Calling 2022 eventful would be putting it mildly.
This was the year generative AI hit the mainstream, and the year the global supply chain came under heightened pressure after being given only the shortest grace period to recover from COVID.
At the same time as inflation hit historic peaks in many markets, consumer demand (and regulator scrutiny) grew around the idea of data-backed sustainability. In both cases, this was also the year that technology gained an even bigger foothold in fashion, with brands looking to use tools like PLM to make sure their collections were as well-calibrated for the market as possible, and to build greater supply chain visibility for operation and sustainability purposes.
Faced with this much change compressed into such a short span of time, the instinctive response is to feel overwhelmed:
“How am I supposed to figure out how to create real-time immersive experiences downstream, using digital twins of my products, at the same time as radically overhauling my supply chain to achieve a new level of transparency?”
It’s a fair question, and nobody would argue that it’s easy to run a fashion brand or retailer right now, or to become a successful designer. But technology has, in a great many cases, shortened the distance from vision to reality. We may be living through a uniquely difficult time, but we’re also equipped with more solutions, more possibilities, and more support than ever.
Taking account of this, the logical place to stand is somewhere between optimism and pessimism – a place of openness, pragmatism, and curiosity. Because there’s a lot fashion can do to turn historic change into historic opportunity.
To keep track of all this, and to put that curiosity into practice, 2022 was also the year two fashion technology companies launched different podcasts, with complementary aims. Our readers will already be familiar with the slightly-unimaginatively-named The Interline Podcast (our latest episode sees our Editor sit down with “godmother of the Metaverse,” Cathy Hackl) but Lectra – a company that’s certainly no stranger to change – also began its “Staying Curious” show earlier this year, hosted by Aimee Heuschkel, and documenting the ways that technology is altering the fabric of fashion through candid conversations with industry influencers.
As long-time friends of The Interline, Lectra invited us to look back over the events of the last year by spotlighting the key themes from Staying Curious that we believe best characterise the way that fashion technology has evolved in 2022.
Every episode is embedded here for convenience, and all of them are worth listening to in full. So join us as we dissect the key themes from a series of discussions that, in many ways, encapsulates just how far fashion has come this year – and how much farther it can (and needs to) go in 2023.
Episode 1 – Sherry Barry (Co-Founder of Fabric, Owner of The Fashioneer)
How the groundbreaking non-profit, FABRIC, is enabling digitally native designers to disrupt business as usual
Released in May, this first episode is a fitting bookend, taking stock of how technology has successfully democratised every part of the product lifecycle – except production. This might, on the surface, sound like a simple argument for on-demand manufacturing, but as Sheri Barry explains, it also represents a more fundamental shift in the distribution of power within fashion.
For emerging brands and digital-native designers, the established infrastructure of sourcing and manufacturing can be an impassable barrier. People with strong creative ideas are able to bring those ideas to life digitally, but they then find themselves unable to meet minimum order quantities for sourcing materials and components, or for booking production capacity.
The Interline agrees that, as long as these barriers remain in place, it will be significantly harder than it needs to be for young brands to get a foothold in the fashion system or to scale their visions.
There is, of course, a historical reason for MOQs to be set: traditional manufacturing simply was not profitable without economies of scale. But as Sherry explains in this episode, technologies such as digital printing, digital dyeing, intelligent cutting and other connected production tools are making it viable – opening the doors to an entirely new kind of creative who the establishment has so far shut out.
We also fully endorse Sherry’s vision for the same new paradigm of production having value for bigger brands. While it’s unlikely that smart, on-demand production will account or a large share of enterprise supply chains, the ability to personalise products, to create more inclusive size ranges and ratios, and to only make what you know you can sell, could be transformative no matter the size of business you work for.
Episode 2 – Matthew Wallace (CEO & Co-Founder, DXM Inc.)
End-to-end software platform, DXM Inc., puts the power of the value chain in the hands of consumers, as they push for more responsible practices found in businesses
Similar to Sherry, Matthew spends his time focused on delivering the vision for on-demand production, but his emphasis is more firmly on making Manufacturing As A Service (MaaS) at scale, as a new tool in the big enterprise portfolio.
As he breaks down in this episode, fashion’s current model of production has fallen out of lockstep with the evolution of the consumer market. Changing expectations for quality, speed, price, variety, and other variables now contrast with the nature of modern offshore supply chains, which are lengthy and largely disconnected from the brand commissioning the order.
