Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Behind the doors of another wave of digital fashion weeks, technology’s potential still seems to be going untapped.

As we write, a second wave of digital fashion weeks is upon us. New York’s calendar kicked off a couple of days ago; London’s gets underway today. And what seemed like a short-lived disruption or a novelty the first time around, when runways suddenly shifted to closed-doors and live-streamed models, is now settling in as the world reckons with change that is likely to prove longer-lasting than anyone could have predicted.

Quite how long physical runway shows in the traditional sense, with large, multi-national audiences in attendance, will be considered impossible… nobody really knows. With its optimist’s hat on, The Interline sees a return to relatively unrestricted domestic movement in the back half of 2022 here in the UK, as well as potentially in the US and Europe. Vaccination strategies vary in scale and timing, but broadly speaking the Western fashion capitals – London, Paris, Milan, New York – are likely to see their economies turning and their people mingling again before this year is over. And of course a lot of countries in the Eastern hemisphere are already at this stage.

What we’re less likely to see, though, is unfettered international movement. With the shadow of COVID variants looming, countries that have driven the pandemic back through onerous lockdowns and unprecedented vaccination drives are going to be in no rush to reopen their borders to business travel or tourism – at least not without vaccine passports, which we do not expect to see rolled out before the end of 2021.

All of which means that the second wave of digital fashion weeks might not be the last wave. It’s entirely feasible that people could return to the runways in early 2022, but it’s equally possible that they might not.

This is why digital fashion weeks have been, at least outwardly, such a crucible for quick-fire innovation: because the timeline for going back to the old approach is unknowable. Right now, the industry is firmly in “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mode, with Rebecca Minkoff live-streaming a show across a brace of platforms that includes OnlyFans – known mostly for hosting adult performers. But we cannot ignore the progress towards digitisation that has arisen out of necessity and creativity from digital fashion weeks in 2020: all-digital and mixed reality shows, new digital-native wholesale selling platforms, cross-media collaborations and much more.

There is evidence from this week, though, that a lot of that digitisation is still front-facing, and that high fashion is still underestimating the potential of technology to bridge both the temporary and permanent gaps the pandemic has created.

In an interview with The New York Times, live-streamed on Instagram Live ahead of his digital show at New York Fashion Week, Tom Ford expressed frustration with the limitations of digital shows, and a desire for “very effective” live shows to return.

In and of itself, that quote makes for a snappy headline, but it’s hardly news. Ford – who is also an accomplished film director and fully understands the impact of different media – is a designer with an impeccable legacy in luxury and couture, and a personal brand that’s essentially inseparable from elevated opulence and painstaking craftsmanship. He also sits at the head of the CFDA, so the fact that he longs for a return to the spectacle and theatrics of live shows is not surprising.

Buried in that interview, though, was something The Interline considers much more telling and far more remarkable. Ford talks about how the limitations of technology are also affecting product development within his eponymous label, and he references being shown a prototype shoe via webcam over Zoom, and then marking up changes by annotating a PDF.

For anyone who’s spent sufficient time in the technology side of fashion, these two workarounds will be familiar. In the gap between traditional vendor portals and fully-fledged, supply-chain-wide secure access to modern PLM platforms, sending and annotating static PDFs and flat images, bouncing them back and forth via email, was one of the only supply chain collaboration tools fashion had. And before 3D simulation and digital twins, getting photos or video of a prototype or sample was the only way to see it before it physically arrived.

But these are both essentially solved problems today. Collaborating with suppliers in a secure, turnkey PLM system replaces ad-hoc annotations with fully joined-up workflows, with complete accuracy and accountability. And reviewing a prototype via video (or with a physical version in-hand, of course) has been superseded in all but the most edge cases by the use of 3D design and simulation tools.

None of this is to say that Tom Ford himself, or his label, are behind the times per se, but the offhand nature of the reference to video and PDF markups belies fashion’s difficult ongoing relationship with backend technology – where the return on investment is less flashy than a fully-CG runway show, but where disruption of the kind we’re currently experiencing rapidly reveals the enduring, often-unaddressed fault lines in core design, development, and production processes.

Now, The Interline recognises that luxury is a very different business to high street fashion, and that its relatively narrow scale robs technology investment of some of its ROI potential (which can be concentrated in economies of scale). But the two models are not sufficiently different to invalidate the advances that are being made behind the scenes by mass market brands and technologically-advanced suppliers.

So while fashion puts its best foot forward this week, forging ahead and figuring out what this cycle of online-only performance and engagement looks like, and preparing for the potential of another cycle to come, The Interline hopes that equal attention is being paid to the proven technologies that can keep the industry moving behind the scenes.

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