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“Focus on innovation and image enhancement are paramount for Bangladesh’s next level competitiveness”

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury is a renowned name in the fashion industry. His ‘FashioNXT’ runway show– started in 2012 – has gained a huge reputation and featured in TIME Magazine as the topmost fashion event in the USA outside New York Fashion Week. FashioNXT has earned unparalleled acknowledgment by showcasing independent designers’ collections and large brands from the USA.

Tito Chowdhury completed his Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from BUET back in 1993 and completed his Masters in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

He served 16 years as the Senior Microprocessor Design Engineer in Intel Corporation. Then from 2018 onwards, Tito Chowdhury became a Sourcing, Manufacturing, and Global Supply Chain Specialist.

Figure 1: Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury, Founder and CEO, FashioNXT. Courtesy: KB Dixon

Recently he had an interview with Textile Today talked about recent fashion trends, product development and new design innovation etc.

Textile Today: What was your motivation to work in the fashion industry?

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury: It’s a question that I am asked most frequently in most media interviews, no matter where in the world, including my recent interview with the Daily Protom Alo. I got drawn to the fashion industry as it’s in the intersection of art, technology, and commerce. I wanted to be more consequential to impact the big picture by working collectively with a wide range of stakeholders — designers, consumers, media, and talent development. Successively, it got expanded to supporting academia, industries, business accelerators, and even government entities in several continents as a consultant and an advisor — from creating innovative new design and media-launching fashion lines to giving keynotes and advice on the creative economy to judging fashion and technology accelerators in the US, Brazil, Spain, etc.

The path to that was inspired through my serving in leading art and culture entities, like in the cultural boards at my city, Portland’s Art Museum and State University that elevate art and culture to patrons. That inspired me to create FashioNXT, supporting an underserved creative sector — fashion, in a unique way upon combining my technology foresight and corporate skills gained from working at Intel. It led to enhancing my unique value-add for projects with global lifestyle brands — Intel, HP, Lexus, and Mercedes Benz to fashion brands across the world including Nike, Adidas, Perry Ellis, Pendleton, Tiffany Jewelry to the global apparel manufacturing supply chain.

The annual fashion show, FashioNXT Week is a culmination of showcasing emerging and established designers’ brands, and brand collaborations from all over the US and internationally securing global media attention — TIME Magazine, Wall St Journal, Forbes Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Vogue-China, Manila Mail, Floha – Brazil, etc.

Textile Today: What are the recent fashion trends? How do you evaluate the importance of fashion trend analysis and how should Bangladeshi exporters focus on it?

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury: Just like the designs themselves, trends are everything for the global fashion export volume, as consumer trends translate into garments demand. Various entities, from consulting firms like Mckinsey & Co to business publications like Business of Fashion to trade groups like International Textile Manufacturer Federation (ITMF) publish business trends for where the business demand is shifting. But they can be overly focused on numbers and generic recommendations. Conversations like this with professionals like myself who work on the ground with brands from all over the world in the scope that connects multiple geographic regions through a period of their growth and shift will help get a unique perspective of the trends that you may not see in statistical reports and white-papers.

Figure 2: Designer Mondo at FashioNXT. Courtesy: Joey Stallone

For identifying future action items, trends, they need a balanced alignment of industrialists, visionaries, and policy-makers for a given phase of the industry. In Bangladesh, the industry is highly factory-owners driven. So the investment is highly weighted by short-term ROI. That worked fine for the development phase. But as Bangladeshi exporters are facing the challenge of stagnation, they require stronger input from the visionaries. As of now, lockdown from the huge event of COVID-19 not only creates a change in consumer fashion choice (which translates into what kind of materials to source) but also how they shop. It’s upending the labor market and supply chain, some of which will last way past the pandemic. Providing solutions to those will be the biggest macro-trend to look out for. ​Solutions to unmitigated growth in clothing consumption are a much talked about topic which are bringing the circular economy more to the forefront. Those are about longer-term solutions, which primarily have to be driven from the consumer side.

