Against an unstable global backdrop, across fashion a great deal of positive disruption has been going on behind closed doors. During the pandemic, brand and retail businesses have leaned heavily on technology as both a lifeline – allowing them to keep business-critical processes moving forward – and as a way to kickstart the digital transformation they rightly see as necessary to preparing them to meet the demands of a changed world. From material digitisation to the Metaverse, both new technology projects and expansions of existing pilots have attracted historic levels of attention and heightened budgets for investment.
But while brands’ adoptions of technology have made the headlines, an equally important – but quieter – revolution has been happening within the fashion technology industry itself. In recognition of just how important their individual solutions are to fashion, forward-thinking technology vendors have also been pursuing partnerships and integrations on a new scale – building on those discrete foundations to demonstrate that what’s powerful in isolation can be transformative in combination.
The idea of integrated solutions and all digital, end-to-end workflows is, of course, not a new one. Systems integration and interoperability is a goal as old as the software industry, and the vision for a truly digital product lifecycle – concept to consumer – is one that technology vendors, analysts, commentators, and brands have returned to time and time again.
So what’s changed now? How is the post-pandemic technology landscape for fashion different from what existed before? And why is the time right today for technology to disrupt fashion – not just in discrete areas, but in achieving a much more comprehensive (and now more realistic) digital transformation.
The Interline, in close partnership with the world-leading University of Manchester, and with the support of an incredible group of technology vendors (Frontier.cool, Style3D, Twine Solutions, Made2Flow, Coats Digital, and SO REAL Digital Twins), put on a global technology showcase at the end of March, designed to answer exactly those questions.
Here’s how it all happened.
First: this was an in-person event on a large scale. More than 300 delegates from education and industry were signed up to attend the physical event, with a curated selection of additional attendees and speakers taking part remotely.
Made up of a two-hour exhibition of disruptive fashion technology and a multi-hour session of keynotes and panel questions, the festival was also the inaugural physical event to be held at The University Of Manchester’s striking new Engineering and Material Sciences building, ahead of its official opening for the start of the 2022 academic year. The massive space – the largest engineering campus in the UK – is spread across eight storeys and is set to be home to a community of more than 8,000 students later this year. And for the first part of the day the building’s biggest communal space was given over to exhibitors from across the full spectrum of fashion – from the technology vendors who would later deliver keynote speeches spotlighting the role they’re playing in realising the end-to-end digital vision, to sustainable brands and production partners.
Even with the novelty of gathering in-person put to one side, this was an impressive feat. Technology vendors had travelled in from around the UK, from Europe, from Asia, and from Israel, and further technology companies were represented during the exhibition in person and with pre-recorded video content and demonstrations. Students, alumni, and fashion industry representatives circulated, taking in showcases of virtual store planning, digital dyeing, factory planning and capacity management and labour quantification, 3D design and simulation, material digitisation, sustainability impact measurement and much more.
Walking the exhibition space, the perception was very much one of a unified industry: brand representatives talked candidly about their challenges; technology vendors explained their approach to solving those challenges, both solo and in partnership with other exhibitors; and everywhere the new generation of fashion talent flocked to the booths, keen to see how the industry they intend to join is being transformed by technology.
This was a common theme throughout the entire day – not just in the exhibition space, but during the extensive keynote sessions that followed, and on into the reception that took place afterwards. The Interline has supported various educational initiatives in its home country, but for obvious reasons (as a publication our lifespan has been dominated by COVID and by virtual events) this festival was the first time I had personally seen so much future talent gathered in one place.
From an outside perspective it’s easy to assume that fashion students are only passively interested in technology, since so many technology benefits are in efficiency, or bottom-line profit, but this was certainly not the case. Everywhere, young people studying disciplines as diverse as visual merchandising, marketing, and material design were taking a pointed, proactive stance on investigating the potential of technology, and the influence it’s likely to have on their future careers.
From that perspective – employability – I was thrilled to speak to so many students who had committed to building a hybrid skillset, blending traditional buying or design training with an embrace of technology that will help to distinguish them from the field of future hires for brands and retailers. And it was also evident throughout the event – not least from the organisation and participation of key lecturers and programme leaders – that The University Of Manchester is doing its utmost to encourage its students to understand and make use of technology, both through structured courses, and through self-directed research. And this is in addition to a part-time, remote Masters course designed for existing and prospective fashion professionals who are looking to make a new career move that takes full account of the scope of technology-driven and tech-adjacent opportunities in modern fashion.
As much as I would have liked to loiter for longer in the exhibition space, The Interline – alongside with the university – was also set to lead the afternoon’s keynote session, which took place in one of two state-of-the-art lecture theatres, with seamlessly blended in-person and remote participation for a global audience.
It was during this session that the questions posed earlier in this report began to be answered: why is now the time to realise the vision for a digital, end-to-end workflow in fashion?
