Fashion Tech Alchemy: What's the Winning Startup Formula?
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Last year, the top three words for fashion executives considering the way fashion was going were dynamic: “Changing, Digital and Fast”. This year, according to the McKinsey/Business of Fashion State of Fashion 2020 survey sustainability topped the list of the biggest challenges facing the industry, and it was also named the biggest opportunity; digitisation was the second opportunity and innovation the third. The other challenges relate to the global economy. There is good reason to be worried about the global economy and Britain itself is certainly suffering under the uncertainty of Brexit. But the great news is that sustainability has risen to the fore, which is something that is very close to our hearts at Beyond Form. The other opportunities, digitisation and innovation, are also exactly what fashion tech is all about. Sustainability and digitisation come in many different iterations. New fabrics, better packaging, ways of selling products digitally. There are also other fashion tech innovations which we predict are going to come to the fore next year. Conversational commerce is making itself felt strongly, and we feel that now is the time for the 3D printer to be utilised properly. Here are our areas of growth for 2020.
It’s no wonder that this aspect of fashion has companies simultaneously alarmed and excited. Sustainable issues are so complex that even companies doing their very best to be green may make an error which is negatively perceived. And that’s leaving aside the companies who really are simply jumping on the band wagon and offering half-hearted promises to be more eco friendly whilst doing virtually nothing. However, there are some really exciting tech-based innovations which will be making a real change this year.
The fabric our clothes are made from has always been a continual area of innovation. First, we learned how to farm raw materials and produce cotton, wool, silk, linen and other natural fabrics. But by the second half of the twentieth century, synthetics had come to the fore. But only a few decades later we began to realise that plastic-based fibres are harmful to the environment and to the people producing them. But it’s not good enough to simply go back to the old materials again. Cotton is biodegradable, but even organic cotton creates waste and needs a lot of water to create. Wool involves sheep, who also need a lot of resources and have contributed to antibiotic resistance in humans due to the large quantities of the drug routinely administered to them to keep them healthy. None of it is an efficient or ethical way to create fabric.
What we need is a way to make fabric which doesn’t create unnecessary waste, is completely biodegradable, and exploits neither humans nor animals. Researchers are therefore looking into lab grown fabric. Using the DNA of collagen and protein, the building blocks of skin, scientists from companies such as Modern Meadow are now able to accurately mimic leather. They grow the collagen in the lab in different formations and shapes for different applications. This means that not only is the fabric thin, supple, or tough enough for its purpose but it can be created in exactly the shape of, for example, a pair of shoes. There is no need to cut pieces from a flat sheet, with the wasted scraps that entails, or even sew the shoe together. This process is also used with a similar material, a “leather” made from fungus. With the huge uptake of plant-based diets globally, we predict that these “vegan leathers” and other bio fabricated materials will be commercially developed and rushed onto the market this year.
Beyond the actual clothing, fashion companies need to think about the sustainability of their offices and shops, and peripherals like packaging, which is mostly simply disposable. This goes for the usual shop floor packaging, like swing tags and shoe boxes, and all the heaps of packaging that comes with our online orders.
Reusable, returnable and refillable packaging has been developed for this purpose and we foresee a much greater uptake of it. Ikea will be using compostable, mushroom based polystyrene and it needs to be the new norm.
Loop is a re-fillable packaging concept that launched last year in the US and was adopted successfully by the huge retailers Walgreen and Kolger. The packaging can be refilled around ten times or more. We predict that Loop will be coming to Europe on a much larger scale this year (pilots were conducted in 2019 in the UK and France). At the moment they have a limited number of beauty brands on their roster and currently don’t handle beauty or makeup – that’s something that we’d like to see them moving into for 2020.
We also see consumers becoming more conscious than ever before about how their choices impact the entire system. There will be more awareness of the end of life of their products, and they will be looking into what to do with them when they are no longer useful. Charity shops have long been the place to take clothes for a second life, but its now discouragingly well-known that only a fraction of the clothing donated makes it to the shop floor due to the sheer quantities of fast fashion that is not high quality enough for resale.
For the last few years crafting has become incredibly popular. But while knitting and sewing your own clothes is on the up, we don’t see it translated into making repairs to existing clothes. Therefore, we are going to see neighbourhood tailoring and alteration shops getting a boost, along with home DIY solutions. The very old-fashioned technology of the home sewing machine will be put to use, along with the newest – 3D printers. 3D printers have had a slower dissemination to the mainstream than expected, but by the end of 2020 we predict that they will become more familiar objects. They could be used in shops to customise clothing and accessories, along the lines of 3D printed inner soles for shoes precisely calibrated for each customer to give trainers new life, or used to exactly match a missing button, or to create a whole new set to refresh an outfit.
Those who are into gaming will already know the fun of being able to design your own character in role player games, and increasingly this extends to what your avatar wears as well as what they look like. Plenty of money is spent on outfits as well as weapons and spells, and fashion companies have finally realised that they were missing a trick. Ada is a fashion game backed by Chinese technology conglomerate Sina. Due to launch in the UK early 2020, it has commissioned 20 luxury brands including Armani, Balmain, Dior and Christopher Kane to dress players’ 3-D avatars. Players buy luxury fashion and accessories, with $1 equalling $1,000. They can then set their well-dressed mini-me’s in luxurious customised locations.
For those of us whose online presence is more on the social media side, our own image is the avatar we present to the world. As discussed in our previous article. We can already change our personal appearance with filters and the next stage is to dress in digital outfits which don’t exist in the real world. Like paper dolls, we can don tuxedoes or ballgowns now whenever we want. This world of imagination is perfect, because few of us get the opportunity to wear such lovely items on a day to day basis. As long as we don’t get lost in the digital world forever… which is where conversational commerce comes in.
2020 is set to be a year, and the next decade for that matter, where all forms of fashion tech will come to the fore. Fashion brands (especially the larger conglomerates) seem to have taken off their blinders and are now exploring innovations beyond what they know or understand. Other themes that we think will develop greatly this year include ‘clothing as a service’, ‘conversational commerce’ and ‘green logistics’. We’ll wait and see.