Here is how I envision the future of fashion retail. Some of the companies mentioned in the article below are already starting to make this vision possible.
A customer feels a need to buy a new fashion item, goes to a virtual shopping street or enters a virtual mall where he or she chooses a brand, based on the specific aesthetics, preferred Instagram influencers, quality, engagement from in-store experience and sustainability level. Then he or she goes logs into the brand’s site of their choice and picks a garment type, an occasion and selects a budget range. Artificial Intelligence screens the customer’s past purchase history, activity at the brand’s e-commerce and physical stores, their body type and recently taken measurements, their current wardrobe, their style & color preferences, their lifestyle, and interests. Within seconds, the algorithm suggests the total of 3–5 most suitable designs for them to choose from. The customer makes a selection fast, not overwhelmed by the choice, places the order and moves on to their daily activities. The billing and shipping information has been saved under this customer’s account. The purchase is completed in less than 5 minutes. Since the brand knows the exact size and body type of the person, the fit will be 100% correct which will eliminate the possibility of return due to poor fit. The design is highly customized, thus the customers won’t likely return the product due to the fact it is 100% in line with his or her taste preference. The product’s pattern is created, graded, appropriate (and recycled or sustainable) raw materials are selected, and the digital file is sent to a production facility located close to the customer’s current address. There, fabrics are 3D printed or automatically woven or knitted from recycled yarns and the garment is sewn together by a robot and completed and quality checked by the local skilled worker, who is ethically compensated. The garment then packaged into recycled or biodegradable wrap and sent to a customer via drone delivery. All of this happens within 2–3 days from the purchase. This is the future of fashion: sustainable, ethical and efficient.
It’s not a secret that fashion industry is undergoing major shifts. There are a lot of factors that are influencing this shift — from internal, such as consumers being overwhelmed from the abundance of what’s offered on the market to external — technology developments allow the more customized approach to product exposure, and of course, the major environmental impact fashion industry leaves on the Planet. Fashion has never been so exhausting to follow, the amount of trends and influencers to keep up with is growing each day and some fashion items cost cheaper than our lunch and last for no more than one wear. Fast fashion retailers are breaking major fashion trends into micro fads that encourage a much faster turn, inviting consumers to shop new cheap items every other week, training fashionistas not to post more than one picture on social media wearing the same outfit. This bubble with eventually burst. The market is changing, people are becoming more conscious and awakened to the fact that clothing and accessories are just external part of our reality, that what truly matters is what within — our emotional health and intelligence, internal peace and balance, love to oneself and the humanity. Yes, there will still be customers who would want to buy a new fashion item weekly, but it will be an ethically made on demand, using organic or recycled fabric or a re-made and re-purposed item from past collections. Technology is significantly facilitating this shift. This article highlights key technology solutions that are contributing to the creation of the conscious future of fashion retail.
The New Fashion Lifecycle
There will be no more fashion seasons as we know them. Most brands will work on “see now — buy now” basis, which will rewire the retail lifecycle. Companies like Rebecca Minkoff, Tom Ford, Burberry, Thakoon, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Vetements, Mulberry already restructuring their business to fit this new model that eliminates traditional fashion seasons -everything that is shown on the runway is in-season, available for purchase in their physical stores and online. That allows monetizing the excitement generated by a collection release here and now, not 6 months later when customers already own similar items purchased from fast fashion retailers, which copied the cool new designs 2 weeks after they were shown on the runway.
Changes in the Process of Product Design
Artificial intelligence is already being incorporated into fashion design process by companies like Stitch Fix, Zalando (in collaboration with Google), and Tommy Hilfiger (in collaboration with IBM and Fashion Institute of Technology). Algorithms analyze collected data, such as past sales, user shopping patterns, etc and create designs that are most likely to be purchased in the future. This technology is still very new, yet I am a huge believer that AI will become the primary source of designing sustainable, practical and beautiful garments, yet fashion designers will remain the creative force behind the machines.
Testing designs and getting customer feedback before launching a full-fledged production of a line will be a common practice and startups like Mallzee Insights and Claire are already offering solutions for brands to help test new products in front of real customers.
Computer-aided design paired with 3D visualization is going to shrink the process of samples creation and eliminate fit problems. Using 3D modeling tools, technical designers will be able to precisely visualize fit on various body types and create garments of a wider variety of fits, from tall, to plus size, to petite — all in one product line. 3D tools are already widely used across the industry and will soon be more affordable for smaller brands to implement to reach a wider customer base and avoid purchase returns due to fit issues. Some of the current market’s top 3D design and visualization products are CLO 3D, AccuMark 3D by Gerber, ShareCloth, Inkreate, Taas, Avametric, Lectra, and Browzwear. Pattern customization and size grading will be facilitated by companies like Bespokify, that generates custom designed and fitted sewing patterns for apparel brands.