Bangladesh can outplay its competitors in public relations by taking on a stronger lead in those. For example, the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel developing a machine that better recycles polyester-blend apparel in a project funded by the H&M Foundation became global positive news, despite it being far from a viable solution.

Figure 3: Designer Gustavo Apiti, Model: McCollum of NBA. Courtesy: Yi Yin

Textile Today: How can product development and new design innovation help to get new buyers?

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury: Yes, new and different categories of buyers — both brands and individuals. Creating designs for brands is a value-add for brands in the form of savings in design-service, sample making, and sourcing which saves lead time.

Here are a couple of reasons why it’s important at this time:

  • Direct to Consumer brands of today can’t happen without your own designs. China is already there with several multi-billion dollar companies that are only selling to consumers online outside China. It’s a long game as it requires the deployment of talented designers, creative directors, and marketers.
  • For global brands, through COVID, most of the growth is happening in the Digital space. Data-driven orders will demand a quicker turnaround. Brands will be seeking strategic partnerships with RMG partners. ​(McKinsey Report 21). Without adding versatile services in the value chain, RMGs will limit their offerings in that partnership. There are various aspects of product development, and offering new designs is a very critical part of that.
Figure 4: Designer Cashmere Song’s displaying at FashioNXT.

Some Bangladeshi RMGs are already creating designs for brands. I am pleased to notice that the new BGMEA President is bringing up design collaboration with other foreign markets. Based on my observation or personal engagement in efforts with several countries, Bangladeshi companies get to engage design creative directors well versed in western style to lead their design teams and/or teach Bangladeshi designers. These extensive efforts will require recruiting talents, investing in their training both home and abroad.

From my understanding with RMG owners programmed with mass-manufacturing sales orders, it’s not an easy transition for most of them to appreciate the complexity of and invest in this new segment. A continuous supply of a talent pool with good contemporary design knowledge will require a cohesive plan involving academia, policymakers, industrialists, and collective investment. Entities like BGMEA University of Fashion and Technology (BUFT) are showing some proactiveness in this space (for full disclosure, BUFT signed an MOU with FashioNXT).

Textile Today: What are the possible ways Bangladesh can sustain itself strongly in the global apparel market?

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury: This is the question of the time. In garments export volume Bangladesh losing #2 position to Vietnam caused a shock wave in Bangladesh this year. Bangladesh needs to look at the impact of the export positioning in both the contexts — relative and absolute, later being more consequential.

“Made in Bangladesh, which is attached to every piece of cloth made here, must signify higher value to the consumers for buyers to feel confident to put orders of higher price-point segment of their orders in Bangladesh.”

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury

After the Trump tariff, some orders to China went to Vietnam in a bigger proportion as in many western perceptions they are China-lite. Due to proximity, social structure, better infrastructure and technical manufacturing capabilities there are greater similarities between them.

However, with the increasing geopolitical and economic polarization of the West vs China, there will be increasing interest in the western block to empower diverse sourcing and manufacturing centers away from the China block. Bangladesh needs to present itself as a deserving alternative for gaining that business by utilizing its strengths in skills in scale. However, due to the recent extreme backlog of supply chains, western companies for the first time are examining all aspects of the existing procurement channels. Backlogs in the ocean cargo is making them look at more near-shoring like South America.

With those competing variables in mind, here are my recommendations for Bangladesh to elevate its competitive edge:

