Technology became a lifeline for brands, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers during the pandemic – condensing nearly a decade’s worth of advancement and tech adoption into a couple of seasons. Now that the dust has settled, fashion professionals from the C-Suite to sourcing and creative teams are realising that technology has already begun to change the way they think about their roles – and for many of them that transformation is just getting started.
This August 7th through 10th at the Las Vegas Convention Centre, The Interline and the expert exhibitions team behind SOURCING at MAGIC have partnered to bring a new concept to life: the SOURCE Lounge. Specifically designed to be a place where fashion professionals at every level can deepen their understanding of how technology is influencing their area of expertise, and learn how digital transformation is progressing at the whole-industry level, the SOURCE Lounge is a unique live community with a programme of practical sessions, open discussions, and proof points all curated by our Editor-in-Chief, Ben Hanson.
Find out more by visiting SOURCING at MAGIC, or read on for an exclusive briefing on why almost no part of fashion is untouched by technology today, and what roles you can play in making technology work for the future of your brand…
Fashion is emerging from a period of change like no other in living memory. And while other industries underwent similar disruption, the apparel, footwear, and accessories industries have made it through a perfect storm that saw them being transformed on three different axes all at once.
A massive cultural upheaval instantly changed what we wear, and when. In the short term this meant a steep rise in mask-wearing and a plunge in the sale of occasion wear as commuting and office work were put on pause, personal safety became paramount, and consumers across all market segments switched to working from home. In the longer term, COVID was a catalyst for the already-ongoing casualisation of fashion, which has altered assortment plans, prompted brands to introduce entirely new categories, and generally reshaped the creative and commercial landscape.
At the same time, fashion’s routes to market came unravelled. Brick and mortar stores were shuttered, re-opened, and then the cycle repeated – several times in some locations. And if eCommerce (across direct-to-consumer channels and eTail marketplaces) was a success story pre-pandemic, COVID demonstrated just how much further it could grow, with a directly-correlated 55% jump in online sales, and an additional, attributable $220 billion in revenue in the USA alone. But the acute switch to digital spending doesn’t tell the whole story: eCommerce’s share of consumer spending is predicted to keep expanding, exceeding $7 trillion in three years’ time, even as retail as a whole is threatened by a burgeoning cost of living crisis.
The last of the three axes, supply chain disruption, was perhaps the most pronounced – and certainly the longest-lasting. In the early phases of the pandemic, product stopped flowing entirely, factories and distribution hubs were closed, and lives and livelihoods were threatened as the garment production sector bore the brunt of the economic upheaval in consumption markets. And even as the world began to put the acute stage of COVID behind it, conflict in Europe turned what many hoped was temporary supply-chain disruption “from a post-COVID issue to a major immediate threat, with potential shortages in natural gas, metals and grains, among many others,” according to KPMG.
In isolation, any of these would have been sufficient to prompt fashion businesses to re-evaluate the way they work. Taken together, they leave almost no area of fashion untouched – upstream, downstream, or at brand headquarters. As a consequence, very few jobs within fashion operate today the way they did prior to 2020. More than just swapping to remote or hybrid working, from creative design to material planning, many of fashion’s value chain processes now demand new awareness, new skills, and new technology solutions to support them.
And beyond the business strategy level, no matter what role you occupy – from brand owner to sustainability lead – your day-to-day life is likely now being influenced by two forces that are proceeding hand-in-hand: uncertainty, and technology.
Making the most of those forces means understanding their scope, how they interact, and how you can turn technology to your advantage. Together with a roster of technology exhibitors and industry speakers, in workshops and live discussions, The Interline and SOURCING at MAGIC will address each of these subjects in Las Vegas next month, but to get started we have assembled a shortlist of fashion roles that are now more closely aligned with technology than ever before, and what that means for the professionals who occupy those roles.
Executive or brand owner
Whether you oversee a fast-growing, value-led brand or a multi-national retailer, business continuity and existential risk are likely to be primary concerns against the backdrop of ongoing global uncertainty.
