Prognostication is always risky. And the last two calendar years have demonstrated just how problematic it can be to try and predict the specifics of what’s going to happen a few weeks from now – let alone a full twelve months. At the time I sit down to write this, it seems basically 50/50 as to whether more COVID-related movement restrictions will be brought in alongside the first cold draughts of 2022 air. And retail – along with hospitality, fitness, and a host of other industries that at least partly hinge on bringing people into physical spaces – is staring at an uncertain horizon, with the faint spectres of store closures and dramatic slumps in footfall still lurking in the wings.
If I had to guess, I’d currently lean towards optimism for the general conditions that will govern next year. There’s a possibility – and it seems a logical one – that the Omicron wave of the pandemic burns bright but briefly, infecting lots of people very fast, but leading to mild disease in the majority of cases. In that scenario, new restrictions end up being either unnecessary or short-lived, and the UK, EU, and US get 2022 underway with relatively stable foundations beneath them.
There are, of course, no guarantees when it comes to COVID, and on behalf of the entire team at The Interline, I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone we reach a safe holiday season – even if its scope might have to be smaller than we’d like this year. There are better times somewhere around the corner.
Much easier to predict, though, are the general outlines of the demands that are going to be made of fashion technology in 2022. Supply chain resilience and visibility, digital fashion and interactivity, social change, cross-channel retail excellence, behind-the-scenes efficiency, and raw, brass-tacks profitability are the primary things the industry should be concerned about over the next twelve months. And each of those concerns is going to lean on technology to some degree.
But just because it’s comparatively simple to paint a rough picture of where we’re heading, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to get there. The demands I’ve listed are going to ask a lot of solutions, services, and people, and while the fashion industry has talent and technology in abundance, the next year is set to test them both to their limits.
So as 2021 draws to a close, I want to set out what I consider to be the three big asks the industry should have from fashion technology in 2022. And of course The Interline has plans to talk about all of them – and much more – from January onwards.
Reinforcing supply chains. And redesigning them, too.
While ongoing supply chain disruption can make for some funny seasonal content, its persistent effects are going to be much less humorous. Once considered a temporary phenomenon, the hugely inflated cost of shipping physical goods from one side of the world to another could become a more permanent factor – translating into an uplift in both the cost of goods for brands and retailers, and further inflation in retail prices for shoppers.
Combine this with lasting unpredictability around when – and to what extent – different production markets are going to be affected by the pandemic again, and the previously straightforward act of getting things made and having them sent to consumers could become even more complicated than it already is. And it’s worth noting that COVID’s impact on sourcing and manufacturing destinations could be both direct – through factory closures, and worker shortages caused by an acute public health crisis – and indirect, as different regions struggle in different ways to recover from that acute crisis without the same social safety nets that exist in consumption markets, potentially leading to greater political upheaval.
In this context, technology is going to be asked to step in in several ways.
First as a protector: reinforcing existing supply chain relationships through objective, independently-verifiable data, by offering intuitive ways to employ established standards for good sourcing practice and fair labour, and by creating systems for two-way collaboration, co-creation, and mutual accountability.
Second as a tool for active change – not just in a social sense, although the mandate for equality is strong – but by providing a framework for reallocating certain elements of production to new methods and new locations. Digital printing, digital dyeing of threads and yarns, and smart, fully-connected cutting hardware are all completely viable tools, and new commercial models of near-shore and in-country production are already being created using them.
Moving past the Metaverse honeymoon.
The flourishing of the Metaverse in fashion in 2021 happened fast. As the year draws to a close, the world’s biggest brands are making acquisitions and strategic hires to steer their ships into uncharted, all-digital waters.
But despite the prominence of the Metaverse in boardroom discussion and industry analysis this year, quite what it’s going to mean for the fashion industry to have a lasting, commercially-successful, and technological sustainable presence in one or more real-time worlds is still unclear.
As we enter 2022, the possibility space seems vast. And that’s more than likely because it is; fashion has dipped its toes into not only one of the broader consumer technology industry’s biggest new initiatives in decades, but also the pre-existing and rapidly-shifting landscape of videogames. This is, to put it bluntly, not the kind of entrance that comes without creating some major ripple effects afterwards, and as 2022 wears on, fashion brands are likely to begin asking themselves what a viable long-term Metaverse business model looks like, once the initial fervour around being able to make money from digital assets dies down.
And behind the scenes is the lingering question of whether the Metaverse, in its near-term state, can actually deliver what fashion seems to want: a universally-accessible, interoperable digital layer on the world that allows for consistency of expression and identity between different experiences. For the foreseeable future, that vision is going to remain unfulfilled for purely practical reasons, according to one of the world’s premiere chipmakers.
But even though several hurdles stand in the way of the utopian vision for a single Metaverse, fashion still stands to make considerable headway in this new area in 2022, and this is going to place a significant burden on technology platforms. For brands looking to sell digital garments without changing the 3D design and simulation environments they work in, pathways will need to be built to allow existing workflows to serve new, all-digital markets. And for shoppers that want to buy and wear digital fashions in the real-time worlds, experiences, and games they already occupy, greater portability of those assets will need to accompany a far more intuitive, turnkey process of purchase and ownership.
All of these things are within the fashion industry’s grasp, but next year and beyond, technology still has some real heavy-lifting to do.
For all the excitement that surrounds new possibilities like digital fashion, there’s something much more prosaic that technology will be asked to do in 2022: maximise the profit margin that suppliers and their brand customers are able to make on each individual unit.
Whether the more positive pandemic-related outlook for next year is realised or not, it seems inevitable that businesses of all shapes and sizes will be asked to make difficult choices – and potentially compromises – in how they bring products to market. Chief among those will be which products to introduce in the first place – a multi-faceted decision that will be driven not just by trend, or raw material price, or environmental impact, but by a complex set of variables that ultimately determine whether or not there’s sufficient money to be made in creating something.
Creating actionable insights from that combination of factors is set to be one of the most prominent use cases for technology in 2022, with the market for retail intelligence platforms likely to explode as brand and retail businesses take a cold, calculating look at the market and zero in on those products (and the processes and components that comprise them) that will deliver the greatest return.
Targeting greater profitability in this way will require the full complement of enterprise technologies, all working in unison. From PLM and ERP to planning and warehousing, these solutions may not be as glamorous as multimedia collaborations, but in a year that’s likely to be characterised by uncertainty, they will be essential tools for brands, retailers, and suppliers looking to shore up their bottom line.
The Interline will return in earnest in January 2022, with a special focus on intelligent retail that will kick-start our 2022 editorial calendar. We wish all our readers a happy holiday season in the meantime.