As the audience filed in, I remarked on just how many “leapfrog” technologies were represented on-stage – from rapid, AI-assisted fabric digitisation to 3D collaboration, radical environmental impact measurement, digital thread and yarn dyeing, supply chain transformation, and virtual fashion. Taken in isolation, each of these solutions offers something new to the fashion industry, whether that’s a fresh, unique take on an existing workflow (such as 3D design, simulation, and collaboration) or an entirely new prospect, such as digital dyeing.
Taken together, though, the compounded benefits of aligning individual solutions to create an entirely new way of working can be seriously compelling. And that’s what we set out to demonstrate, by structuring the keynote sessions in a logical order that mirrors the process flow of a typical product lifecycle, and by following the journey, on stage, of a hypothetical garment from fabric to finished product.
Once the lecture theatre had filled, and the remote audience was online, I had the honour of opening the keynote session with a short presentation capturing the reasons why fashion and technology have become so closely intertwined. To readers of The Interline none of these will be surprising, but for a mixed audience of students, industry representatives, and educators, my introductory presentation was a timely reminder of the potent mix of challenges and opportunities that fashion now faces – all of which have technology solutions.
I was followed by The Interline and WhichPLM’s own Mark Harrop, who set the scene for the significant strides that technology in fashion has taken in the last few years by hearkening back to its past. As far back as the industrial revolution, which saw Manchester established as the nexus of the world’s cotton trade, Mark demonstrated how the foundations had been laid for an industry fuelled by constant invention. Home to one of the world’s first computers, Manchester was also – as Mark reminded the audience – an engine for innovation during the earliest days of the software age.
No mere history lesson, Mark’s opening presentation – which also took in the history of CAD in apparel and footwear, and the evolution of the systems designed to create and communicate technical specifications – laid the groundwork for the rapid pace of technological advancement over the last few years, culminating in the end-to-end combination of solutions that made up the presentations that followed.
The first of those was given remotely by Alexis Rebecca Liu, who was speaking from Taiwan in her role as Global Business Development lead for material digitisation platform Frontier.cool. Alexis’s keynote spotlighted the current state of digital materials, which have come to play a vital role in digital product creation (DPC) strategies, but which have currently reached something of an impasse in terms of scalability.
That problem of volume is, Alexis said, down to the time and labour-intensive methods and tools used to create high-fidelity archival materials, as well as to the limited deployability of those tools in the supply chain. As brands look to increasingly make wider use of digital fabrics in their 3D design and simulation environments, the demand is quickly rising for more rapid material capture that does not compromise on the key channels needed to accurately represent material characteristics. Or, as the core message was distilled for the students in the audience, the further rise of digital design will need to be supported by a commensurate increase in the volume and variety of digital materials.
To demonstrate a solution to this problem of scale, Alexis kicked off the journey of the product that had been chosen to go through its entire lifecycle on-stage with a new method of material capture: one supported by machine learning. This approach has been examined in considerable detail in the past, by Frontier.cool in partnership with The Interline, but in essence it replaces the time-consuming multi-pass capture approach employed by standalone material scanners with a single-pass capture that can be conducted using off-the-shelf hardware. To achieve this, Frontier.cool has applied a GAN (generative adversarial network) computer vision model to synthesise normal maps from a flat colour scan of a material, with results that are very closely comparable to captures taken from dedicated hardware.
As Alexis explained, the benefits of this approach are in time, cost, and accessibility. For brands to scale their DPC initiatives, materials will increasingly need to be captured at source – i.e. by mills and fabric providers who may not have access to the established scanning infrastructure for cost or location reasons. By offering a route to capturing high-fidelity digital fabrics without high-end hardware, Frontier.cool is proposing a way to quickly increase the throughput of material scanning to keep pace with the expectations of brands who have adopted a digital-first design and development workflow.
And as my conversations with students during the evening reception underlines, those workflows are the ones that the next generation of fashion talent is expecting to step into, creating a further drive for brands and retailers to increase their uptake of not just 3D design and simulation tools, but material digitisation with accompanying metadata.
Even within 3D design and simulation, though, the market is far from static, and innovations in both core rendering and collaboration are emerging. One of the companies spearheading a potential new wave of 3D in fashion is Style3D – already a major player in 3D in Asia, and now expanding quickly in the West. The company’s General Manager for Europe, Danny Reinfeld, took the stage after Alexis, to demonstrate how the digital fabrics created by Frontier.cool became the cornerstones of the next stages of the product lifecycle: creative design and technical development.
Many in the audience were already familiar with the benefits of replacing physical product samples with digital ones, but fewer had ever seen a complete DPC workflow that reaches effectively upstream (through seamless collaboration with suppliers) and downstream, into consumer engagement, where each of those steps was consolidated in a single ecosystem.