Like The Interline, Matthew is realistic about the potential market share for on-demand production. Low-cost basics simply are never likely to be made on-demand, because the commercial justification for moving away from traditional production is impossible to reconcile with the additional cost. Instead, Matthew argues – and we agree – that the more logical approach will be for fashion to have three different modes of manufacturing: nearshore, where brands can strike the right balance between cost and agility; offshore, where keeping costs down is a priority; and on-demand, where speed, personalisation, inclusivity, variety, sustainability and other forces combine to justify it.
We also firmly support Matthew’s reminder that none of this is new. Other industries have already made similar transitions, allowing them to both serve a new consumer need, and to reduce their environmental and ethical impact. And with fashion on-track to become one of the dirtiest industries on the planet – with Matthew citing around 30% of product ending up in a landfill, or being return – this change is now well overdue.
Episode 3 – Angela Johnson (Designer, and Co-Founder, Fabric)
An online digital road map guides aspiring “apparel entrepreneurs” through the steps into building a startup brand
This episode returns to the theme of on-demand production, enabled by technology, but shifts the focus to the small creative – a cohort of emerging designers that Angela refers to as “apparel entrepreneurs”.
Like her Co-Founder, Sherry Barry, Angela is a firm believer in the democratisation of sourcing and manufacturing, and also an advocate for the power of technology to validate what has historically been an unprofitable business model. This is a sentiment that The Interline shares: making 20 or 100 pieces is not a viable strategy without the enablers that are printing, dyeing, and cutting intelligently, on-demand.
Angela also shares the story of a designer who set out to build a brand for tall women, incorporating detailed prints that shoppers were able to customise. This business proposition is one that the traditional fashion sourcing and production model is not set up to address, but in this case technology was able to make the difference between an idea being a non-starter, and it being achievable.
As Angela puts it: “Technology makes a night and day difference. Before, everything would have to be done in real-time, with a real person cutting and sewing every sample, and the expense [involved in that] can put a designer out of business before they even have the chance to go into production. Technology makes [the entire process] more efficient and more affordable, and it allows new apparel entrepreneurs to compete with the bigger brands”.
The Interline also agrees with Angela’s belief that access to technology could help to repatriate skills that the fashion industry has allowed to almost completely leave consumption markets – giving designers greater autonomy, and educating them on how to work with manufacturers, how to produce technical specifications, and more.
Episode 4 – Marci Zaroff (Founder & CEO of ECOfashion Corp)
Consumers are shaping the demand for sustainability, causing designers, manufacturers, distributors, and marketers to adapt to this growing practice
A lot of similar themes emerge in this episode, which returns to the idea of manufacturing changing from being an arms-length service that designers and brands commission, to being something that is available on-tap, through turnkey platforms that exist on top of the hardware layer that enables on-demand production.
The key difference with this conversation, though, is that Marci zeroes in on how this level of access to production capacity can transform the sustainability equation. And we fully agree with her conclusion that the evolution of consumer behaviour is now making the clearest possible business case for sustainability strategies that are backed by first-party data.
This is a key distinction between the raw commercial business case for producing on-demand and the more holistic, enterprise-wide vision for a different model of manufacturing. As Marci points out, the same market evolution that is driving the “farm to table” revolution in food and beverage is already starting to reshape the way shoppers think about fashion, which is, in turn, leading to much more scrutiny of the material and labour components of clothing.
Under a traditional production model, fashion brands lack the data to stand up to that scrutiny, but using technologies such as 3D design and simulation, and digital fabric printing (which Marci collectively refers to as “the smart factory opportunity”) allows organisations to tap into that information at source.
We also see some strong parallels between Marci’s summary of how sustainability strategies are changing (“they are being driven by product design and development, and no longer by marketing”) and how fashion as a whole industry has changed the way it thinks about technology adoption.
Episode 5 – Clare Tattersall (Founder of Digital Fashion Week NYC)
The catalyst of Web 3.0 and how its momentum invites collaboration between digital designers and technologists
The Interline has written at length about digital fashion this year – not least in our brand-new DPC Report – which should not come as a surprise, given the huge emphasis that was placed on the business opportunity presented by selling digital goods this year.
But as Clare explains, there is much more than a new revenue stream at work here. (In fact, The Interline would argue that the revenue potential of digital fashion is currently probably the least exciting thing about it all.) Looking through the lens of the Digital Fashion Week she and her team worked to organise, she talks about a more fundamental change in how “brands interact with their customers, [how they] become more efficient, and become more sustainable”.
Clare also returns to a theme that was highlighted in several prior episodes: the idea that fashion has a lot to learn from other industries where digital-native working is more prevalent. This is something The Interline has also discussed on multiple occasions, and Clare’s opinion here is one we agree with: that the videogame industry, architectural visualisation, automotive design and other sectors have been working in 3D for long enough that fashion should be open to borrowing best practices from wherever they are established.
