This is the first part of Qualms & Conundrums’ series on the Digitization of Fashion. Digitization, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, encompasses the rapid development of four trends: the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, the platform economy, and Artificial intelligence.
When we talk about disrupting the fashion industry, digitization is coming at it from all four angles. First, material science is developing new fibers and new technologies that will soon allow our garments to complement and eventually even replace our devices, that’s IoT at work. Second, data science is creating new opportunities to collect, analyse and exploit data in ways that will change interactions between actors all along the supply chain from suppliers to retailers, down to the customer. Third, the platform economy, backed by the proliferation of mobile devices1will change retail and consumption trends, with direct-to-consumer and the “sharing economy” leading the charge. Finally, artificial intelligence, through the development of robotics and automation, will transform production processes and with that, the way we use human labor.
Tech innovations are slowly but surely changing the way the fashion industry operates. For the majority of businesses, this change has manifested in two main ways: first, they seek to improve their speed to market by developing and implementing more efficient product design, manufacturing and supply chain processes. Second, technology changed the way brands engage with customers. When 20 years ago fashion brands could get away with serving products, images and content to customers and then wait for them to buy, today they need to interact with their audience, build a community, listen to feedback and react quickly to changing trends.
But beyond production and marketing, new technologies are opening barriers to even greater possibilities, and offering solutions to dramatically improve transparency, redefine in-store and online shopping experiences, and perhaps even, somewhere down the line, end labor exploitation.
The rise of the internet of fashion
One major way in which new technologies are disrupting the fashion industry is through what is known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Simply put, IoT is the idea that connected objects can automatically connect to a network and exchange data without human to computer interaction. In the realm of fashion, the Internet of Things connects the apparel, technology and textiles industries, transforming the entire life cycle of a product from product development and design, to retail, to its usage by consumers to its disposal. Concretely, its applications in fashion span innovations ranging from smart textiles to augmented retail.
Material science, which can be simply defined as the engineering and discovery of new materials, is one of the innovations enabling the Internet of Fashion. Over the past decade, material science has advanced in strides. New materials are not only used in devices, they can be fibers or microfibers embedded in clothing, enhancing their functionality and gathering and holding information on the garment and on its wearer.
In a panel with the Business of Fashion, Amanda Parks, Founder of Manufacture NY explains that material science and data science are the two technological fields that are going to move fashion tech forward. “The convergence between those two world allows us to talk about integrating circuitry into the textile. From the design perspective, we can start to expand the functionality of what a garment does in a way that things are usually thought of on a technological basis: robotics, sensing, interactivity.”
Significant innovations in material science have allowed the internet of things to slowly transform fashion. For Parks, we are at a “sort of precipice” where wearable tech will “fundamentally shape the way people live in the physical world.”
When in the classic sense, the way we connect to clothes is purely emotional – it relates to our sense of self, to our identities, our relationship to others and to the world – IoT is taking that connection to the next level. With the “Internet of Fashion”, connecting to your clothes can mean gaining access to an exclusive event, taking your online shopping offline just by walking into a store and finding out every manufacturing detail of your product.
Adding emotions to wearable tech
When we think of wearable tech right now, we think about the iWatch, fit bits, virtual reality glasses and perhaps even fashion runways like Hussein Chalayan’s, where visual projections of the models’ stress level appeared on the wall as they walked down. Every other month, there is talk of the new fibers and textiles that will replace devices and integrate new functionalities into our garments: regulate body temperature, detect and relievestress, connect to our devices and share and collect data.
Still, in spite of these advances, the challenge of fashion tech is to find concrete day to day applications that consumers want, need and won’t be able to live without. In the past couple of years, there has been some progress to go beyond health and wellness, with applications showing that wearable tech and IoT can give fashion brands a new and unique way to engage with customers by using their data to propose tailored experiences. This is what EVRYTHNG proposes through its IoT platform and BornDigital technology.
According to its website, BornDigital products are “manufactured with added software capabilities that make them more intelligent, more interactive, and more valuable to consumers and brands.” Concretely, this technology enables users to interact with a product and gain access to content and experiences related both to the product (such as it’s provenance, the brand’s loyalty rewards, authenticating product identity) and to the user: experiences are curated based on the preferences identified through previous purchases and movements for instance. EVRYTHNG’s partnership with Rochambeau showcased the potential applications of smart textiles and IoT with their limited edition Bright BMBR Smart Jacket.
