Technology revolutionized the way we produce and consume fashion for the first time during the Industrial Revolution, with the introduction of the sewing machine, an innovation that went through several patent wars.
Riding a wave of consumerism starting from USA post World Word II, clothing manufacturers, took advantage of the skills and processes they developed producing military uniforms and utility clothing, to open up the word of mass fashion to a rapidly growing middle class.
Today we stand again before a tsunami of technological and socioeconomic evolution that is bound to affect the fashion industry on all fronts.
Fashion industry is ripe for disruption, as its current business model — where designers are expected to create at least six collections a year — isn’t sustainable. This manifested over the past few years in a series of resignations of top designers that decided to step away under such pressure: Peter Copping from Oscar de la Renta, Hedi Slimane from Saint Laurent, Raf Simons from Dior, and Alexander Wang from Balenciaga are only a few. Alber Elbaz after leaving Lanvin said:
“Designers are not just machines where you press a button and say, ‘Be creative!’”
On top of a creative crisis, premium fashion is competing directly with fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M, that “translate” high end fashion looks into fast fashion in stores, in no time and without the cash-flow problems brands and retailers face due to swift fashion cycles. Consumer expect the brands to be responsive and cater to their needs fast and at a reasonable cost, reflecting value for price.
Smart Is The New Fast
At the prestigious Met Gala of 2016, themed “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.”, top model Karolina Kurnikova lighted up, literally, the red carpet with a romantic “cognitive dress” that responded to mentions on social media. What made this a major fashion moment, wasn’t the 150 LED lights, but the fact that it was the first fashion item co-designed by humans, designers Georgina and Keren Craig Marchesa, and an algorithm, IBM Watson.
Does this mean that big fashion houses will replace their overworked, uninspired head designers with code? Unlikely. Algorithms need an input in order to have an output. Which is exactly why they are a great fit for fast fashion brands. Fast fashion brands “digest” color palettes, blogger and runway trends and span out variations at a fast pace. In a process as such an algorithm can work brilliantly with the help of a few fashion designers, working as editors/buyers, that decide and edit the final designs to go into stores.
Another rising fashion segment algorithms can thrive in are basics. Designers aren’t the only ones overwhelmed, consumers also seem dizzy by the constant change of trends, opting for simpler designs, high quality and functionality. Nomcore, a portmanteau of the words “normal” and “hardcore”, is a popular trend among younger generations and embraced by celebrities like Kylie Jenner. Its philosophy is to purposely wear plain clothes that have a vague form and no style.
A minimalist approach to fashion also signals power and influence. Steve Jobs was the first to establish the “Silicon Valley Uniform” and many followed suit. Mark Zuckerberg defended his grey Tshirt and jeans uniform saying:
“I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.”
Younger generations are ready to break free from today’s fast fashion vicious cycle. GenZ is spending less on clothes and more on tech, meaning fashion brands need to open up for partnerships beyond their industry to stay relevant.
So how will the new AI/human powered fashion landscape could look like? Fast fashion and basics designed by A.I. with human designers in an editorial produced at a fast pace and low cost, and premium fashion designed by humans and produced at a slower pace with smart fabrics and technological capabilities could be the not so distant future…
Clothes As Interface
Fashion items with technological capabilities, in short, wearables, have been a hot topic of discussion. Although many project big market potential, existing wearables like Apple watch left many underwhelmed, while many related startups like Jawbone were forced out of business.
Despite the slow adoption rate wearables, from shoes, to watches and jackets, have persevered, fighting for the limited real estate of our closet. Today, it looks like perfect timing is finally just around the corner.
The rise of new immersive interfaces can work as the trigger for disruptive technologies that may be already existing, to go mainstream after many years in development. The computer mouse, that also first introduced in the 60s at The Mother of All Demos, only went mainstream in the 80s. What held back our beloved “mouse” was mainly the cost of hardware. What led to its widespread adoption was the rise of the graphical user interfaces in the software of the 1980s and 1990s, making it indispensable for controlling computers. In similar fashion, iPhone made touchscreens a given in our interactions with machines, and now the rapid development in AR/VR is paving the way for wearables and voice as input and control devices.
