If you had to rate how much you care about fashion on a scale of one through 10, with one meaning it might as well not exist and 10 meaning you can’t live without it, where would you fall? Even if you couldn’t care less, you need to know that the fashion sector is one of the largest industries in the world, estimated to be worth more than $3 trillion by 2030.
The fashion industry was gravitating more and more toward tech even before the pandemic. Just when you thought that COVID-19 would hamper the growth of the fashion sector, it paradoxically accelerated its digital transformation like a Formula One car.
We’re witnessing a transformation on an unprecedented scale. Auroboros, a digital fashion brand, already debuted at the London Fashion Week with a digital-only collection that’s never meant to be actually worn physically. And that’s just the tip of the fashion tech iceberg.
What’s fashion tech, exactly?
There’s no hidden meaning here. The term “fashion tech” describes how new technologies can be used in the fashion industry, including fashion design, manufacturing, transportation, retail, and more.
In an episode of the “McKinsey on Start-ups” podcast, Anita Balchandani, a London-based McKinsey partner who leads the firm’s Apparel, Fashion and Luxury practice says, “Technology has been playing an accelerated role in the fashion industry over the last two to three years, particularly when it comes to the customer-facing side of the industry. This is impacting where and how consumers are discovering brands and shopping the category, through to purchase, transaction, and commerce.”
Examples of innovative fashion tech companies
If your fashion business has been struggling to keep up with the pace of this industry, take a look at some ways that fashion tech companies can get you up to speed.
Until the recent past, fashion businesses had a tough nut to crack when predicting upcoming trends. They could look back at previous seasons and what was trending then and maybe survey customers to get some qualitative data, but that was about it.
With fashion tech out of its infancy, companies like Paris-based Heuritech can define audience segments on social media. They use image recognition technology to extract shapes, colors, prints, etc., that are visible on pictures shared on social media. This helps to predict future trends a lot more accurately.
Apart from forecasting trends, artificial intelligence (AI) is getting more often employed to monitor supply chain management and tracking inventory. When combined with forecasting trends, the latter gives access to data that enables brands to come up with new fashion collections that are better tailored to what people want.
Starting a fashion brand
With more precise ways to forecast trends, aspiring fashion business owners have never had it easier to launch their brands. With so many eCommerce platforms to choose from, they can choose the one that matches their budget, business size, and industry. Small indie brands will find their home just as well as brands that plan to go big from the get-go.
Where’s fashion tech in all this? Manufacturing marketplaces can use AI to provide feedback about how attractive designs are, how long it will take to put together a new collection, and what costs a business owner can expect.
With decreasing production costs, even obscure brands can launch their online shops and build a dedicated audience. The best part? They don’t have to produce large quantities of products to justify their spending and build their brands, and, more importantly, they minimize their waste, pollution, and carbon footprint.
It’s not just business owners becoming more aware of the threats the fashion industry poses to our planet. Consumers are becoming increasingly educated about the downsides of mass production and fast fashion. With slow fashion on the other end of the spectrum, shoppers pay great attention to sustainable and durable materials, ethical labor and working conditions, and more.
Millennials and Gen Zs are the two generations most concerned about sustainable fashion and how it can change the world for the better. What’s great about this is that they already have purchasing power that will continue for the next few decades, and they can pass their values on to the younger generations. To put that into perspective, 83% of millennials in the U.S. value environmentally-friendly companies, and 75% are happy to change their shopping habits to be more sustainable.
Coming back to fashion tech companies that put sustainability above all else, activewear brand Girlfriend Collective builds its brand on transparency and sells items made of recycled polyester. Native and Birkenstock are only the two of many brands that create vegan shoes, reducing leather production that’s also harmful to the environment.
Resale and secondhand
If there are ways to quickly change one’s shopping habits for the better, reselling and buying secondhand items are the two you can start with. ThredUp, an online consignment and thrift store, predicts the secondhand market to grow 11 times faster compared to the retail clothing sector in the upcoming years, and the market value is expected to reach $64 billion by 2028.