Regional fluctuations, price negotiations, and economic ebbs and flows aside, fashion has, for decades, been able to consistently tap into a steady supply of raw materials, manufacturing capacity, logistics, and at least partially-predictable consumer demand. Prior to 2020, there had not been a moment in fashion’s post-war history where every brand found it equally hard, simultaneously, to secure raw materials and finished fabrics, book manufacturing capacity, move garments from one port to another, and engage with shoppers on their terms.
Brand owners and executives have now seen the impact of all of those taps being shut off at once. And throughout 2020, 2021, and into 2022, they have remained stubbornly closed at times, and alternately open at others, with little in the way of permanence. For any executive, this degree of unpredictability represents a threat to operational stability, innovation, and profitability. Fashion, after all, works best when each of those variables is aligned, and when more than one is affected by disruption, the business model quickly becomes hard to sustain.
Brand owners might not be able to wield direct influence over global events and government policy, but they are now looking to achieve new levels of operational oversight and efficiency as a reaction to these and other variables. And that’s a task that they are increasingly looking to delegate to technology.
From a distance, that technology can look like a cloud of buzzwords like “big data” and “AI”. But a recent report demonstrates that those big-ticket technologies are being applied as new layers and new methods of managing workflow and capacity orchestration and optimising process management – both longstanding priorities for any product-driven organisation.
But priorities have taken on a new importance as the external forces we’ve already mentioned have conspired against them. To put it bluntly: for a brand to become as efficient, innovative, and agile as it needs to be, without compromising on quality or sustainability commitments, technology is rapidly becoming essential.
Sustainability or ESG lead
In a world where uncertainty reigns, there is one constant that essentially every prediction agrees will remain a ruling force in fashion: sustainability. Identified in the State Of Fashion Report 2022 as both a prominent opportunity and a significant challenge, there’s little doubt that sustainability will stay firmly in the driving seat for the future of fashion, and professionals who can help to accurately monitor and measurably improve a brand’s sustainability credentials are in high demand.
If a grace period existed in which, during the acute phase of the pandemic, consumers were willing to overlook brands’ and retailers’ environmental and ethical credentials while they rebuilt business continuity, that phase has ended. But sustainability is a metric that stakeholders beyond shoppers care about deeply as well, with investors and regulators paying considerable attention to how responsibly brands are managing their recovery.
In the past month we have seen the first indications of what future sustainability reporting standards will look like in the European Union, and this is in addition to similar legislation being brought in across the Atlantic. This creates a clear mandate for fashion organisations – brand, retail, and supply chain – to embrace voluntary disclosure as a way to get ahead of mandatory compliance and near-future enforcement.
And technology has a vital role to play here. In place of third party sustainability labels and accreditations – which have hit a major setback in adoption in the past week – sustainability commitments will now need to be built on objective data, gathered in the supply chain, and exchanged between material suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, brands, and their consumers.
The professionals charged with defining the scope and shape of that data are already looking to risk management platforms, supply chain transparency mapping solutions, and new tools like blockchain and machine learning to assess the impact of any given product, and to communicate its provenance to consumers who are increasingly buying with a conscience.
And their counterparts in first and second tiers of the global supply chain are also rapidly evaluating the potential for technology to change the production paradigm from high-volume disposable garments to greater durability and quality.
Sourcing and manufacturing teams
In line with the dramatic impact that supply chain disruption has had on sourcing and manufacturing, it’s no surprise that the majority of senior supply chain professionals now identify technology as the key to building resilience and establishing a competitive advance in sourcing at a time when unpredictability threatens speed to market, target margins, and much more.
Beyond the acute disruption of the pandemic, fashion still finds itself short of the production capacity it previously relied on – because of both macro-level imbalances between supply and demand, and more localised factors such as COVID outbreaks in particular factories, or even energy shortages in certain regions.
Similarly, significant spikes in the cost of raw materials characterised the early days of the pandemic, before abating to some degree by the end of 2020. But recent disruptions could very quickly lead to an uptick of prices in petroleum-derived and synthetic fibres, with little stability in sight.
The upshot of this is that fashion, like many other industries, is now being asked to keep products flowing to market with hard, unpredictable limits on raw material availability, factory capacity and ethical labour, freight disruption, vital commodity cost increases – or all of them combined.