Input and control in 3D immersive environments face a number of challenges. How do you input text? How do you grab an object without haptic feedback? How do you prevent arm fatigue?
The controls used in VR now are similar to the ones used for devices like Kinect and Leap Motion, but are still very limited and “break” the organic feel of an immersive virtual environment. Oculus Rift and Facebook are constantly working on new solutions that could enhance our interaction with VR environments, while we’ve seen in the past year a number of gloves promising to bridge the virtual and physical world. This new mixed reality world could be ideal for input mechanisms leveraging something we already use and wear: our clothes. Google’s Jacquard project in partnership with Levi’s enables us to interact with our phone, our smart home devices and enter a VR world effortlessly and in style. In 2016 we also saw a number of similar independent startups trying to tackle this same challenge. Reminding slightly the real-time motion capture systems used by movie studios, but in a more fashionable execution, UK based company Skinterface, explores developing its technology further to enable us not only to interact with the virtual environment, but also with the other humans that may be participating in the same experience, “transmitting”our touch.
The Rise Of New Fashion Capitals
The line between fashion industry and tech industry is blurring. Tech companies are launching wearables, partnering with high end fashion brands and “stealing” fashion executives and fashion brands are investing in a growing line of fashion items with technological capabilities. This growing fashion-tech ecosystem will demand new capabilities from new brands: versatile talent and production facilities that can support the development of both fashion and tech products.
This is one of the main reasons that point outside the western world for the future of fashion. Countries like China and India offer a fertile environment for the new demands in fashion production as a vast percentage of fashion and technology consumed globally comes out of their factories.
To top that off, this is where the emerging fashion talent is from. Over the past few years the most prestigious Fashion schools welcomed a growing number of international students. University of Arts alone, welcomes students from 114 countries and around 40% of its total student body comes from outside the UK. Parsons School of Design, claims to have a higher percentage of international students studying in the U.S. than any other U.S. university. These numbers were a driver for a lot of these schools to launch local educational programs as well as local schools to emerge. In the post Trump and Brexit era and since they have a supportive fashion ecosystem back home, a growing number of students chooses to study closer to home or move back after their studies. Another sad reason this talented generation has to turn its back to western capitals of fashion, when it comes to building their career, is the stunning lack of diversity in the western fashion industry. In 2015, the percentage of African-American designers who were members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America was approximately 12 out of 470. Although in the past couple of years we’ve seen progress in the modelling industry, the top of the designer community is still dominated by white males and less else.
With production and talent as is cornerstones, the capstone that completes this pyramid of power, is consumers. Countries like China, South Africa, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, India, Brazil are revenue emerging markets. Most specifically citizens in key cities within these countries, not only follow but today shape fashion trends.
The synastry of production facilities, local talent and a growing consumer base, inevitably has worked as fertile soil for the flourish of local fashion industries.
In UAE, Dubai Design & Fashion Council with the support of the government has built a roadmap to establish the city as a global fashion capital. Around the vibrant D3, Dubai Design District, creatives have support in building their companies, while the Arab Fashion Week attracts a wider audience every season.
Brazil, with Sao Paulo leading the way, despite the long recession and political turmoil has also produced many local success stories in fashion like Riachuelo. In China, Shangai is working relentlessly to change the perception of the label “Made in China”. Internationally-known designers like Paris raised Yiqing Yin, Central Saint Martin’s graduate Uma Wang, and London College of Fashion graduate Ms Min, among others chose to go back to China to build up their brands. A newer but rapidly expanding fashion hub is South Africa. According to Data from Euromonitor International, the combined apparel and footwear market in Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at US $31 billion. Nigeria is stealing the spotlight with events like African Fashion Week and MTN Lagos Fashion and Design Week and “trad” the traditional forms and prints are increasingly popular among the younger generation and artists like rapper Wizkid.
Blockchain for Sustainability and Transparency
In the midst of all these dramatic changes, perhaps the biggest challenge the industry faces is sustainability.