Anita Balchandani, who I mentioned above, is particularly excited about a few areas in the resale space. Resale models are becoming scalable, and luxury brands have set their sights on them. This will increase the lifespan of a piece of clothing or item from brands you wouldn’t have connected with resale or secondhand shopping a few years ago. This, in turn, reduces consumption while giving a way to express oneself or emphasize one’s status.
Brands want to capitalize on resale and secondhand shopping while making efforts to become more sustainable. London-based Selfridges and its Project Earth include a clothing rental service. It’s impossible not to mention Patagonia, which has been promoting product longevity for years. With their resale platform, Worn Wear, they raise awareness of its products' durability, highlighting their resale value and reducing consumption.
Plant-based and lab-grown
Fashion brands should use alternative materials to avoid animal leather and become more sustainable. Works in this field are already advanced, and fashion tech plays a huge part. A company based in the U.S., Modern Meadow, specializes in growing collagen by fermenting specific types of yeast. Collagen is a protein found in traditional leather and can be used to create leather-like material without animal cruelty.
Another fashion tech company, Bolt Threads, also uses proteins to create their version of a leather-like fabric, but this time, they use proteins extracted from mushrooms. According to the company’s VP of product development, their material feels like natural leather. If you were to touch two samples, one being genuine leather and the other from Bolt Threads, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
While not plant-based or lab-grown, the cooperation between Adidas and Parley also falls into this category of creating more environmentally friendly apparel and footwear. Parley says on their website that their partnership “has driven eco-innovation at all levels of the supply chain.”
The company is most famous for creating trademarked Ocean Plastic. Together with Adidas and other collaborators, they reuse marine waste and manufacture sneakers and football kits, for instance, as a part of their Parley for the Oceans movement.
Automation and robotics take the stage
The introduction of automation and robots in the fashion industry is helping brands on a few different levels. They speed up production processes and can be used for automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), stocking, and transportation.
The true challenge has been to use robots in apparel manufacturing. They'venever had nimble fingers that would make it easy to work with and sew pliable fabrics.
However, in the above case, fashion tech companies come to the rescue again. SoftWear Automation developed fully automated Sewbot technology over nine years of research and development. Sewbots use tools like robotic arms, vacuum grippers, and what the company calls “micromanipulators” to ensure a piece of fabric is precisely handled. On top of that, the entire sewing process is supported by cameras and sensors that recognize when textiles are being distorted and adjust the material in real time.
To share their invention with the world, SoftWear Automation introduced Sewbots-as-a service. What is that? An automated sewing workline that fashion brands can rent to manufacture apparel at lower costs and with greater quality while maintaining quality labor conditions.
The effects of the pandemic influenced the fashion industry across all levels, but eCommerce and omnichannel retail are the two areas that truly skyrocketed. Anita Balchandani said, “The pandemic forced the industry to collapse the walls between online and stores. Traditionally, you’ve always seen a bit of segmentation by channel—this is our online channel, this is our store channel. With the lockdowns leaving online as the primary source of customer interaction, engagement, and purchase, many retailers simply pulled down the walls that exist between the two main channels.”
With offline and online customer experiences intertwined like never before, fashion brands have many more touch points with consumers, and that’s how people want to interact with them. Omnichannel feels way more natural than engaging with a brand online or offline only because, as Balchandani puts it, “Customers are much more brand-driven and mission-driven, rather than channel-driven.”
Hop on the fashion tech bandwagon
Fashion tech companies are transforming the fashion industry every step of the way. From forecasting trends, designing, warehousing, and manufacturing to trying on and purchasing apparel and accessories. The next thing you know is that brands will be opening stores in the metaverse. While it’s a tad difficult to grasp the concept of digital-only in this industry, fashion tech companies are in full swing, and there are no signs of slowing down.
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Published July 26, 2022