Changes in Manufacturing
With rapid iteration of the design and pattern-making process, using the tools mentioned above there will be streamlining of the supply chain occurring. Production will be localized to quickly answer the changing needs of the market and will result in mini batches to avoid constant overproduction and mark-downs. The mass customization will also take place with the current rise of 3D printing and knitting and the future’s full robotization of fashion production. Sewbo is pioneering in the field of woven garment sewing automation. Garments will be produced uniquely for each customer, as he or she takes an active role in the design process, with AI assistance. Startups like Unmade, Thursday Finest use 3D knitting machines to produce garments. And fashion brands like Fame and Partners, Frilly and Bow & Drape restructured their manufacturing that made the production of customized garments feasible. Shoe brands have already proved their customization models as a successful alternative to ready-made items. (NikeID, Adidas, Reebok, New Balance, Swear, Awl & Sundry, Shoes of Prey)
Improvements in Inventory Tracking & Distribution
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology is already widely being used for verification, automation, & online integration of inventory. uge retailers like Macy’s and Zara have tagged all of their product catalog with RFID chips which significantly facilitates tracking inventory and restocking more quickly. This technology can also be used to improve in-store shopping experience by communicating with shoppers’ cell phones (Burberry), assisting in the fitting room (Ralph Lauren) and provide an option for self check-out (Rebecca Minkoff).
I am fascinated to watch how blockchain technology is changing financial systems and I have a strong feeling that it is also going to make meaningful changes to the fashion industry, making the process of production more transparent, trackable and thus, ethical. In 2017, a British designer Martine Jarlgaard and a blockchain technology provider Provenance collaborated on a traceable collection that connects the dots in a journey of a garment production, from a farm, to a factory, landing in the hands of the final consumer, who can check each step via scanning the smart label.
Blockchain can also be effectively used in product authentication and some of the companies are already tacking this solution. Companies like VeChain, Chronicled, BlockVerify are leading the innovation of incorporation of blockchain technology into the fashion cycle.
New Types of Distribution
Traditional retailers are closing their physical stores, including those in flagship locations, it is already a common fact across the US. Some are shifting their focus on e-commerce, some are opening pop-up and showroom-style locations and some are switching to off-price strategies. Some are incorporating in-store technologies to keep customers interested in visiting stores, for example smart mirrors (Mirow, OakLabs), and self check-out (QueueHop).
Direct-to-consumer brands, on the other hand, are opening their brick-and-mortar locations or create pop-up shops and showrooms, to directly engage with customers and immerse them in an innovative brand experience, sell the brand rather than a product. Bonobos, Everlane, Glossier and Outdoor Voices physical locations are prime examples of impeccable integration of on-line and off-line retail.
As e-commerce shopping is transforming and becoming more exciting and engaging and as physical locations are becoming smaller, AR/VR will play a significant role in transformation of shopping experience. Obsess VR is one of the pioneering companies in the retail space, set to make shopping a truly immersive activity.
Hyper-personalization is another inevitable trend the retailers will need to embrace to keep the customers engaged and loyal. Visual recognition and product matching technologies like FindMine, Fashwell, Vue.ai, Cortexica, ViSenze, Thread Genius and Sarafan use image recognition and data science to tag products, analyze user behaviors and help retailers and brands with marketing, product categorization and cross-selling. They also provide actionable insights that improve customer experiences and make hyper-personalization possible.
Digital stylists like Epytom and Mode.ai help brands communicate with their customers using AI chat interfaces that are able to make product recommendations and give styling advice.
I personally don’t believe in the near future of 3D scanners in-store, unless they are able to scan people with their clothing on. There are several companies that are perfecting their scanning qualities, such as Styku, Nettelo, Bodi.me, and 3D-a-Porter. For now, most of the successful in-person body scanning solutions are focused on the fitness market. Some day technology will there for people to be able to accurately self-scan at home using their mobile phones, and Cala is attempting to bring such service to the consumer today. This technology will certainly contribute to the rise of customized fashion production and eliminate the fit problem. As an alternative, Metail succeeds in creating high quality visualizations of thousands of products based on measurements input by a customer.