The fashion industry is the 2nd biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet
Real-time informed consumers are woke and after a series of scandals surrounding horrible conditions and dangerous materials at fashion factories, demand transparency and ethical responsibility from brands. Over the past decade, a growing number of global apparel companies, like Nike, Levi Strauss and Patagonia began publishing supplier factory information. Platforms like JUST enable consumers to make informed decisions, while startups like Everlane and Warby Parker made radical transparency part of their brand DNA.
Blockchain solutions can galvanize these efforts today and make supply chains, in fashion and beyond, ethical and transparent. Startups like Provenance enable every physical product to come with a digital ‘passport’ that proves authenticity and origin, creating an auditable record of the journey behind all physical products. This way the fashion brands that adopt blockchain for supply chain management not only build trust with their customers, optimize performance and control better the quality of their products but can also use it as ammunition against the counterfeit goods industry. The counterfeit of apparel and accessories cost European brands €26.3 billion yearly, a number that keeps growing, as platforms like Alibaba, help counterfeit goods to spread like wildfire.
Another technology going mainstream that can help fashion battle its sustainability issues is robotics. Automation can make apparel production nimble, flexible and on-demand, enabling the industry to re-imagine and re-design the production cycle and the consumer experience from scratch.
On a very dramatic runway show in the late 90s, the always forward looking, Alexander McQueen foreshadowed the future with two robots spray painting a dress worn by the model Shalom Harlow. Could a future where the runway show and the assembly line are virtually the same be closer than we think?
As insta-consumption demands shorter and shorter time-to-market, many brands are already testing new manufacturing processes. It is also the reason why many fast retailers chose to produce their on trend items in Europe and not Asia, like Zara. Still, what prevented faster delivery of the latest trends was that sewn goods production was just as labor intensive as it was 100 years ago, until today. Recent radical automation solutions in the sewing industry by SoftWear, leverage advanced computer vision systems and integrate with manufacturer’s existing sewing machines. Adidas is leading the way with the introduction of “Speedfactory”, an an innovative footwear production plant, test drived in Germany and now expanded in other markets. Automation throughout the supply chain, from production to delivery centers, could mean production and delivery in the time you’d take to flip through Vogue’s latest September issue.
But, apart from a leaner supply chain enabled to deliver almost instantly the latest trends, what does the introduction mean for the end consumer? Will the shop of the future be a mini factory/hangout where you can experience the brand’s life style, order your fully customized dream item, and have it produced and delivered in your lap by the time you sip the latest coffee craze? That may very well be the case. Unmade, a UK startup, producing customisable knitwear on demand, had a knitting machine in their pop up shop at Somerset House where you could see your customized item knitted in front of you within minutes.
Many question whether the legacy fashion brands will manage to adapt and review their processes end to end in time to cater to a new world with high standards and expectations amid political and economical crisis. But my burning question is this: how can we best prepare young designers to not only follow but shape the new industry standards? It is not coincidence that many of the latest out of the box fashion success stories like ADAY, Bow & Drape, The Cambridge Satchel Company, Farfetch aren’t founded by fashion insiders, but outsiders. Outsiders that are unafraid to bypass the traditional processes and create new ones. Unafraid to opt for e-commerce instead of a rack at a prestigious department store. Guerilla marketing instead of an expensive fashion show during fashion week. Fashion schools have been slow to introduce entrepreneurship and innovation courses, while the pressure to follow the traditional path to established your brand in order to gain respect has left many dreams unfulfilled. If in early 00s in the startup scene we talked about overcoming the fear of failure, but young designers needed to overcome the fear of success. Many creatives still choose to stick to traditional slow and capital intensive paths in fear of been called out as sell-outs if they opt to bypass press in favor of bloggers or experiment with new business models, like sharing economy, etc. As curiosity goes hand in hand with creativity though, more and more young designers open a window to other worlds and industries for inspiration, education and collaboration. The promise for a new, sustainable, ethically responsible, inclusive and diverse fashion industry is here. It’s up to us to fulfill it.