In the spring of 2009, Kohl's executives gathered six apparel vendors into a hotel near Los Angeles and threw down the gauntlet.
Their request: Make 12,000 apparel items in six weeks or less from two samples. For context, similar-sized orders at the time generally took four times longer.
Of the six, only fashion designer Jackie Wilson was able to deliver the goods on time, taking five weeks and four days to produce the white, rayon shirts with an attached purple vest. Upon winning, she recalls her staff erupted in celebration.
Almost a decade later, the quest by big retail chains to offer fast fashion -- on-trend apparel delivered before it goes out of style -- remains a challenge. Though Kohl's has helped show that traditional department-store chains can adapt, it continues to struggle to maintain consistent growth in a moribund industry. And other chains are even further behind.
The stakes are high to make fast fashion work. A rapidly changing assortment of trendy clothes helps drive customers into stores, and potentially stave off the encroachment of Amazon.com.
"In the last couple of years, people started realising they have to speed up. And one of the reasons is the consumer has really sped up," Spencer Fung, chief executive officer of apparel supplier Li & Fung, said in an interview. "And it's now so noticeable that if you don't speed up, you're dead."
For now, few US retailers can match the fast-fashion prowess of European competitors such as Inditex and Hennes & Mauritz. These companies pioneered the model by taking flexibility to the extreme, via airlifted merchandise, small order sizes and an accelerated design process.
But an evolution is apparent at Kohl's. Wilson's firm -- now a supplier of the department store for eight years -- gets new designs from factory to the store in eight weeks. That's significantly faster than the industry standard of six to nine months for basic items and 16 weeks for seasonal fashion.
Kohl's merchandising head Michelle Gass, who is poised to become CEO, says the push is "literally taking months out of the process." The Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based company intensified the transition three years ago, with an ambitiously titled plan called the Greatness Agenda.
As consumers jump from one trend (and brand) to the next faster than ever, US retailers are collectively being forced to pivot away from the traditional model, which values low costs above all else. The methods they've adopted vary widely.
Gap, for example, uses a technique called fabric platforming, in which it holds a large amount of material and designs specifically for those textiles. This has allowed it to slash lead times on about a third of its products to 11 weeks or less. American Eagle Outfitters has sped delivery times by moving some production into the Western Hemisphere, despite wages that are generally higher than those in Asia.
Kohl's, meanwhile, uses all of the above and also runs smaller test orders, which can be ramped up quickly if demand is brisk.
But Kohl's, which has a much broader target audience than a chain like Inditex's Zara, can only go so far in implementing some of the newest production techniques.
"The mark of our industry was the Zara model -- it's a wonderful and fabulous story -- but when you're in a mid-tier market, it's not apples to apples," Wilson said. "We were able to cherry-pick and apply the best of that model to Kohl's."
Many retailers have spent years cutting costs by moving production to Asia and placing massive orders for merchandise. Now, they aren't in the best position to enact broad changes to their supply chain as foot traffic at physical stores declines and US consumers spend less of their income on apparel. So Kohl's is being watched closely as companies ponder whether the extra investment will actually pay off.
Kohl's believes it has indeed unlocked the secret. Last quarter, brands that are part of the company's so-called speed initiative outperformed comparable products by about 2.5 percentage points. While the fast-turnaround products represented 40 per cent of orders in 2017, Gass sees them rising to 50 per cent by the end of this year, with 60 per cent or more being the long-term goal.
"Our people have really embraced it because we've seen the results," said Gass, who will take over as CEO in May, in an interview. "There's nothing that can help accelerate change like results."
Wilson, whose company is located in Syracuse, New York, also makes clothing for retailers like American Eagle and J.C. Penney Co. She says the typical Kohl's order is now for 80,000 shirts, instead of 500,000. This helps prevent buildup of unpopular merchandise and markdowns if a particular product fails to resonate with shoppers.
"Everyone tests a lot now, and that's really helped," she said. "You're not going to make a mistake on half a million items -- you'll make a mistake on 80,000."
Kohl's comes out ahead in spite of paying more for shipping because the items sell faster and at full price, Wilson said.
A transition to fast fashion is also complicated by the fact that most US retailers depend on suppliers, while a company like Zara is vertically integrated -- allowing more control from start to finish. That means, for U.S. apparel vendors, the acceleration has to occur across multiple companies.
Li & Fung, a 20-year partner of Kohl's, is in the midst of a three-year plan to cut lead times by half and digitise its global supply chain for apparel.
"Whether our customer wants speed or not, we had to move faster as a company because we see the whole world is moving faster," Fung said.
He described a lengthy process in which designers typically wait for samples to arrive from Asia before being refined. Then, a final run is shipped by sea. Li & Fung, which began implementing its quick-turnaround strategy in 2017, has for now trimmed 20 percent off of the supply chain timeline.
The first place Fung has sped things up is in preproduction: With three-dimensional digital designs replacing physical samples, a process that can take six months is carried out in a few days.
Kohl's, which is seeking to sustain a sales rebound after a lengthy slump, sees significant upside to making the change. The retailer's proprietary brands, like Lauren Conrad or Simply Vera Vera Wang, make up 70 per cent of its women's business. This in turn accounts for nearly a third of Kohl's sales, which were $19.1 billion in the last fiscal year.
The big-box department store, located mainly in strip centers, has avoided widespread investor pessimism that has pummeled competitors' stock. Kohl's shares have gained about 70 per cent in the last 12 months.
Li & Fung is soldiering ahead with the transition -- even though some legacy brands aren't enthused by the new system.
"Like any change, there was resistance everywhere -- our customers, our suppliers, even internally," he said. "We're not creating anything new here, it's just not a lot of companies in our industry have done it."