Fashion is technology, one of the oldest examples of it. In an anthropological sense, making textiles by weaving materials together is a prehistoric technology, which we have since built upon over thousands over years, as fashion innovators continually future-gaze.
To enlighten us on what’s currently up ahead, Texworld assembled a panel of experts to discuss technology's influence on the changing nature of ideation and design: Natasha Franck, CEO of Eon, Tia Nicolae, Marketing Manager of Lectra; Andrew Wyatt, CEO of Cala, and Melissa Rusinek, Consultant, Diverse Recycling Solutions.
New data of recycling
To give every product an identity, which she likens to a birth certificate, was Franck's mission when she created the CircularID Protocol to manage the growing demands of a circular economy. Traditionally data is attached to a product only up to the point of sale then the product is lost. Information on origin, price, fabric composition evaporates. “Resale currently operates quite ad hoc without the digital infrastructure to adequately support it,” says Franck who has collaborated with H&M, Target, PVH Corp, among others, to remedy this and support the life cycle extension of products. “We specialize in getting that data on the product after sale and beyond, and facilitate how it’s accessed or exchanged between parties.”
The designer of the future
What will the field of design look like when today’s 15-year-olds, the Snapchat, TikTok generation, are entering it? This is the type of question which motivates Wyatt daily. He believes the technology to meet their expectations for turning their creative vision into reality is very different from what’s available right now. He founded Cala “to make it as easy to set up a fashion brand infrastructure as it is to start an Instagram account.” With this service which he calls “the world’s first fashion house technology” he claims that anyone can start up a brand scaled to their needs from their parent’s basement or a college dorm. Working with over 60 different manufactures in 10 countries, 25 development and financial partners, he promises to turn the digital into reality “whether you’re a classically trained designer from Parsons or if you’ve never designed before your life.”
Wyatt's vision of the future looks not unlike Tinder: “Basically you’re flipping back and forth between designs, powered by machine learning to get closest to your vision, connected with a network of fully automated local facilities or production centers––like Amazon’s fulfillment centers––you post it on the gram, and if people start buying, it gets made close to them. We’re not too far from that.”
Opportunities and limitations of 3D design
Despite the hype and rush to digitizing technology, Nicolae, says, “You cannot design in 3D today. No tool exists to actually build a pattern in a 3D way. You have to have the 2D pattern built in order to render the 3D version and to see how the fabric drapes and stretches.” Fit is of prime importance, indeed even more than ever when addressing the need to cut down on material waste and eliminate irresponsible sampling, both practices associated with our industry’s past excesses. Lectra provides 2D patternmaking technology for brands from Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton to denim leaders such as Seven For All Mankind, focused on the idea of not producing a product until it is ordered by the customer. Aside from fit, 3D printing has also failed to take into consideration the importance of the flow of fabric. The company Clo is currently leading the market in their development of exceptional technology for rendering 3D fabric.
New technology must meet old craftsmanship
Says Nicolae, “The skill and labor behind how a garment is put together and how patterns are developed creates the built-in quality of a garment and is why it is not a disposable product. That has a lot of implications for waste. Fast fashion does not have that quality built in.” The absence of patternmaking skills in our industry which died off due to overseas outsourcing is now being lamented by those at the forefront of the technology field who see the future as a marriage of traditional design and patterning with 3D innovations. Adds Wyatt, “Even on Clo you can download the free trial, but you have to know how to create a pattern for it to be be user-friendly and not a lot of designers know that anymore. Maybe it’s to come in AR, maybe VR, but that full on-the-dress form experience in a digital context is farther away than we would like.”
Designers want to design in 3D, says Wyatt, "because it’s sexy.” But while the new generation leave school expecting the technology to be in place, the reality is quite different. “There is no magic button that you can press to go from an idea to pattern to a product that’s ready to go,” says Nicolae who fears the disappearance of skills, quality, and fit associated with such a reality. “I’m not sure that we want that.”
Self-taught fashion designer Virgil Abloh reportedly shares initial ideas on Whatsapp for his collaborators to add to, and we can’t help wondering if this mash-up process is indicative of how future designers will work. Wyatt caters to creatives with just such an anyone-can-do-it, build-your-own-playlist attitude. “I want this shoe but instead of this motif, I want that one” is a curation approach to design, but he explains that Cala helps to clarify the vision with measurements, industry standard comments and instructions.
The inevitable downside of these scenarios will likely include intellectual property rights violations and legal concerns, as Insta-creatives are tempted to post their memes right onto T-shirts.
Mass manufacturing and the future
The fashion industry has revolved 180 degrees. Where once there was the grand designer who imparted his unique vision from on high and customers clamored for a piece of it, now we have a wealth of data coming from the consumer which informs which products are created. Says Nicolae, “The traditional model of a fashion business which mass manufactures, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars of the same product, hoping that the demand would be there once the product drops, that model is canceled.”
Mass production only makes sense for certain product lines nowadays, and experts agree that when offsetting demand volatility best practice is to shrink your supply chain. The Tesla model where you design your own car and it arrives to your specifications is where fashion needs to be. “On-demand is not only for small brands, start ups, or those who need to produce small batches,” says Nicolae. “Companies which McKinsey hails as “super winners” are doing it too.”
Adds Franck, “Instead of selling a product once but to the masses, now we need to understand how that same product can sell four, five times. The cheapest way to make money is to resell a product you’ve already made.”
Brands which resist investing in automation technology because they think they don’t have enough volume, or those waiting for the volume to return from China, are missing the point, believes Nicolae. “Volume isn’t coming back. It’s not about competing with China on a mass level. It’s about nimble production, quick replenishment, customized personalized product. That’s the opportunity for manufacturing in North America. That’s where the conversation needs to be. We’re not setting up mass production facilities to compete with China.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Header image Texworld, other FashionUnited.