As one of the biggest industries in the world, generating an estimated $1.5 trillion a year, it’s surprising to learn that the way fashion operates today hasn't changed that much in the past twenty years.
This is, in part, because it's still easy to source low-cost manual labor in many countries and to outsource any pricey production costs. However, the rising concerns about fair wages, pollution, as well as the need to satisfy the hyper-connected consumers of today, have given way to new exciting technologies.
Indeed, we live in the 'insta-age' of technology. Social media is changing how fashion is consumed and has trained customers to want instant access to the latest trends, as soon as they hit the catwalks. At the same time, younger generations, who want to stand out from the crowd, seek products that can be tailored to their needs and preferences. Moreover, 'mass-made' clothing or ‘fast-fashion’, seems to be gradually losing its appeal.
As this trend continues to rise, it makes less and less sense for companies and brands to keep producing large quantities of apparel, months in advance, with no certainty of how well it will sell. Those brands that pick up the pace and become more responsive to market needs will be the likely winners in this fast-changing modern environment.
As customers' real lives' become increasingly intertwined with the digital world, many designers and brands must embrace the latest technologies to push the limits of manufacturing, production, marketing and wearability. From the latest in artificial intelligence to the boom of mobile commerce, 3D printing and blockchain, we've rounded some of the top tech advancements being used in fashion today.
In recent years, brands have been using AI to enhance customers' shopping experience, analyze data, boost sales, forecast trends and offer inventory-related guidance.
Chatbots and touchscreens being used in stores to improve customer experience and customized product suggestions. It’s almost impossible to head to a fashion brand’s website and not find some form of AI chat technology that’s being used to help enhance the customer experience. The technology behind AI includes algorithms that track customers journeys to match them with the right products.
Although these customer service technology tools are promising, trend forecasting and supply chain management are some of the most profitable avenues for AI. For instance, real-time inventory tracking has become key for brands as they save time and make for efficient warehouse management and operations.
Furthermore, if we combine inventory tracking with AI's powerful data prediction tools for trend forecasting, brands could have a significant competitive advantage. Instead of solely relying on traditional ways of trend forecasting —which requires observation and data collection from fashion designers, trend spotters and influencers— brands can instantly have access to data that allows for planning the right styles and quantities in a timely manner.
Take for example, FINERY. The British fashion label has come up with an automated wardrobe planning tool that, using analytics, records its female customers’ purchases and introduces them in a virtual wardrobe. The platform also allows women to create looks from their wardrobe and even choose from over 10,000 shops.
Meanwhile, the personalisation platform TRUEFIT employs an online fit engine that helps users find an adequate fit with brands and new styles on the market.
Other, smaller retail technology companies are also filling this gap for brands. Edited, a company based in London, provides live data analytics software to give their retailer customers access to complete market data instantly. It has charmed brands like Boohoo, Tommy Hilfiger and Marni and can synthesize the global market in seconds.
Another interesting example is Intelligence Node, which allows users to track trends in real-time. Customers can enter specific keywords, user navigation patterns, price points and more. Intelligence Node AI-driven search discovery platform lets users track the exact or closest matches to your product, which can provide invaluable insights about competitive differentiators.
Streaming live videos has become a huge part of our lives. From virtual events to fitness, Instagram shopping has taken over 2021’s post COVID market. 5G allows new streaming media formats with high definition graphics. Now, customers can “try on designs” before making their purchases. Some brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger and Gucci, are offering digital showrooms to gauge the market's appetite. Some, like Taylor Stitch, allow customers to pre-order digital designs before they go into production. Likewise, many online-only eyewear companies such as Firmoo and Glasses Direct are also offering a digital ‘try-before-you-buy’ service that lets consumers visualise the frames on their face before committing.
Historically, fashion trend forecasting solely relied on prior trends to predict the future. New technologies like Heuritech define audience panels on social media. To predict future trends, it applies image recognition technology to social media pictures to access shapes, prints, colors and attributes to fabrics.
Google also deployed a similar experiment, in partnership with German fashion brand Zalando. The neural network was trained to understand style preferences, colors and textures. After that, the algorithm was used to create designs based on users’ styles preferences. There is also the collaborative project between IBM and the Fashion Institute of Technology, known as “Reimagine Retail”, which uses the high-tech IBM AI tools to indicate real-time fashion industry trends, themes in trending shapes, colors and styles.
These technologies highlight how AI is the bastion of future developments in the fashion industry, shaping everything from trend forecasting to how consumers may actually see and buy products.
