techniques aren’t something you can replicate (garments decorated before fabrication, or types of decoration you don’t have the equipment for), think about and describe how you could reproduce the overall look/feeling with the capabilities you do have.

3. Create a snapshot: Combine your lists and examples into a more complete snapshot. Organize your notes and pictures in a way that’s easy and meaningful for your reference. This revisiting will help you identify the building blocks of the styles you want to emulate.

Step two: Create retail-inspired looks

We’re finally ready to create our own new, retail-inspired looks! Now that you’ve done your research and analyzed the trends in the current landscape, you are primed and ready. But that old temptation to copy what you’ve already seen can still remain. It’s hard to fight the desire to ensure success by imitating something that’s already proven successful. If you find yourself with a case of the copy-machine blues, these simple tricks will help you break loose:

1. Work from memory: Instead of looking directly at our source material while we design, tracking its exact fonts and lines, refer only to written notes, and then sketch the new work directly based only on those cues. Once again, our imperfection and biases come to our rescue as filters that alter the inspirational material. Sleep on your ideas and draw new sketches again in the morning for even more variation.

2. Remix: Take multiple sources and select one element from each to use in your new piece. Take the color scheme from one, the line values from another, and apply them to the subject matter of a third, and maybe even use materials and texture from a fourth example, thus creating a new decoration entirely.

To further enhance your originality, remember that wide-net mentality. Collect influences and take inspiration from a different source that wasn’t in your current research, then work it into your new creation. This sort of stylistic remix can lead to decorations that have a fresh feeling while still appealing to the audience of the original pieces.

3. Turn it upside-down: Take some element of your inspirational piece and flip it to an opposing style. For example, make something with a smooth texture in the inspiration piece look rough in your new piece. Take something with wild, bold colors and make a subdued, monochromatic version.

Sometimes these opposing styles hold up on their own as a new interpretation. Even if the new creation doesn’t become part of your targeted offerings, playing with contrasting elements can bring you new insight into what a style is and isn’t.

Be the next big thing

Not every project requires such extensive research or detailed techniques in the formative stages. But, keep this approach in mind, and you’ll have a good set of guidelines for collecting and utilizing a wide variety of insights from the world around you. You’ll stay abreast of current trends without being another look-alike.

Remember that everything is and always has been a remix of the experiences, thoughts, feelings, and concepts to which its creator has been exposed. Let yourself be part of the design process. Learn, analyze, recombine, tweak, and recreate. Be inspired by more than just retail, and you may find yourself driving the next trend.