Fashion is for everyone.  That might sound like a simplistic statement, but its implications are profound, not only for how fashion is being consumed, but how its future is being steered by people who stand outside the traditional industry institutions.

The starkest manifestations of fashion as an increasingly accessible industry are being seen on the stock market.  Despite the obvious disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, fashion as a global industry is predicted to recover relatively quickly; eCommerce alone is expected to exceed its 2019 revenue figure by 26% within the next two years, and segment-wide forecasts indicate that in that same timeframe the worldwide market for apparel and footwear will both surpass its 2019 size and set a new $2 trillion high watermark.

This is, to put it bluntly, not a level of growth that any industry can achieve by locking people out, and the inclusivity of fashion is now felt everywhere on the street as well.  Fast fashion (for all the negative press and public sentiment swirling around it) is still growing, and expected to approach $40 billion in revenue by 2025 – a trend that is fuelled almost entirely by low retail prices and obfuscation of the steeper cost that the environment and manufacturing workers pay to maintain that entrypoint.

Fast fashion works because shoppers are now conditioned to expect variety, value, and velocity to market, with pre-pandemic research suggesting that American consumers buy one mid-priced garment every week on average, and with post-pandemic coverage demonstrating that some consumers continue to prioritise affordability above all else – with the ability to build “a year’s worth of outfits” for less than $300 propelling eComm-only success story Shein, which introduces a staggering 1,000 new styles every day, to a $15 billion valuation in 2020.

At the same time, brands and retailers inside and outside the fast fashion bracket are driving inclusivity in ways that go much deeper than affordability.  Inclusive sizing is unquestionably a positive force in consumption markets, allowing more people than ever access to styles that would previously have been sold only in limited size ranges – especially in luxury and with a high-profile impact in athletic wear.  And fashion marketing and product design have both made considerable strides to better reflect the true, diverse demographic makeup of the potential market, looking to tap into some of the stratospheric commercial performance of the inclusive beauty and intimates brands that operate under the Fenty umbrella (and that this month made founder Rihanna a billionaire).

While big business has been slowly turning in a more inclusive direction, the near-universal accessibility of platforms for selling online has allowed the same inclusivity to spring up at the grassroots level.  For every large brand that uses Shopify to run its eCommerce operations, there are countless smaller brands that are making use of the same toolset to compete on an even footing with online giants and marketplaces.  And these are the same brands that, largely, are topping lists of the most inclusive, ethical, and sustainable businesses, capitalising on a rising tide of consumer appetite for sustainable style, and preparing for a near-term future where overdue action on climate change is likely to define a lot of buying behaviour.

This same trend towards decentralisation and democratisation is also being felt in the trend sources and cultural roots that are collectively driving the next cycles of product design and development.  Influencer marketing (the process of brands partnering with social media figures rather than relying on celebrity endorsements and traditional promotional channels) is expected to pass $17 billion in value in the next six years. And despite the significant amount of money changing hands, the bulk of this will come from “micro” and “nano” influencers rather than major, self-made social media celebrities – giving both established and emerging brands the opportunity to target small but hyper-profitable niches.

This prediction is a gateway into a wider shift that is taking place, with power that was previously centralised being redistributed.  A large majority of young shoppers place greater emphasis on YouTube creators than they do on traditional celebrities, and markets that have relied heavily on celebrity culture for brand promotion are now seeing that cachet erode as multiple brands compete to collaborate with a small pool of talent and consumers become wise to well-worn, inauthentic tactics.

And just as marketing is reorienting itself around a much wider and diverse set of channels, the magazine editors who once served as the keyholders for fashion are migrating to new industries. This reflects the reality that successful brands are no longer proven on the catwalk, then filtered through intermediaries; instead they are being built by the direct conversion of people’s passions into products.

In essence, to capture authenticity, to achieve differentiation in a competitive environment, and to avoid the many pitfalls of mis-calibrating demand and production, brands are recognising that the time has come for people who have not previously been part of the machinery of fashion to steer its future.