Novel fabrics are arguably the future of fashion, as another way in which designers can set themselves apart and appeal as a sustainable option.
All the facts point to the idea that eco leather is not a very sustainable option. Startups like Modern Meadow are combating this by creating lab-grown leather without harming animals. Likewise, companies like Bolt Threads and EntoGenetics are innovating super-strong spider silk.
The latest interactions in printed objects that change colors include a system created by MIT researchers called ColorFab 3D. This technology prints 3D objects with “photochromic inks” that change color when exposed to certain wavelengths of UV light. One of their first items produced was the ring that can be programmed into a number of customizable colors.
Google fans may soon be able to wear clothing made by the digital tech giant. Project Jacquard, out of Google’s ATAP lab (Advanced Technology and Projects), is a collection of conductive threads for weaving touch-responsive textiles like clothing, tablecloths, rugs, or anything else made of fabric.
The team behind the Project Jacquard are also making color-shifting possible with Ebb. It is a color-changing fabric technology that could someday be programmed to change our mood or setting. The Ebb materials could even help us conduct many activities that we currently do on our phones using the color signals instead. For example, when you receive an incoming call the color of your cuff changes.
These highlight how novel fabrics will be literally reshaping the garments we wear each day. Look out for novel fabrics popping up in boutiques across the globe, as there seems to be no slowing down in this technological trend.
Internet of things (IoT)
The IoT describes a network of objects - the ‘things’ - that are embedded with technology to allow the exchange and connection of data over the internet. This is the one of the most exciting, emerging technological trends in the fashion market. Year on year, everyday fashion continues to improve to reflect the realities of our daily lives. From a great emphasis on comfort, to using new and exciting fabrics, the fashion industry has had to keep up the pace in adapting to the demands of contemporary life. This has been seen most clearly in the exciting advancements in apparel technology and wearable gadgets. These have gone as far as affecting how we experience our surroundings, interact with others and our bodies, giving the word comfort a whole new meaning.
Smart clothing, wearable spaces, multi-functional designs and responsive sportswear have all massively developed over the past three years. As our "real" lives become increasingly mixed with a virtual existence, many designers have been experimenting and pushing the limits of what wearability means.
The rapid expansion of technology has impacted businesses in many ways. The Internet of Things (IoT) enables data sharing, inventory management, security, and increased efficiency and productivity. Many businesses consider IoT in improving their customer experience, by allowing customers to literally take the internet and data sharing with them day-to-day.
This includes apparel with digital capabilities, like smart clothing, wearable spaces, multi-functional designs, responsive sportswear and more. Starting with the humble smart watch, dominated by brands like FitBit and Apple, wearable technology dominates the fashion accessories market.
However, new developments that are trying to fill the gaps within this health-driven market are also emerging this year. For example NADI X, yoga pants that have built-in sensors to correct the users' posture by vibrating as they move through yoga poses.
Some of the most exciting IoT innovations are related to health. Hexoskin, for instance, tracks your heart rate and temperature. They also manufacture socks that count steps, calories and other data.
Meanwhile, Fuseprojects's power suits help the elderly suffering with muscle dystrophia to walk, stand and stay active for longer periods of time. All of this data will come in handy for doctors and health providers to help their patients.
Another interesting example of the internet of things being incorporated in apparel is LOOMIA. The San Francisco-based textile company creates soft flexible circuits that can be embedded into textiles for heating, lighting, sensing or data-tracking applications.
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Rapid Data Analysis For Quick Adaptation
Rapid data analysis, for quick adaptation, is a way for businesses to quickly adapt their business fragments (such as the supply chain) quickly and efficiently through using large amounts of data to support this adaption. Thanks to the new software tools available on the market, brands and factories can receive real-time feedback and alerts from companies about defects or damaged goods. This helps them save money, eliminate waste and deliver adequate products at the right time. It also lets them maximize customer satisfaction by recognizing potential business threats instantly.
One example is management software like IQMS. The enterprise resource planning (ERP) software which is used in manufacturing for monitoring and collecting the production data in real-time, as products are being made.
There are also other types of software worth looking at that operate in a different manner. For example, the rise of cloud computing has opened new avenues for collaborative work, allowing factories and companies to work together from many parts of the world at the same time. This enables them to access relevant data, making for a faster and more effective way of communicating. The value of cloud-based supply-chain management solutions will surpass $11B by 2023 emphasizing how important this switch to rapid-data management is.
