Exploring Fashion Tech Milestones Beyond The Usual Marketing Ploys

As the merger of fashion and technology changes consumer behavior, let's take a pause and highlight some of the key areas along with notable companies and individuals defining new pathways.

Lee Anderson

Writing about the future of the business of fashion, fashion tech online and offline, sustainability. Entrepreneur & Designer.

Digital and retail are where fashion tech started to get the industry’s attention. This was when it finally became apparent that e-commerce was an inevitability of the future of shopping, websites were redesigned and re-launched, inventory systems were overhauled and new jobs were created like “social media manager” and “head of e-commerce.” Then conferences, like decoded fashion, brought in big money to tell people how technology could help them make more money and connect the right shopper with the right item at exactly the right time and call it “convenience.” All reinforcing the reactionary behavior of fashion businesses. Today, all of this is the norm.

Fashion Tech Milestones

On the back end, also, the tools that companies are using are becoming more efficient and sophisticated. PLM software, inventory management (now often split between e-commerce and one or more retail locations), and even design tools are changing the way a business is run and the roles of employees.

Maybe because today’s relationship with digital is so much further evolved than ten, even five years ago, we have become complacent, satisfied with the progress that’s been made over a short amount of time. But whatever the reason, we got a little bit stuck in 2016. We know the story: across industries, if you don’t keep up with technology, you lose your competitive edge. And as far as who is tackling the challenges for the next chapter? Entrepreneurs. For the past several years, many startups emerge to solve the issues we face on a daily basis.

“If you don’t keep up with technology, you lose your competitive edge.”

The most disruptive ideas launched more than five years ago. Mobile has promised to be the future of commerce for the past five. No one has proven that formula yet. Until we learn what the next wave of innovation will bring, they’ll still lead the pack (for better or for worse).

MATERIALS AND MANUFACTURING

We’ve made progress. Innovation is here and technology is being embraced and explored by material scientists at universities, textile mills and manufacturers around the United States. In this New York Times article by Steve Lohr, technology is represented as a “gateway to revival” in places like North Carolina and Boston that once were booming apparel manufacturing hubs.

Fashion Tech Milestones
Nanosheet biomaterial

In 2016 there were labs growing bio-materials to replace animal dependency. There are synthetics that are mimicking nature, enhanced by modern technology, to improve on even our most precious natural resources. Through media, there is awareness, such as of water waste that goes into a single pair of jeans. There are efforts to keep toxic coatings and washes away from our skin and out of our waterways. There are manufacturing methods whose speed and efficiency have created new supply chain possibilities. There are new ways to join seams that enhance product performance. There are 3D printing machines that have us closer to zero waste than ever before imagined on a scalable level. Pattern makers can now develop patterns on the computer, and in real time see an avatar in the garment, how it will drape in 3D. There are new ways that promise to make customization not only feasible at scale, but a prerequisite for future businesses.

“There are 3D printing machines that have us closer to zero waste than ever before imagined on a scalable level.”

As of today, most of these innovations are still under development. They are in early iterations of product testing, the technology is still too expensive for the market, or there is no proven customer demand. Whatever the reason, those on this list will be called “futurists” just as much as “designer” or “scientist.”

  • Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Collaborative R&D to advance material science in textiles
  • Inman Mills “Our future depends on how we can innovate with fabrics”
    Norman H. Chapman,
  • Drexel Materials lab: Shima Seiki Haute Technology
  • Google project Jacquard Fibers woven into the fabric using traditional technique to wire our clothing. Project Jacquard makes it possible to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms. Everyday objects such as clothes and furniture can be transformed into interactive surfaces.
  • Spiber New-generation bio-material development
  • Bolt Threads Spinning the Future of High Performance Fabric
  • Dropel Fabrics Never stain your clothes again
  • Thinx Helping humans with periods while doing social good, keeping girls in school

WEARABLES, VIRTUAL REALITY & ROBOTS

In 2016, we saw the release of the Apple watch 2. Most of us had grown bored of our Fitbits and we barely remember Google’s Glass. Generally, we still hear the term “wearable” and wonder how that will ever fit into our daily lives. On the other hand, we’ve tried out Virtual Reality, lived through Pokémon go, and believe that the drones will eventually deliver our amazon prime. We’ve gotten comfortable speaking to Siri and Alexa, driverless cars and with the idea of IBM Watson, however, our economy is still confused by the fact that the job market is transforming with every new iteration of robotics and AI.

Fashion Tech Milestones
Artificial Intelligence Machine Learning Cognitive Computing

The useful introduction of wearables has thus far been successful in the healthcare and fitness worlds, but not yet fully integrated into the world at large. Prosthetics, for example, are pretty much the most badass of wearables and are becoming more and more dexterous and more precise. Not to mention the implanted human enhancements that the Cyborg crew are promising to normalize. Far from suggesting that the future is one where humans are all integrated with hardware, in the coming years, we will see wearables prove themselves on the most fundamental levels with subtle, discrete, un-techy changes, hidden in our clothes in non-invasive ways that will improve our lives.

Fashion Tech Milestones
Lisa Maria Falcone’s #METGALA16 Dress Designed by Artificial Intelligence

Technology integrated into our clothing will be able to tell us all the information about ourselves and our environment, from symptoms of illness of blood sugar and stress levels, and air quality readings to directing us towards a meal that will balance out our vitamin deficiencies. We’ll get an alert to remind us to take a deep breath, to grab a snack, or to go see the doctor before we even feel the first signs of a cold. All of this will be done without needing to look at a screen. There are already leggings that help us with alignment during a workout.