Prosumers and the creator economy

Combined, these various changes are squeezing fashion towards a new direction – one that brings the industry into direct contact with two major forces that are already reshaping other industries: prosumers, and the creator economy.

The creator economy is perhaps one of the most-discussed outcomes of the second age of the web, building upon the dominance of social media to allow anyone who creates content – from music and video to digital art and subscriber-only newsletters – to earn money from their efforts, rather than simply measuring success in reach and “likes”

Straddling the Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 eras, the creator economy is big business: more than 50 million people now make money, and in some cases a very comfortable living, through easy-to-access platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and Substack.  Perhaps the most prominent platform for independent creators, though, is Patreon, which established the template for fans who wish to support creators’ ambitions through monthly contributions rather than paying directly for end products.  As of the end of 2020, Patreon had at least 15 individual creators each earning in excess of $200,000 per year in subscriber contributions, and the platform’s most recent finding round valued it at $4 billion.

What creators actually do with the financial support given to them ranges from the highly unorthodox to people who are catering to traditional demands that are being under-served by existing markets.  The key takeaway, though, is that the “new” model of directly rewarding creators without necessarily buying a finished product is now anything but new, and numerous options exist for independent designers, influencers, podcasters and other industry outsiders to be remunerated for their curation and creation efforts without having to step into the sphere of brand sponsorships and collaborations.

For fashion, this could prove to be a quiet watershed moment.  Whether the creators they choose to support are influencers creating niche looks by pairing items from existing product catalogues, hobbyists upcycling or reclaiming clothing on the secondary market, or emerging creatives customising or designing their own styles, the creator economy is already providing opportunities for people who would have been locked out of the traditional infrastructure of fashion to take flight.

The growing prosumer category, on the other hand, has received much less attention – despite becoming, in The Interline and PlatformeE’s collective opinion, arguably an even stronger force on the future direction of fashion.

A term originally coined in the mid-1980s, a “prosumer” is, in the strictest definition, a consumer who also produces.  In the decades since the word entered the public consciousness, it has been strongly associated with creative industries such as photography and film.  Cameras were segmented into consumer grade products, used by people for whom photography or movie making was just a way of capturing the everyday, professional products sold into established industries customers, and the prosumer middle ground – people who straddled the line between consumer and creator.

Today, the prosumer label can be applied to a significant proportion of the influencers, curators, passionate fans, and brand advocates that make up the cloud of forces driving the future of fashion.  All of these are people who are no longer content to simply buy fashions; their goal is a feeling of ownership, partnership, and brand collaboration and co-creation.

Consider the significant percentage of shoppers who now prioritise sustainability. In order to make informed choices in that respect, they are becoming increasingly interested in, and immersed in, the inner workings of the fashion industry.  This is a segment of shoppers that cares enough about a particular issue to interrogate the industry on how that issue is being addressed, and to investigate what the realities of supply chain labour and material sourcing actually look like.

In fashion, a prosumer does not need to be someone who actually creates their own clothing line. The term describes anyone who forms an active part of the overall fashion ecosystem – from influencers and second-hand sellers, to the growing pool of people who are becoming invested in the industry’s processes and empowered by social media and creator economy platforms to actively participate in those processes, rather than remining passive.

Sneaker culture serves as a potent example of the size and passion of the prosumer market.  Once the preserve of a narrow niche of super-passionate fans with crowded, climate-controlled closets of Jordans and Dunks, sneaker collecting, hype, and all-round sports style culture is now a juggernaut.  Resale platform StockX had a record-breaking 2020, and there is little sign of the fervour surrounding the sneaker industry dying down soon.  Beyond the headline-grabbing revenue, though, the sneaker industry is fuelled by the prosumer mindset: devotees are active participants in the cycle, investing energy in tracking drops, reflecting on the business of brand collaborations, buying with the goal of value appreciation rather than disposability, recognising terms like “colourway”, understanding material usage and much more.