  • ​Strategic relationship with international brands that helps optimize the supply chain, lead time, sourcing optimization, infrastructure, etc. Bangladesh is making progress, but not fast enough (McKinsey Report 2021)
  • Taking a bite from other aspects of the fashion industry value-chain is a must as Bangladesh will lose much of the tax and quota preferences after it’s solidified into middle-income ratings in 2026/27. Developing machinery, automation tools including robotics, materials innovation, and fabric innovation are now overwhelmingly centered in China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Bangladesh’s technology universities and firms need to look into such multi-disciplinary innovation in this sector considering the huge local market and the import policies they can influence. It should welcome Direct Foreign Investment (FDI) in all those sectors as it comes with knowledge transfer as well (McKinsey Report 2021)
  • Acquire fundamental design skills at a much deeper and broader scale, which we already discussed above.
  • Elevate its image to the global community. Bangladesh is doing a poor job in Public Relations, often letting others in the west define Bangladesh with their own bias. Here are some recommendations based on my observation, or personal engagement in efforts with other countries:
    • Present fashion shows in the western countries with the best in fashion, textile, and innovations of Bangladesh. Use those shows strategically as a centerpiece to engage the consumers, media, and influential members of those communities. ​
    • Leverage digital media to share images of the ingenuity of Bangladesh’s history of exquisite textiles and craft. Also, better highlight leadership in green factories, circular economy in fashion production, as sustainability is of higher importance to the consumers to value a brand (even when they aren’t always practicing it themselves).
    • Engage influencers and influential personalities to amplify the messages.
  • Elevate the image of this industry locally to attract better talent in design and management, not to mention research and automation. Within the country, the perception of the fashion industry is, “lower caliber” people are in RMG, and fashion design is not a serious profession. Even India has a much better stature for the fashion profession. Bangladesh needs to better contextualize fashion industry jobs as being serious and glamorous with opportunities for strong career growth and business ownership, and support that with action by investing in those scopes.

Textile Today: Why is man-made fiber-based apparel production paramount for Bangladesh?

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury: According to the International Textile Manufacturer Federation (ITMF), synthetic fiber makes up 78% of the world’s clothing where the remaining 22% is made of cotton fiber. ​However, Garment exports from Bangladesh constitute 70% of natural cotton apparel, with only 30% made of synthetic fiber, according to ITMF data.

Furthermore, the global man-made apparel trade stood at around $179 billion in 2019 where Bangladesh held only 5% market share. (Ref: Dhaka Tribune) For context, competing Vietnam held 10% of the man-made apparel trade. As you can see the huge headroom for growth for Bangladesh. New BGMEA President has been more proactive in creating awareness and seeking business in this segment.

“Being man-made, there’s tremendous scope of innovation from materials to finished goods. Even for cut and sew, buyers of synthetic garments see Bangladesh unfavorably because of the sourcing lead time. There are a few factories making synthetic fibers as well as fabric from imported fiber in Bangladesh.”

Tito Chowdhury

Being man-made, there’s tremendous scope of innovation from materials to finished goods. Even for cut and sew, buyers of synthetic garments see Bangladesh unfavorably because of the sourcing lead time. There are a few factories making synthetic fibers as well as fabric from imported fiber in Bangladesh. However, unit cost differential with imported products, even if you find the comparable quality in the desired quantity, also adds to the challenges. I see a groundswell locally regarding the need for policy-makers to create incentives for capital investment to take this segment to a competitive level. Moreover, materials innovation gets to happen for the next level of competitiveness.

Bangladeshi synthetic materials manufacturers get to be in front of the sourcing and creative directors of brands, like, participating in the materials shows/showrooms visited by brands when they plan their future products, as the companies already do.

Textile Today: Worldwide Bangladesh is recognized as a cheap clothing manufacturing county. Don’t you think that push from the fast fashion brands and retailers is responsible for the production of cheap products worldwide? Please share your thought regarding this.

Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury: Buyers negotiating a better price should not be a surprise. The era of ordering-decisions based only on only manufacturing price is shrinking. To negotiate a higher price you get to have two things — more imperative value-add to make yourself compelling and have options available to walk away to.

On a negotiation table perception of your value proposition is equally important as the actual value itself. That needs to be supported by significant Public Relations efforts to enhance the image of Bangladesh in the buyers’ markets. Made in Bangladesh, which is attached to every piece of cloth made here, must signify higher value to the consumers for buyers to feel confident to put orders of higher price-point segment of their orders in Bangladesh.

Throughout this conversation I hope readers can see my strong recommendation of the strong need for a Master Plan to enhance the brand perception of Made in Bangladesh, especially to face the reality of a middle-income country. This sector being 80% of the country’s export income, Bangladesh can’t afford to.

If anyone has any feedback or input regarding the published news, please contact: info@textiletoday.com.bd

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