That ecosystem, though, is precisely what Danny demonstrated: an end-to-end platform environment that encompassed 3D creative tools, allowing designers to drop in digital fabrics, ideate and innovate, pattern development and simulation for refining fit, a framework for costing and technical specifications, and channels for both in-house collaboration and communication with vendor partners and end consumers.
As a visual keynote, Danny’s portion of the product lifecycle demonstration did a great deal to articulate the power of digital assets for a broad range of different disciplines that exist under the fashion umbrella – from concept design to visual merchandising. And at this stage in the end-to-end flow of the day’s agenda, the audience had begun to realise to what extent a product can now be born digital: existing in a digital-only format, with fabric, pattern, avatar, trims, and more, that can be used in a range of different scenarios without yet becoming physical.
But when the time does come for a digital asset to be turned into a physical sample (or a finished product) there is no longer any requirement for the digital thread to be severed, as the next keynote session in the day’s series demonstrated.
During Goor’s presentation, the product we’d chosen to collectively spotlight took its first steps into the physical world, since the time had come to produce a physical sample for approval. Typically, as Goor explained, the process of sourcing yarn and thread to produce this sample is both long and wasteful; brands are required to procure significant volumes, far in excess of what’s required, with dyeing traditionally conducted using water-based methods that are resource-intensive and that contribute a measurable amount to the fashion’s industry’s pollution profile.
As Goor went on to explain, digital dyeing (which is the leapfrog area that Twine has specialised in for some time, and a market that the company is poised to corner) offers an alternative with two clear and compelling benefits.
First, the environmental credentials of the dyeing process can be transformed. By dyeing white thread or yarn to match their desired output, on demand, brands are freed from minimum order quantities, instantly reducing waste. And by replacing an unsustainable historic process with a closed-loop, single-step combination of hardware and software, the process of dyeing itself can be completely disrupted.
Second, unlike traditional dyeing – which operates on an iterative cycle, with each successive batch getting closer to the designer’s intended result, digital dyeing comes complete with guaranteed accuracy. This was demonstrated on-stage, with the colours captured during Frontier.cool’s material capture, and simulated in Style3D, having been dyed in the exact quantity needed to the precise RGB values specified at the source.
And the same emphasis on integrity between the digital components of a product and the processes required to turn them into a physical end result was evident throughout the next keynote presentation, from Stuart McCready-Stocks, who is Coats Digital’s Commercial Director for Brands.
Coats Digital, as an ecosystem company, is in the business of bringing together different parts of the product lifecycle and unifying them with a common digital thread. This is something it sets out to achieve with a portfolio of different solutions, but for the purposes of this keynote, Stuart zeroed in on three: objective labour quantification standard GSD and its associated cost optimisation module GSDCost; PLM platform VisionPLM; and factory capacity and commitment solution FastReactPlan.
By demonstrating how the garment created in 3D in Style3D, draped in digital materials from Frontier.cool, and sampled using digitally-dyed thread from Twine, could then be digitally controlled throughout every component of its production, Stuart drew attention to many of the disconnects that have plagued traditional apparel production cycles, and that have, in turn, created an environment of considerable uncertainty and complexity. From disparities between design intention and manufacturing, to product costing and price negotiations that are based on historical averages rather than accurate data, Stuart laid out why risk is so endemic in fashion supply chains from both the brand’s perspective and the point of view of the manufacturing base.
To demonstrate how an all-digital approach can mitigate that risk at the same time as priming fashion for a radical leap forward on its sustainability agenda, Stuart walked through the ways Coats Digital’s tools are being employed today by brands to increase the speed of product development, and to create more transparent sourcing and production planning processes based on a clear calendar. And his presentation did the same for manufacturers, highlighting the potential for digital tools to stride ahead of traditional methods of planning, factory floor control, fabric utilisation, and other areas.
Central to Stuart’s keynote was GSD, the labour standard that formed the focus of a recent collaborative workshop, delivered by Coats Digital, The Interline, Hirdaramani Group, and The Fair Wage Network. Based on the 3D simulation produced by Style3D, Coats Digital was able to make use of GSDCost’s standard minute values (building blocks from which each manufacturing operation can be objectively benchmarked from both a cost and time perspective) to provide a clear and verifiable method of guaranteeing that it could be manufactured without placing undue pressure on the manufacturer, and without sacrificing the brand’s margin.
This angle cut right to the heart of a subject that was clearly important to everyone on-stage and in the audience: sustainability. And while Stuart’s presentation zeroed in on the humanitarian side, the following talk – given by Atnyel Guedj, Chief Product Officer of digital impact measurement solution providers Made2Flow – picked up the environmental baton and ran with it.