Another key theme shared between this conversation and our own DPC Report (as well as being very tightly woven into the DNA of a company like Lectra) is the idea that the same tools that could unlock new possibilities in digital fashion and the Metaverse are already creating value by digitising product lifecycles. Working in real-time, or creating 3D experiences is not just a matter of building digital outputs in their own right, but also using the same tools, workflows, processes, and best practices to overhaul the creation of physical products.
Episode 6 – Dr. Sass Brown
Greenwashing No More – The growing transparency within brand’s environmental sustainability practices
While this was undoubtedly another year where sustainability dominated the headlines, it was not the year where fashion (at a whole industry level) made much tangible progress towards its targets. Several major research publications came to the same conclusion in 2022: that the gains being made by some forward-thinking brands are being offset by the inaction of others.
This slow progress is something that Dr. Sass Brown has dedicated a lot of her career to addressing, and it’s something that The Interline also sees as one of the foremost challenges facing fashion today, at a fundamental, architectural level. Sass’s description of the degree of change required is an effective one, and in this episode she makes a strong case for the need for fashion to go far beyond making slightly better products, and for “tangible interventions” to be made.
In practice, these interventions represent comprehensive overhauls to industry systems and practices – all of which must be made easily accessible enough to be rolled out by mainstream brands. This is a stark conclusion, but it’s also an inevitable one; The Interline has previously written (and spoken) about the spectre of right-sizing (or “de-growth”), and it’s something that Lectra’s stable of hardware and software solutions is also well-suited to support, by ensuring that brands bring only their best-calibrated products to market, and that the profitability of each new style is guaranteed through process and lifecycle optimisation and smart manufacturing.
As Sass puts it, there will be no measurable impact made on fashion’s sustainability credentials without transparency, and for an industry where – as we’ve seen from previous episodes – a good amount of production is going to continue to take place offshore, that transparency and accountability will only be unlocked via first-party supply chain data.
Episode 7 – Billie Whitehouse (Founder of WearableX)
Data-driven fashion improving our mental health and physical well-being though wearable technology
A lot of attention has been paid this year to the different ways that digital layers can augment physical fashion, but comparatively little to the impact of integrating digital hardware into clothing and accessories. This is surprising to The Interline in one sense: because the business case has never been clearer for fashion brands to build service layers that exist on top of their clothing, and as Billie explains in this episode, capturing consumer data and enabling garments to provide haptic feedback based on that data, could transform the way we think about what we wear.
In another sense, the relatively sparse attention paid to wearable technology in fashion is not unexpected. As Billie points out, wearable technology is a gigantic industry (worth around $115 billion) but it is also dominated by smartwatches, smart rings, and other accessories. For most people, those devices are so synonymous with “wearables” that the possibility space offered by the integration of technology into clothing has been progressing unremarked.
But progress is definitely the operative word here, and Billie’s breakdown of her own journey from “wearable experiments” to finished product – in this case Nadi X, which uses body data combined with haptic feedback to help inform users’ at-home yoga practice – showcases the importance of technology that becomes part of the background, rather than being limited to a single body part, as is the case with smartwatches.
There is, The Interline agrees, a much longer-term horizon here than there is with any of the other topics Staying Curious tackled this year. Ambient technology (i.e. technology that influences people’s lives in the background) is likely to become a much more pronounced force as our reliance on flat screens and smartphones diminishes, but Billie is candid about the timeline for innovations like haptic polymers. Over the next 5-10 years, though, we support the assertion that the brands who have laid the foundations to embed technology into their products, and to then architect service layers on top of that data, will be the ones who are ready for the future.
Episode 8 – Amanda Cosco (Founder of Electric Runway)
Demystifying fashion tech and innovation from fitting rooms to runways
As a summary of the year, this episode covers a lot of ground – from crypto-skepticism (which is very much The Interline’s position) to the rise of robotics and automation in production.
Many of the conclusions Amanda and Aimee reach are ones that the team at The Interline would also agree with, but we encourage our readers to use this episode as a prompt for their own thoughts. Do you, as the representative of a brand, retailer, or manufacturer, see real utility in digital fashion emerging in 2023? Do you believe that Augmented Reality represents the right channel for brands to be exploring as a way of deepening their engagement with shoppers, rather than just as a transactional tool (such as virtual try-on)? Do you see the potential of machine learning in merchandising, supply chain planning, and sourcing?
These are all areas that an R&D-led disruptor like Lectra is sure to be active in. And they are all, equally, topics that deserve deeper consideration as we finish a year of intense digital transformation and prepare for another.