In the case of optimizing communication and production with factories, Techpacker helps streamline and automate this entire process. Its cloud-based software allows everyone in design teams and factories to learn about changes in tech packs in real time. This eliminates the entire manual process and the constant emailing, making tech pack creation 70% faster than traditional methods. This has been shown through the new Illustrator Plug-In, which imports designs via cloud-based software in second. This is key in promoting PLM techniques which manage a business sustainably, across numerous distribution channels. The Techpacker app enables fashion teams and their manufacturers to manage product development in real-time.
This highlights how rapid data analysis can help companies adapt quickly when needed. As shown during COVID-19, the need to adapt and overcome has been paramount for brands to survive. Thus, using a rapid data tool like Techpacker, can help improve team collaborations and optimize product development and production lifecycle through just one intuitive software choice.
Mobile technology is getting more advanced every day. From Insta shopping to smart wallets, mobile commerce is the ultimate tech tool. It has not only impacted our everyday lives, but it has become one of the fastest-growing sectors in eCommerce. Insider Intelligence forecasts that mobile commerce will reach $284 billion, or 45% of the total U.S. e-commerce market, by 2021.
This is largely because using our smartphones for shopping online is becoming easier and easier. With digital wallet options like Apple and Android Pay, constantly innovating with new technologies like fingerprint and facial recognition, they're poised to become the preferred payment for retail purchases. In fact, according to BigCommerce, two out of three millennials would rather shop online than in-store.
If, on top of e-commerce growth, we throw social media into the mix, (like Instagram's shopping feature brands can be present in their customers' favorite channels with a fully integrated digital commerce offering. This gives them greater visibility and provides them more opportunities to make a sale.
Likewise, sustainable fashion apps like Vinted and Depop have taken the market by storm, replacing traditional avenues like eBay and Gumtree for selling second-hand fashion. These mobile sales sites have revolutionized the online sales industry, demonstrating how mobile commerce is innovating every aspect of the fashion industry.
Virtual and augmented reality (VR)
Combining the physical and online worlds of retail has been one of Virtual Reality's most exciting applications. This is certainly true in the fashion industry: one widespread use of VR is enabling customers to virtually try on outfits. This gives greater accuracy, thanks to customized measurement functionality, and also employs augmented reality technology. It also means that customers might be more likely to buy products they feel that they’re tried on.
This kind of online shopping experience engages and retains the customers longer, as they love seeing the product on themselves before buying. This, combined with the social media share factor, makes it even more appealing to customers.
Some companies are making the most of AR and VR technology:
OBSESS is a platform that allows brands and retailers to create and to serve 3D, 360 degree shopping experiences on their websites, mobile apps and social channels via a 3D Commerce Cloud. Likewise, AVAMETRIC enables brands to render real clothing virtually in 3D and also to customize them on digital body models for web, mobile, and AR.
VIRTUSIZE also enables online fashion retailers to virtually illustrate the size of their products, to find the accurate fit for the garments their customers choose.
Another prime user of AR/VR technology is EFI Optitex who have greatly improved the expensive and lengthy process of finding an adequate fit. They’ve shown how to take the essential components of a design, like flat sketches and technical patterns, which can then be morphed to simulated 3D renderings. This then allows users to quickly adjust for cutting, loosening the fit and to make all the necessary adjustments in real time.
Other new 3D rendering technologies include CLO. The tool allows brands to edit designs in the moment and instantly review changes. This can help improve the quality of designs by checking the silhouette and fit sooner in the development process. This way minimizes waste and reduces error in the sample before finalization.
Selling digital clothing is getting more popular too. For example, Louis Vuitton designed “skins” for League of Legends characters and Drest sold digitised versions of Farfetch inventory. Ralph Lauren's recent collaboration with Bitmoji, where customers can create their own Bitmoji look with the new mix-and-match wardrobe from Polo Ralph Lauren, also demonstrates the irresistible power of the e-wardrobe.
Since the advent of 3D printers, many brands, both big and small, have been looking into the possibilities it holds for on-demand production. This will create new avenues for customization, sustainability and creativity.
Many fashion brands are embracing 3D in their collections in 2021, from accessories to full looks.
Despite the fact it takes many hours to create, it results in less waste and proves far less labor-intensive than other types of manufacturing. Indeed, printing garments on-demand reduces fabric waste by about 35%. This minimal waste approach could provide valuable insights on how to reshape the current state of factories and align them with a more sustainable social and environmental focus.
Let's not forget one of the pioneers of 3D printing in high fashion: Iris Van Herpen. The Dutch designer has a vast body of work in the 3D printing field, dating all the way back to 2010. One of her most notable pieces is the "Crystallization" top, which was 3D printed from white polyamide.
