It’s now a year since the initial impact COVID-19 started to tip over into complete global disruption. But even twelve months on, business as usual still seems impossibly far away. While some (but not many) industries have been able to rebound to their original shape, fashion has instead settled into a “new normal” that relies heavily on digitisation and virtual interaction – neither of which are likely to disappear as and when the world begins to reopen more fully.

And as we continue to move in and out of social restrictions — with lots of us, me included, questioning if remote working is here to stay — it is hard to imagine a single corner of the industry that will be left untouched by the pandemic, or that will not be using one or more digital solutions to stay connected, and to perform our pre-pandemic roles in new ways.

Central to that all-encompassing digitisation is the growing platform economy, which is steadily reimagining traditional fashion systems in a connected way. Parts of that economy were already established prior to 2020, but adoption of more end-to-end digital product design, development, and production had been slow on the uptake.  But when the world pivoted to remote working, the need to piece together those different fragments emerged as one of the industry’s biggest challenges.

And it’s also a challenge that every contributor to the fashion value chain is facing: not just just brands, retailers, designers, and creators, but the platforms, events, and institutions that serve them.

Image taken from Premiere VIsion 2020 Exhibition

So last month, when Europe’s leading fabric sourcing event — Premiere Vision Paris — had no choice but to abandon its physical trade show, it’s no surprise that the organisers went straight to reinterpreting the three-day event as an online matchmaking platform. This is a common enough event in the age of COVID, but it’s remarkable in the sense that fabric fairs were one of the few remaining buying-oriented events the industry had left, where, rather than taking demos of software, attendees were coming to make purchases.

Replicating that experience digitally, then, does two things: it allows the people who would once have travelled to the event to continue to do business, and it also opens up a previously-exclusive part of the industry to small brands and independent designers who have neither the budget nor team to attend in person.  For larger brands, the venue may have changed, but the experience is going to be comparable to what it was before COVID.  For emerging designers and micro-brands, suddenly being given access to a roster of 480+ global fabric suppliers was transformative.

That new level of access is by no means exclusive to sourcing events.  The same could be said of the growing pool of virtual sourcing platforms (such as SWATCHON, SwatchBook, TECHSTYLE, Frontier, Substance Source and others) which have made it their mission to bring ‘ease and simplicity’ to the fabric sourcing process, across both physical and digital materials. And it’s the ever-expanding crop of micro fashion brands that have the most to gain from the evolution of both sourcing and matchmaking platforms: these are democratising fabric sourcing for businesses with limited networks, resources, and industry recognition.

Crucially, that transformation is also being felt on the supplier side.  Fabric sourcing is well known to be a traditionally exclusionary process for independent designers because textiles suppliers have had a rigid criterion for the type of clients they were willing to work with. Historically they would request large order quantities that small businesses could not afford to place, or ask for evidence validating a stature within the industry that new brands had no hope of reaching.  Today that seems to be changing, and through a combination of digital sourcing events, digital materials platforms, and changing attitudes from suppliers, minimum order quantities and brand-to-supplier relationships are becoming much more flexible.

In my experience, this positive change has come about because of a recognition of three key forces that I see as shaping the way brands of all shapes and sizes engage with materials – both physical and digital.

First, there appears to be a growing awareness that the industry needs to take micro-brands more seriously – as both industry agents of economic value and as businesses in need of accessible digital tools. 

Second, sourcing platforms and events collectively identified the growing number of suppliers that wanted to expand globally and work more flexibly with higher volumes of smaller orders, but lacked the right channels to use for communication and collaboration.

Third, both parties understood the value of connecting the first audience to the second in a way that doesn’t simply uplift the traditional sourcing process and put it online, but rather reimagines it as something more inclusive, and paves the way for creativity to thrive but without compromising the ethical and environmental standards that a lot of small brands have as a driving purpose.

Because for micro fashion brands, materials lie at the very centre of their models. With limited audiences, they put themselves under substantial pressure to launch the perfect product that reflects their brand, from aesthetic, social and environmental commitments to price points — fabric informs everything. And now that consumer sentiment has shifted further towards radical sustainability, transparency, and ethics, brands understand the scrutiny they must put their fabrics under — working with suppliers who prioritise social and environmental wellness.

To even the established brand, sustainable sourcing is a daunting task that requires a coordinated search effort measuring every supplier’s and fabric’s impact. To the micro brands, that task is even more daunting, because while larger organisations have the impact to properly interrogate and influence their suppliers, small organisations are left with having to accept things at face value or needing to go elsewhere.  Various material platforms have now started to streamline this process by verifying supplier credentials, and allowing buyers to filter materials by certifications that comply with their particular route to sustainability.

But as necessary as a fabric’s provenance credentials are, arguably nothing in fabric sourcing matters more than the physical quality of a material.  One of the biggest challenges that designers face today is the upheaval of their pre-pandemic working methods — which typically relied heavily on the tactility of textiles, toiles, and samples to realise a product.

This is where digital, remote sourcing faces its biggest stumbling block: designers need to react swiftly to changed in market conditions, and to do that they need to have absolute confidence in the idea that the digital materials they are selecting will correspond exactly to the physical characteristics they expect.  That’s a level of trust that every fabric sourcing platform is currently working towards – in much the same way that brands are digitising the consumer-facing sales experience so that shoppers can purchase with at least some idea of how a product is going to feel and perform, rather than just how it’s going to look.

In the US, e-commerce gained years’ worth of ground in just three months at the pandemic’s height.  That has proven to be a powerful catalyst for companies to take big strides in that consumer-facing digitisation, thinking beyond the limitations of presenting products on a screen in static 2D, and adding videos, AR and VR to improve a buyer’s understanding of the product’s drape and feel.  And this same approach is also being taken to the transformation of wholesale relationships, which are becoming more like B2C interactions by the day.

As more brands forge ahead with their adoption and expansion of 3D, and the consumerisation of B2B relationships continues, I suspect we will see digital fabric sourcing become even more accessible and intuitive.  For large organisations this will be attractive because creative designers have been clamouring for more usable, intuitive solutions for a while.  For micro-brands it could be transformative, with things like personalised material recommendations and drag-and-drop material and colour experimentation putting greater power at their fingertips than ever before.

And there is a lot to be learnt from e-commerce sites such as Contrado, and direct to fabric printing technology like Kornit’s range of printers, which make fabric printing an effortless and shop-able function. The user experience they’ve created is a well-oiled machine that can take a designer from plain fabrics to fully realised products to drop-shipping with the click of a few buttons.  And these also herald the possibility of designers being able to skip overseas sourcing entirely, and to work directly with artisan weavers, textiles artists, and scientific textiles developers. 

If 2020 has shown us anything, it is how important the ability to pivot between virtual and physical working is, without shedding important information, and strengthening the communication between growingly remote stakeholders. Now that fashion product development is forever changed, brands of all sizes will continue to utilise solutions that keep the digital and tangible supply chain anchored to one another.

Micro-brands and independent designers who rely on small-scale third party technologies to operate the same way as  established brands — who can develop their own digital infrastructures — should feel optimistic about the growing platform economy that continues to vie for a share of fashion’s B2B market by focusing on them as consumers with their own set of unique problems to be solved.

It was household platforms such as Esty, Shopify, and Facebook, after all, that birthed the flurry of modern micro-business models from side-hustles to localised brands that we see today. And as the new iteration of platforms becomes more ingrained in making fashion design an effortless process, for the next generation of digitally native designers, brand-building will become more accessible than ever before.

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