And if sneakerheads are a strong indicator of how prominent prosumers have become, influencers, of course, are the prosumer definition writ large.

For both of these categories, there is a short hop from passive passion to active co-creation.  These are people that understand the industry well enough to be able to frame their wants and needs in fashion’s own internal language, and the brands that are able to respond will be those that appear the most in-tune with market demands – bringing prosumers, creators, and their audiences into the creative process.

It’s also important to note that not only are new platforms and opportunities unlocking pathways for current creators and curators; the same forces are also potentially bolstering a new jobs market for prosumers who turn truly professional, with an “arms race to acquire creators”.

Why responding to prosumer demand requires new platforms and processes.

As it stands, the fashion industry is not set up to capitalise on the opportunities presented by prosumers and the creator economy.  Long lead times, large minimum order quantities, inflexible production planning, and a lack of instant integration between demand and manufacturing all currently conspire against it in a broad sense.

And at a more granular level, many (if not all) of the individual components of a more inclusive, accessible, collaboration industry are effectively impossible to deliver via traditional means.  Inclusive sizing can, today, only be solved through brute force, placing an even greater burden on overworked overseas operators.  The rapid turnaround that characterises the ability for a brand to react to a micro-trend is beyond the reach of globe-spanning supply chains and sourcing networks with baked-in delays.  The ability for emerging designers and new creators to actually produce their visions is held back by minimum order quantities in manufacturing and material ordering.  And the longstanding problem of massive overproduction remains a thorn in the industry’s side as inexact intuition continues to stand in for a real understanding of demand – and as fast fashion continues to take an unsustainable, shotgun approach to solving the problem.

In this context, where the need to include, collaborate, and co-create with new kinds of consumers is clear, the only solution is a different approach: producing on demand.

PlatformE was established to provide access to production on demand, and today its platform and services are already being used to create onramps from influencer post to independent creator nor prosumer requires patternmaking expertise in order to turn curation into creation, and rapid configuration and customisation, paired with a network of production facilities close to the consumer, translates inclusive creation into near-instant delivery.

“Today, it’s fully possible for a fashion brand to partner with one or more influencers, and to provide an environment where those creators can quickly customise a product, using a product configurator, and then publish their take on a hot style to a point-of-sale in a matter of minutes,” explains Lui Iarocheski, PlatformE’s Group Marketing Director.  “Dedicated consumers can then experience the same product in multiple ways: in its base form, as one or more custom drops created by the influencer, and as their own personalised take, built from the same production-ready components and in the same product configurator.  With just one original style, the brand could improve their own eCommerce conversions, and increase brand loyalty and reach by empowering the creativity of their user community.  And of course, being on-demand, production would only be triggered at the point of purchase, meaning no more deadstock.”

In the process of addressing the deadstock problem, on-demand production can introduce a finished product in record time, through a product configurator populated with mix-and-match pre-approved, production-ready components.  And while this approach can introduce a longer delivery timeline for the shopper compared to traditional manufacturing, based on the experience of PlatformE’s client base, the ability for the prosumer to influence its creation, to understand its progress, and to feel confident in its sustainability are likely to more than offset the delay from digital and physical.

As the power behind fashion reroutes, it’s becoming clear that this kind of on-demand production – facilitated by the right integrated networks, platforms, and tools – will be the key to allowing businesses of all shapes and sizes, enterprise to small entrepreneur, to keep up with a shifting shopper mindset.  And at the same time, making this transition to welcoming in people the industry has traditionally kept at arm’s length will help fashion to shed the negative baggage it has carried for too long – from overproduction and waste to an over-reliance on the creative input of professionals alone.

About our partner: PlatformE is powering at scale mass customization, on-demand manufacturing, and digital collections across industries. We are on a mission to drastically reduce overproduction in Fashion, revolutionizing the way brands capitalize on inventory.