Van Herpen is perhaps the only designer to show at the prestigious Haute Couture fashion weeks in Paris employing sophisticated technologies for her garments and presentations. Some of her clients include Bjork, Beyonce and Lady Gaga for whom she has produced special 3D printed fashion pieces.
3D printing also takes fashion to a new level of conceptual art. Anouk Wipprecht’s incredible Spider Dress, which has mechanical arms which shift depending on the closeness of other people. This 3D printed dress combines the cutting-edge scientific technology which haute couture fashion, demonstrating the versatility of this new technology.
Digital knitting has also been making great strides in the 3D printing world, and it offers a myriad of customization possibilities. For example manufacturers like Shima Seiki can turn cones of yarn into a full, seamless garment in less than an hour. Meanwhile Ze-Nitis creates digitally knitted urban wear that allows for functionalities and benefits to be placed where the body needs it the most.
Blockchain is a great tool for transparency, traceability and efficiency in the supply chain. It allows all of its members, from carriers and banks, to intermediaries and suppliers, to be connected and exchange information, documents and data, directly and securely.
But what is blockchain and how does it work?
Blockchain is mostly used as a record-keeping technology behind bitcoin and digital currency. "Blocks" on the blockchain are made up of digital pieces of data that store information about transactions like the date, time, and dollar amount of your most recent purchase, as well as who is participating in the transactions. However, they also store information that distinguishes them from other blocks, using a unique code called hash. (More about blockchain from Investopedia.)
This can be used to efficiently trace and keep records of clothing apparel and supply chains through technology like track-and-trace and inventory management.
The blockchain solution creates a physical-digital link between products and their digital identities on a blockchain. Just like with digital currency, Blockchain offers a cryptographic seal or serial number that acts as the physical identifier which is linked back to the individual product's "digital twin", as explained by Forbes magazine.
This technology has been taken advantage of by TextileGenesis, who use the technology to keep a record of every stage of production. They say this will help to keep their supply-chain more transparent, as well as encouraging a wider push towards sustainability.
Each time a product moves in the supply chain it's recorded on the blockchain. This can prevent counterfeiting as goods that are missing the physical-digital link will be obvious fakes. Also, as any attempt to divert goods can be tracked. This identifies if the last party to gain custody of the product, had a counterfeit product slipped in—or if the authentic product was diverted out.
In the past fashion has always followed the traditional seasonal format. Designers released spring/summer and fall/winter lines, as well as pre-fall and pre-spring runways. Lately, as the reality of the climate emergency sets in, we've seen designers move away from seasonal collections in favour of designing timeless pieces that can serve consumers for years.
Does this mean that we are seeing the end of seasonality in fashion?
In fast fashion, designs move quickly from runway to store shelves. Fast fashion giants can produce as many as 52 micro collections per year. To keep up with the rapid consumer demand traditional brands had to keep up and release up to 11 collections per year.
As rapid production runs create excessive textile waste, lots of apparel ends in landfill and harms both factory workers and the environment. Around 12.8M tons of clothing is sent to landfills annually. The fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global CO2 emissions, 20% of the world’s industrial wastewater, 24% of insecticides, and 11% of pesticides used.
Due to this environmental impact, more consumers and fashion brands are turning to the concept of “slow fashion” and away from the long and costly manufacturing process. As a result, more brands are opting for sustainable production and more consumers are choosing conscious brands over fast fashion.
According to the fashion search engine Lyst there is a 47% increase in shoppers looking for ethical and sustainable products.
Another sustainable practice that is getting even more popular now is buying secondhand clothing through consignment and thrift stores. One of the largest online thrift stores, ThredUp, predicts that the total secondhand apparel market will hit $51B by 2023.Clothing site Re-Fashion has developed the perfect cyclical structure for sustainable fashion. They sell second-hand designer clothing at excellent prices, whilst also accepting donations for free. The site has cornered an in-demand market by offering both sustainable buying and donation options that consumers love. It’s also a completely digital platform, pushing the sustainable message through their online market place.
Likewise, many emerging brands are making moves to align with this shift in consumer’s behavior. Brands like Cuyana are urging their customers to buy “fewer, better things. Minnesota based brand Hackwith Design House are making their clothing out of the deadstock fabrics. Oakland based brand Only Child handmakes everything to order and in small batches.
This demonstrates how sustainability is pushing business decisions, as well as reshaping the online market. Arguably, thrifting has now gone digital as sustainability is now the order of the day for most brands and designers.
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