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Fashion tech, the application of disruptive and innovative technologies to every aspect of the fashion industry, is radically changing the way that fashion is produced and consumed.
Fashion designers, brands and retailers are waking up to the possibilities and scrambling to get in on the game, which start-ups are now flooding the space and consumers are ready for the fashion tech revolution – this is your crash course in fashion tech and where it’s heading.
Fashion tech happens at any point where the physical clothes we wear are influenced by technology. That’s a pretty broad definition, but it’s a big area. Really big. It covers everything from snapping a shot of some cool street fashion on your smart phone with Google Style Match to use image recognition to find and buy it, to analytics that predicts fashion trends by companies such as StyleSage and Edited… and a lot more in between. Here’s a high-speed tour of four areas of fashion tech where things are happening right now:
Until recently wearable tech was the kind of thing that you read about in gadget mags, not something you’d actually see on the high street. A t-shirt that could measure your heart rate sounded great, but retrofitting tech elements to traditional clothing designs was ugly, expensive and hard to actually, you know, wear?
The new wave of wearables is changing things, designed from the ground up to improve our lives in a concrete way whilst at the same time as looking good. Innovative brands are combining must-have tech with stuff we actually want to wear, like Ringly (below), who aim to keep people ‘active, mindful and in the moment’ with stylish smart jewellery that delivers mobile alerts, fitness tracking and guided meditation. It’s fashion that connects us to our surroundings, and it’s going to be huge. According to CSS Insights the wearables market is predicted to treble in size over the next two years to be worth $34 billion by 2020.
Getting clothes from the factory to the shop floor is a lumbering and linear mammoth. Raw materials go in one end and months later a product might hit the shop floor. It’s a slow-moving beast, unresponsive and hard to steer, and it’s easy for brands and retailers to get things wrong.
Tech developments like AI-managed logistics, automated production and 3D printing are disrupting this whole process, as fashion retailers hand over decision-making to machines, who are much better at this than humans. Machine-learning, or AI, can use data to forecast trends, plan logistics and assign resources, allowing brands and retailers to be more responsive to demand, and giving customers faster delivery, better pricing and products that are better tailored to their needs. An AI approach to big data could cut forecasting errors by half and reduce inventory by 20 – 50% according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
Robots are disrupting manufacturing too. Think of a garment factory and you’re probably picturing rows of human workers whizzing fabric though sewing machines at lightning speed. Until now. A new sewing robot developed by Sewbo chemically stiffens fabric so that a robot can handle it like a sheet of steel. Sewbo’s bots are still at the demo stage (they can sew a t-shirt but that’s about it so far) but the concept could promise a disruption to fashion manufacturing at the scale of the weaving loom when it was introduced in the 19th Century.
Digital design technology is opening up huge creative possibilities for fashion designers, freeing them from time and physical constraints. Solutions like CLO 3D (below video) aid designers to work directly on 3D visualisations of products, experimenting and adjusting quickly with no added costs, neatly snipping whole sections out of the design and production process. The company has seen its client’s sample adoption rates rise from 15% to 55 % and sample lead times drop from 37 days to just 27 hours when 3D sample reviews are used. Hong Kong luxury fashion retailer I.T has used the tech to open pop-up boutiques that have no physical clothing at all, only digital versions that customers can order via an app.
Designers are also connecting with data; in 2017 designers Falguni and Shane Peacock used IBM’s question-answering supercomputer Watson to analyse hundreds of thousands of images of international catwalk shows and Bollywood fashion images to predict Bollywood fashion trends and design a range of ‘cognitive couture’ based on the results.
A decade ago a virtual reality / fashion mash-up didn’t mean much more than the idea of displaying an outfit in funky 3D. However, AR is giving customers new ways to find fashion, like Warby Parker’s facial mapping app that scans your face shape to recommend glasses, and interactive ways to personalise products, like Nike’s AR customisation service that allows customers to test their own designs on a sneaker in store using a mix of AR and video projection mapping. This technology is set to grow rapidly; $3 billion was invested in AR and VR companies in 2017, with some predictions showing overall spending on AR / VR products and services increasing from $US11.4 billion in 2017 to nearly $US215 billion in 2021 according to IDC.
The future of fashion tech is the future of the fashion industry itself. Fashion tech won’t need to be defined as a buzzword or a separate discipline, it will be intrinsically part of the way fashion is designed, produced and consumed.
Already fashion tech is evolving the design and development cycle, like Swedish studio Atacac’s digital 3D garment design; making the fashion economy more circular, EON’s digitally tagged thread that empowers recycling; a natural part of digital retail, and Fashwell, who aim to use AI to recognise every product in any image on the internet. This is an ever more agile industry where seismic disruption is shifting the power balance from manufacturers to a connected relationship between designer and the end consumer. It’s only a matter of time before fashion tech is new norm for the industry and the customer.