What tech needs, in order to fully integrate the fashion space, is emotion. In the words of Amanda Parks, “emotion is the killer app, and that is the language of fashion itself. As we cross over to the threshold of the body with devices, suddenly, diversity is key, personal expression, all the value system of the fashion industry becomes the most important thing.” What fashion tech must do is identify the key functionalities that a niche target audience needs. Just like the garments themselves, there is no one size fits all when it comes to fashion tech: customers, or “users”, will only adopt a an innovation in the long term if it serves them, if it helps them meet a specific need or overcome a specific challenge. Specificity is key.
Customizing the Retail Space
This is what Farfetch’s Store of the Future strives for: it harnesses the power of the Internet of Things to create a unique shopping experience every time. Farfetch, an omnichannel retailer that connects boutiques to consumers, is a the leading fashion tech companies with over 200 engineers working tirelessly on creating the most efficient sales platform for its network of boutiques – Farfetch sales reportedly represent on average 45% of total sales for a boutique.
What Farfetch is developing is not just any technology, it’s an “operating system” with at its core, once again, the Internet of Things. With the Store of the Future, Farfetch is making the physical retail experience more efficient by leveraging technologies that can seamlessly use data collected on shoppers on their online platform to use it in store, and vice versa.
The store uses mobile technologies like the Apple wallet to have customers “log into” the store and track their movements in the store to capture their interest in different pieces. As shoppers browse through clothes, a smart clothing rack (or Radio Frequency Identification,RFID-enabled rack) detects what they are looking at to automatically add the product to their wishlist, and smart mirrors then show the shopper’s wish list and enables them to request the items they want to try on.
And this is only the beginning. The Store of the Future is intended to adapt to the needs of each brand or retailer. Like any operating system, Farfetch’s is creating a basis upon which to leverage data, but the company plans to continue to develop new applications and will make its platform open to third party applications as well.
A more efficient, more ethical supply chain
For an ethical company, learning to take advantage of the applications IoT has to offer is a step that is both crucial and ripe with opportunity. Consider what a connected garment could do for an ethical shop: it would offer an opportunity to tell the brand’s or the garment’s story in a unique way, perhaps even allow consumers to connect with those who made their clothes and say thank you. In store, imagine that smart mirror suggesting clothes that are made according to the shopper’s values.
But even before all of that, IoT is already starting to solve one of fashion’s biggest headache: inventory. Managing inventory and disposing of headstock is an issue that all brands face, that is unless they hand make everything to order or, and this is where IoT comes in, they find a way to optimize new technologies to make large quantities to order. This is what companies such as Unmade and Rapanui have managed to accomplish.
Unmade is a fashion tech company, with the objective to “provide the software and the tools the industry needs to move to an on demand supply chain model.” The software created by Unmade can allow shoppers to customize clothes, within of course, the parameters set by the brand. Since customers buy the garment before it’s made, there is no need for mass fabrication, no mass distribution, and of course, no deadstock.
Now Rapanui is slightly different: the brand allows its customer to create a design and have it printed on an organic cotton (or other eco-friendly material) t-shirt. When a t-shirt is ordered it’s automatically printed and shipped out. There is no need for a third party (i.e. a human worker) to set up the printer for a specific design or order. Customers may order 1 or 100 of the same t-shirt, it doesn’t require more effort than to click print. The model worked so well that Rapanui created teemill, a free online platform that allows anyone to create their own organic t-shirt brand. On top of that, Rapanui and Teemill are fully eco-responsible down to the last detail: the factories are entirely solar-powered.
Now Imagine combining IoT and material science to design the ultimate shopping experience: you don’t shop to buy ready to wear anymore. You walk into a shop. Pick a garment to try on. It’s not your size but it’s okay because sensors in the garment are collecting your actual measurements. The smart mirror in front of you, which automatically logged you in, now allows you not only to see your self-built wish list, but also to make the changes you need to the garment you’re trying on: size, color, pattern. Maybe you want to go sleeveless or add just a few centimeters to that skirt, click away. A few minutes later, you’ve ordered your fully tailored garment and the next day? You’re wearing it to work.