“In 2016 we were not as far as you would have thought, in reality, we were still calling, smartphone cases “Fashion Tech.”

In 2016 we were not as far as you would have thought, in reality, we were still calling, smartphone cases “Fashion Tech.” Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong headlines? There is a balance in place between what the consumer is ready for and what is technically possible (where google glass failed, but the apple watch gained some ground). Startups around the world are tackling real problems with the body as a canvas to address issues where direct proximity to the body is a condition of the solution.

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Research and Development (R&D) in fashion has mainly been concentrated in Activewear, manufacturing and materials science. Fashion companies tap into those developments for marketing purposes: innovative by association?

Fashion Tech Milestones
The center for functional fabrics research will develop advanced textiles, including touch-sensitive fabrics

What compelling story could be told to guide them towards in-house innovation as a factor in the bottom line? Companies like Nike and VF Corporation are setting the bar high by also adding a value proposition behind their research and development efforts. More value creation for the benefit of everyone.

As fashion businesses look for ways to diversify their structure and interests, there will be more incentive to look outward, towards other industries, for inspiration and for collaboration. Research and development is a great place to start.

  • Nike “Our function is to provide knowledge and insights. We are the global repository for the science of human performance and potential.” — Matthew Nurse, Senior Director of the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab
  • VC Corporation “At VF, we define innovation as “something new that creates value.” Innovation allows us to deliver new products and experiences that consistently delight consumers, and it drives organic growth and higher gross margins. We foster a culture of innovation within our company through collaborative networks and by building the talent and skills needed to inspire new ideas. At the same time, we go beyond the walls of VF to work with outside experts and other companies to provide our leaders and teams with new perspectives that can help them solve problems and discover new opportunities.”
  • Uniqlo “ Freed from any hard-set ideas, we have worked to capture new local fashion concepts early and then transmit them around the world. In addition, the basic garments for which UNIQLO is well known, are also being modified and improved every day to produce even better core products.
  • Lululemon Lab “Our goal is to pave the way for progressive ideas and design in Vancouver and New York City.”
  • Final Frontier Design Designers and makers of safety gear and gloves for space travel
  • Francis Bitonti 3D printing studio producing “design and innovation for the information age”
  • Iris Van Herpen Revolutionizing the applications of 3D printing for apparel
  • Evernu Recycling cotton garment waste to create renewable fiber

CONCEPT

2016 saw driverless cars become a reality, the dawn of Elon Musk’s mission to Mars, phones that catch on fire, and lots of other tech, political, and cultural news that shocked the world. How does fashion fit into this network of change? Through the combined story of everything above, one of the greatest revelations of everything in 2016 is the narrative that is starting to form about where it’s all going.

Fashion Tech Milestones
BMW’s car of the future

We have the potential to architect our immediate personal space in ways that are truly science fiction. Materials are being developed that will fundamentally alter the supply chain. Consumer habits are changing, for the better in terms of waste and resources, for the worse, in some cases, in terms of the bottom line. If consumers are buying less, fashion businesses will have to find other revenue streams. Ones that don’t involve selling more stuff. This will be good for everyone in the long run, if very confusing in the short term. It means getting creative. It means Paradigm shift. It means innovation and experimentation at a scale the fashion industry hasn’t seen since the industrial revolution. Think about it. It was the first time in history you could go to a store and buy something already made, off the shelf. We’ve taken that concept to its limit, answering the questions: “how cheap can we make it?” “How fast can we make it?” “How much and how often can we get people to buy?” We’ve seen the consequences of those extremes.

THE FUTURE

Not only are we entering into The Third Wave, in which only our Seventh Sense will allow us to navigate the future, we are also entering into the Second Space Age. The first was celebrated in Fashion by Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin and a Europe-centric aesthetic of futurism, expressed through the new technologies of the post-war era. The second has a whole new set of tools for making, and a new concept of what is possible for humanity. The future, I’m personally looking towards is one where space tourism is as common as international tourism. Buying your space station suit and compression gear will be just like buying thermals and ski parkas. Moon boots won’t just make of think of Napoleon Dynamite, they’ll sit in the closet next to our K2s, manufactured by a company that doesn’t exist yet using materials that are currently in laboratories and not yet on the market.

“Not only are we entering into The Third Wave, in which only our Seventh Sense will allow us to navigate the future, we are also entering into the Second Space Age.”

A more dystopian view of a protective fashion came recently from Mad Max costume designer Jenny Beavandec in a NYTimes op-ed: “Clothing that can protect against these rapid changes is necessary to their survival — and it may someday be for us as well.” In both cases, the frivolity of fashion will be a thing of the past. We will look back on this time much like the eras preceding revolutions. The rationing of WWII will more closely resemble our approach to consumerism and manufacturing standards.

In 2017, the current churning of newness, where 1, 6 or 12 month product development cycles barely allows us to see past our noses. We need to escape the undertow and take the long view. There is a tension between speed and projection that will only become more conflicting as computing becomes faster and faster and technology makes us ever more efficient. The challenge is to figure out where we need to be speedy, versus where we need to be deliberate.

As the networks of our world grow, we will have the ability to observe the behaviors of industries and organizations through different matrixes. Through these as of yet unseen connections, great opportunities will be available to the fashion industry in the coming years. Let us first recognize them, then be willing to seize them.

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