Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Headlines reinforce the need for digital supply chain visibility offshore and onshore.

Retail remains in a precarious position, torn between two poles of positive longer-term outlook and immediate business-damaging challenges.  As a case in point: after an initial spike in foot traffic, consumer numbers have fallen again – to as low as -82% year on year – with 37 US states trending downwards.  But at the same time, retail as an industry is trending upwards, with some fashion businesses making 20% gains in brand value during the pandemic.

A lot of this additional value is accounted for by the promise of eCommerce, obviously. Investors are flocking to Amazon, Alibaba and JD, as well as traditional big retailers that have spent heavily on growing their online channels. And last week we charted the stock performance of Shopify and Etsy, which remain close to all-time highs today, and which are considered potentially instrumental to an eCommerce-driven future.

There is, then, clearly money to still be made in retail.  It may – for the time being or the longer term, as we’ll soon see – be concentrated in online sales, but making and selling garments, accessories and footwear that people want to buy remains a viable business model.

Headlines this week, however, have highlighted that much work still remains to be done on understanding the impact of the “making” part of that equation. Here in the UK, Alison Levitt QC (a senior barrister) has just been announced to be leading an independent enquiry into regional supply chain practices, spurred on by claims of non-compliant factories operating in an area of the country that has also been hard-hit by a localised COVID-19 lockdown that at least one facility reportedly continued to trade in contravention of.

This stands in stark contrast to the idea that re-shoring is a quick fix for the problem of supply chain opacity. For a while now, the standard answer to why fashion still struggles with transparency and accountability in its production networks has been that the work occurs out of sight – often on the opposite side of the world – and that manufacturing coordinators, agents, and bureaus with boots on the ground in those regions are responsible for inspecting, auditing, and communicating rule-breaking where it occurs.

As an article from one of this week’s sponsors shows, however, the tools and processes used to gather compliance, performance, and quality statistics from overseas suppliers are outdated, shining a fresh spotlight on the importance of replacing them with digital alternatives.

Some would argue, though, that the money spent on implementing digital processes and new, integrated systems offshore (something The Interline cannot estimate the actual cost of, as it will vary considerably depending on how a brand’s supply chain is set up) might be better diverted to establishing manufacturing partnerships closer to home, where remote monitoring can be replaced with in-person inspections.

But as this week’s news has shown, working with factories and facilities that are in the same country does not automatically translate into knowledge and visibility – especially when those factories are, more than likely, using the same paper-based, disconnected quality control, line planning, capacity modelling and other processes as their overseas counterparts.

One potential way to bring some manufacturing back on-shore with guaranteed visibility is the microfactory model, which The Interline and Gerber Technology explored in depth at the start of this week. Being digital-native and fully integrated, a microfactory is a pure technology solution to the problem of visibility, since every component and every stage of the manufacturing cycle can be remotely observed.

New research from McKinsey published this week, however, makes a case for using technology to elevate collaboration with suppliers, rather than replacing them. While this survey is primarily concerned with financial results (growth, cost, and profitability) the same principles would also apply to visibility; sharing processes, data sources, systems, and other avenues of communication, accountability, and co-creation with suppliers will, by extension, remove the blind spots that have allowed unethical practices to continue to thrive – even on our doorsteps.

Bringing manufacturing back home – wherever you call home – can provide a competitive edge in terms of distribution velocity, but it can’t, by itself, solve the problem of what happens when people’s backs are turned. That’s going to require technology, connectivity, and cultural change – whether it’s happening onshore or off.

Digital models get even more disruptive with the potential for real-time performance capture on consumer hardware.

Virtual influencers and digital models are big business, as evidenced by Lil Miquela signing with modelling agency CAA earlier this year. And the last few weeks have been a bit of a milestone for two reasons.

First, the Truth In Advertising body penned an extensive missive to the USA’s Federal Trade Commission at the end of June, in which a large portion (Section III) was given over to recommendations around the need for virtual influencers to both declare their digital nature – they claim more than 40% of people who follow them do not realise they are not real people, which The Interline finds surprising and unlikely – and to adhere to the same endorsement rules that apply to real influencers.

image courtesy of epic games.

At the same time, virtual production for film and TV is hitting the headlines again. The Interline has previously written about the transferability of skills, techniques, and workflows from VFX and gaming to fashion, and if virtual influencers continue their ascendancy – regulated or not – then the need for real performers to “play” them in interactions with fans, or in live shows, is going to grow suddenly.

Fortunately, this week’s final piece of news saw Epic Games (developers of the Unreal Engine, which we’ve already seen mentioned this month in a digital materials workflow) announce that live facial performance capture in Unreal can now be done with an iOS app and a consumer-grade smartphone, rather than requiring the use of expensive performance capture rigs and soundstages.

This Live Link workflow could open many doors for virtual influencers and digital models, allowing them to make a leap from static imagery to live engagement. Whether that’s a positive thing, though, will rather depend on whether you work in the modelling profession or not