This confluence of pressures is something that sourcing professionals have tried to mitigate through short-term measures such as direct chartering and an increase in air freight, targeted at crunching the go-to-market cycle towards its endpoint. But many sourcing and supply chain leads are now also evaluating new ways to get closer to production – whether that’s through connected manufacturing hardware and monitoring systems that allow them to assess and plan capacity and optimise material yield, or by actually moving the processes of production geographically closer to consumption markets to minimise risk and the cost and carbon impacts of logistics.
Some of the world’s largest brands were already beginning to explore the relocation of manufacturing centres back to the USA and Europe pre-pandemic, allowing for products to be delivered in a matter of days, and simultaneously providing greater transparency. These investments have only scaled after COVID, and with more than 70% of brands now betting on the benefits of nearshoring, we could well be witnessing a permanent reconfiguration of the geography of manufacturing, and a change in the mechanics of sourcing to address the need to allocate high-volume production overseas, and more innovative, immediate, short-run production closer to home.
Realistically, though, near-shoring will only be enabled through even deeper deployment of technologies such as digital printing, digital thread dyeing, and material digitisation – all of which will enable brands and suppliers to sidestep minimum order quantities and long lead times, and to begin to advance towards a make-to-order future.
Creative designers working digitally – and evaluating digital fashion
Perhaps the biggest technology success story of the pandemic era was digital product creation (DPC). At a time when it was impossible to obtain a physical sample, creative teams who had already made the leap to designing in 3D were able to continue testing concepts, reviewing lines, and even simulating fit – all from digital garments alone.
For those brands, early investments in digital product creation proved to be vital to their continued operations, and further investment has followed. For brands and retailers that had not already embraced DPC, COVID was the catalyst, with more than 90% of respondents to an industry-wide survey The Interline partnered on agreeing that it had accelerated the need for digital transformation in design, development, and merchandising.
Whether they start with up-skilling existing creative designers and CAD users, or hiring in new dedicated teams of 3D artists, digital product creation initiatives are now top of many brands’ investment agendas. And the results are wide-ranging, from revolutionising internal and supply chain collaboration, to replacing traditional product photography with digital assets and virtual staging.
But many brands are also investing in digital asset creation with a view to capitalising on the complex opportunities offered by digital fashion and the Metaverse. The final shape of this possibility space is by no means certain, and The Interline will be helping to explore it both in the SOURCE Lounge and on the SOURCING at MAGIC main stage, alongside a forward-thinking brand, but one thing is certain: brands that have built the pipelines for the creation of digital assets will be in the strongest position for building out new all-digital business models.
The new way forward
In a report published just before the end of 2021, McKinsey wrote that:
“Some companies will build upon the momentum they gained during the pandemic, with decisive action to adapt their supply-chain footprint, modernize their technologies, and build their capabilities. Others may slip back, reverting to old ways of working that leave them struggling to compete with their more agile competitors on cost or service, and still vulnerable to shocks and disruptions.”
This may be focused on supply chain technology, but the message resonates across every area of fashion – from raw material sourcing to retail. The fashion industry has overcome historic disruption and ongoing unpredictability has stretched many traditional processes past their breaking point. Today, whatever your role, technology can be fundamental to supporting your work, unlocking new ways of collaborating with the people around you – even if those people are on another continent – and creating a model of fashion that’s truly future-proof.
Do you fill one of these roles, and want to get ahead of the opportunities that technology is creating in your area of expertise? Do you work in another area of fashion – from merchandise planning to downstream retail – and want to know more about how to take action on your pressing issues with the help of technology? Visit the SOURCE Lounge at SOURCING at MAGIC, Las Vegas, between 7th and 10th August to take part in live conversations between industry experts and technology vendors, to go hands-on with solutions, and to learn what the future holds for fashion now that its destination is so tightly interwoven with digital transformation.
About our partner, Informa Markets Fashion:
Informa Markets Fashion connects and inspires the global fashion community through online experiences, industry insights, and worldwide fashion trade events including MAGIC, COTERIE, PROJECT, and SOURCING at MAGIC. From more effective manufacturing and supply chain opportunities to creative design inspiration and retail on the wholesale floor, Informa Markets Fashion’s diverse portfolio supports the entire fashion ecosystem – fostering innovation and driving creativity year-round. For more information on upcoming events, please visit: www.findfashionevents.com