Again working with digital assets created earlier in the product lifecycle (specifically the digital material captured by Frontier.cool, and the 3D asset produced by Style3D) Atnyel underlined the importance of an end-to-end flow of data in providing the level of visibility and accuracy that near-future sustainability commitments will demand.
This, in my experience, is one area where the expectations of the next generation of fashion talent and the current reality clash in a dramatic way. The audience for this event was made up of people who are clearly passionate about their own buying behaviours, and who will bring those same standards into their work, and it was interesting to see how many of them were surprised by the lack of visibility the fashion industry currently has into its supply chains – especially tiers 2 and below, which is where Atnyel’s presentation focused. The spectre of “greenwashing” looms large in the public conversation, but for many students this may have been one of the first times the scale of the problem was openly shown.
As Atnyel explained, brands are currently choosing materials and manufacturing methods with little objective insight into their true environmental impact. From carbon output to effluent and water usage, it remains problematic today for almost any product to bear a label proclaiming its overall impact, since so many different variables influence that final impact measurement.
Fortunately, when the right data exists at the material level, through product design and development, and into the costing, sourcing, and production cycle, confident sustainability commitments become much easier to make. And as Atnyel demonstrated, having this level of end-to-end visibility also allows brands to not only assess the true sustainability profile of their products – with little room for error – but also to design to new impact targets that are both science-based and achievable.
There is, though, a counterpart to the sustainability conversation – one that achieves a similar aim by either trading in products that may never be produced physically, or products that began life physically but now go on to have much richer, more durable lives as digital assets.
Both of these were subjects that the day’s final speaker, Amal Jomaa – a virtual fashion and 3D enthusiast and an expert in the intersection of fashion and technology – tackled. Amal’s presentation took the digital assets created from the previous stages of the product lifecycle and extended them to their logical conclusion: as items sold in their digital form.
Next to sustainability, the MetaVerse and the market for digital fashions is perhaps the industry’s hottest subject, so it was little wonder to see the audience so engaged in Amal’s overview of the behavioural and technology trends driving these near-term futures. From new avenues for self-expression, to the freeing potential of using 3D design and simulation tools to create garments that are completely unmoored from reality, Amal made a compelling case for fashion technology in its purest sense. But equally interesting were the perspectives she shared from her work with X-ray and CT scanning company SO REAL Digital Twins, which revealed the level of exacting detail that can be captured from new methods of whole-product scanning supported by AI, which brands can deploy to create archival-quality digital twins of their physical products and to then subsequently power entirely new digital experiences with them.
This angle is unique in that garments and footwear captured post-production, rather than being designed digitally from the outset, are typically scanned at the surface level only. This makes them suitable to populate an eCommerce catalogue, but deeper experiences and investigations – such as those where products need to be separated into their constituent parts for either consumer interaction or in-house R&D purposes – require much greater accuracy. By employing medical-grade scanning devices and a bespoke machine learning model, SO REAL is able to synthesise the best of both worlds: building digital assets in exacting interior and exterior detail, able to be exploded or taken apart virtually, without requiring that products be rebuilt in 3D.
In one sense this is a fascinating prospect – and one The Interline and SO REAL have examined together before – because it offers a kind of digital amnesty, or a way for brands to digitise their heritage for both institutional knowledge purposes, and to create new digital assets that can become the centrepieces of novel experiences without those products needing to be redesigned in new tools. In another, product scanning to the degree that SO REAL pioneered offers a route for both contemporary and heritage fashion brands to make a confident stride into virtual fashion by bringing precise replicas of their most legendary styles to life in one or more new worlds.
Crucially, Amal’s closing keynote underlined the conclusion that digital transformation is indeed truly end-to-end, and that even products that were not created digitally from the outset – or even those that have reached the end of their traditional life – can become showpieces in a product lifecycle that’s now digitally connected to a degree that not only meets but exceeds the vision I mentioned earlier for completely lifecycle digitisation.
As the running time of the keynote sessions (we considerably overstayed our time, and a series of questions from attendees had to be taken offline) evidenced, breaking down each of the stages that make up that complete, end-to-end, all-digital product lifecycle is no small task. But crucially, it’s a task that the fashion technology industry is now ready for – not in the abstract sense that it’s been spoken about historically, but live and on-stage.
So while The Interline was honoured to work on co-hosting a physical event of this scale and impact, the real takeaway for me was that end-to-end digital transformation is no longer happening solely behind closed doors. It’s ready for prime time. And based on the level of attention and engagement from the audience at the event itself, and from the conversations I held with students and academics, the industry will find itself with a ready talent pool thanks to the pioneering efforts of educational establishments like The University Of Manchester.
Look for more events – in-person and virtual – from The Interline and The University Of Manchester soon.
To learn more about any of the sponsors that made up the exhibition and keynote portions of this event, and that collectively delivered the end-to-end digital transformation showcase, visit them using the links below: