Fashion is many things, some would say it is everything, for sure it is one aspect of ‘things man can make’ that can work as a vivid depiction of modern times: it can be mainstream, it can be fast, or super luxurious, it can send out important messages, it says a lot about who we are. But who are we going to be? Can fashion tell us more about our future and the future of the world we live in?
We have asked Robin Caudwell, innovation project assistant for Pascal Morand, Executive President of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, to enlighten us with everything there is to know about the next big changes in the field from different angles, from the employment of cutting-edge technologies to the less utopian fantasy of a sustainable way of making fashion for everyone.
D360: As you are involved in understanding the impact of new technologies on the fashion value chain, analyzing how they can shift creation, production, communication and distribution, can you tell us what has the advent of the digital era meant for major labels and how it affected young talents making a name for themselves in the industry?
Robin: Fashion has been totally disrupted by three different types of players since the 90’s : e-commerce platforms (Amazon on one side and pure players such as Farfetch on the other), social networks (Facebook then instagram and Snapchat and WeChat in Asia) and fast fashion mastodons H&M and Zara. These players set up new standards of transparency and immediacy and therefore new customers demand for a greener, faster and experiental fashion. Young designers must comply with these new standards which represent however many new barriers to enter the market. Paradoxically, internet opened the doors to many new designers but it made it way more difficult to last in time.
D360: Iris Van Herpen is one fashion designer whose aesthetic is very much linked with experimenting and creating synergies between the human and in-human, as she brought on her most recent catwalk the finest works of art created by 3D printers. As you have worked with the Academy of Technology of France on a report titled ‘Technology and Soft Power: the case of fashion and luxury industry”, what is the next step in fashion in terms of technologically advanced fabrics?
Robin: Notwithstanding they combine and interact with one another, hardware and software are two different things. Fabrics concerns the upstream section of the fashion industry. The European textile manufacturers had to step up because of the globalization of the competitive environment, that’s why they came first started developing fabrics with different function. They have been used in the medical field or in the army since decades. The growing demand for sustainable fabrics accelerated the process. From the fiber to the finishings plenty of startups now offer alternative materials such as skin fish leather, bacteria dying, Orange fiber, etc. These « technical textiles » differ from the « smart » ones, which integrate onboard electronics. The most advanced example of this application is the Commuter Trucker Jacket developed by Google and Levi’s where the technology is directly woven in and allows the wearer to interact with its smartphone with a simple touch.
AI is undoubtedly the most disruptive technology of the Fashion Tech. It will radically change the whole value chain from how clothes are design to the way we shop them. Today, depending on whether the brand is creativity driven (luxury brands, young designers) or it is consumer driven (fast fashion and premium brands) the design is more or less important within the company. But both type of brands use trends books and analyze data to forecast what’s the next big hit. Production and sales unit do the same to maximize production with demand. Even us, consumers, we compare prices on different websites before we buy something, we get inspiration from social networks. But human brain is limited and we are only able to call out 10% of our brain capacity. AI knows no such limitation and can turn a massive quantity of data (big data) into simple, very valuable information either for the designers, the manufacturers or the consumers.
D360: What is the future of AI, then? Is it still sci-fi or there will ever be a ‘sci-fashion’ ?
Robin: Regarding AI, the core of 4.0 industry, I believe it will have a tremendous impact on fashion value chain. It will support designers’ work and research (although AI replacing a fashion designer is today pure sci-fi). It will also support the production team by analyzing different data in order to align supply and demand. Finally, it will support consumers in their choice by maximizing their shopping experience.
D360: Integrating fashion tech in the new programs of studies is fundamental according to Robin, who also works at the Institut Français de la Mode, but he also explained the widespread of technology in fashion can be accelerated by the so-called Fab Labs:
Robin: Technology is not cheap. In fact it represents a huge investment whether in hardware or software. The aim of Fab Labs is to provide these tools to SME which can’t afford to invest in-house.But Fab Labs are not only useful to companies. They represents an amazing opportunity in education to sensitize students or professionals in retraining to the transformations of the labour market.
While Robin is travelling around Europe as a speaker on the future of fashion congresses, he can see firsthand what the future of sustainability is directly from the major tech innovators. Will innovations play a major role on this front, from recycling plastic to lowering waste and environmental impact?
Robin: Innovation will surely play a major role to push fashion towards more sustainability by reducing waste, maximizing resources use and transforming shopping habits. But the major issue is that today technology is not sustainable at all …
Power consumption required to run the server that store all the date is extremely high. For example the Bitcoin, which rely on Blockchain technology, represents the same energy use as 4.5 million American households. But at the same time Blockchain can be used to trace the whole journey of clothing from farm to store as shown by designer Martine Jarlgaard.
D360: What can you forecast as the next big technological revolution in fashion that will change the way we shop?
Robin: AI will undoubtedly change the way we shop by making us maximizing our shopping experience. Because future is not only about being the most creative brand it is about offering the right product at the right time at the right place and AI can turn data into this very information.
The consequences for the companies are huge : no more waste, efficient production, lower cost and for the customer’s it’s about buying exactly what we truly want. As Steve Jobs used to say « people don’t know what they want until you you show it to them ».
The second technology will be Virtual Reality. It is already drawing a new era of phygital retail. It unlocks numerous possibilities from immersive brand experience to convenient virtual fittings. Video games « skins » already represent a 50 million dollars market and as time goes by we could imagine a whole parallel virtual fashion market. As Matthew Drinkwater, head of London College of Fashion’s Innovation Agency says « Reality might become a luxury ».
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D360: Sportswear and luxury have never been so connected, when streetwear reigns as transversal trend: has this encouraged big brands in using technical fabrics, as those seen at CES Vegas?
Robin: The rise of sportswear in luxury is a sign of what’s coming : the demand for both aesthetic and functional clothes. It indeed pushes the big brands to not only use technical fabrics but also to develop tech wear items or work with technical and sportswear brand.
D360: Finally, and most importantly, we asked Robin to make a prediction on what the approach towards fashion will be in 20 years’ time?